In the lead-up to IPL 2018, Chennai Super Kings coach Stephen Fleming was impressed with Shardul Thakur in match-simulation slog overs at Chepauk, although the seamer was bit of a hit-and-miss. Fleming believed that Thakur could become a death-bowling option for the franchise along with the first-choice Dwayne Bravo - if he could work on his lines and lengths. Three years later, Thakur showcased his T20 evolution in a must-win match for India against a power-packed England line-up with an assortment of slower deliveries that might have done Bravo proud.
The conditions at Motera on Thursday night were as tough as they could get for any bowler. When Thakur aimed for a yorker at the death with a dew-slicked ball, he lost grip of it so much that it flew behind him. Thakur hadn't started well either, dropping Dawid Malan on 3 at short third man and then leaking 21 runs from his first two overs. The catch was a tough one, and two boundaries came off edges, but the figures didn't tell these tales.
When Thakur was recalled into the attack, England were in front, needing 46 from 24 balls, in their chase of 186, with six wickets in hand. Ben Stokes had just taken down both Indian spinners Rahul Chahar and Washington Sundar, peeling off 41 from a combined 19 balls off them.
ESPNcricinfo's forecaster pegged England's chances of winning at 50.62% at the start of the 17th over, but in a space of two balls it nosedived sharply to 15.94%. Thakur rolled out a pair of offcutters and had both Stokes and Eoin Morgan holing out of successive balls. He banged those cutters into the pitch and hid it away from the swinging arcs of both the left-handers. Both batsmen took the wiser option of attempting to hit Thakur straighter as opposed to squarer, but they ended up slicing the ball to the outfielders. With Thakur's double-strike, India were onto something…
Hardik Pandya and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, too, kept taking pace off the ball, bowling legcutters to right-handers and offcutters to left-handers, leaving Thakur with 22 to defend off the last over against Jofra Archer and Chris Jordan. Thakur floated a legcutter away from Jordan's reach first ball and kept him to an under-edged single. However, against Archer, Thakur veered away from his slower variations wide of off, and served up an on-pace length ball on the stumps that was pumped down the ground for four. The next ball was short and wide with Archer mowing it over midwicket for six. The equation was narrowed to 12 from three balls, and the pressure was back on Thakur. The seamer tossed the ball into his trouser pocket and wiped it furiously.
The pressure mounted further on Thakur after he sent down two wides - one for height and the other for width. After a seemingly intense discussion with Rohit Sharma, the stand-in captain, and Pandya, Thakur revisited Plan A: dig slower balls into the pitch and take it away from the batsman. He splintered the toe of Archer's bat with the fourth legal ball of the over and then had Jordan holing out next delivery with what looked like a knuckle ball to close out the game for India.
"The last over [is] never easy and with dew coming in so much…there was not much dew in the last three games, but this game yes there was dew," Thakur outlined the challenge for him, speaking to Star Sports. "Definitely a tough over and they [England] were swinging hard. So, they were going for a few runs and it was important to bowl those dot balls - one or two dot balls - and the game was sealed.
"Yes definitely because like I mentioned earlier there was dew coming in, so had we bowled the slower ones in the stumps or little bit up then it would have been easy to hit. The idea was to hit into the stumps and keep [the ball] away from their power zone."
Thakur also said that he relished the pressure of bowling the tough overs in the death and powerplay, having also done it recently for CSK in IPL and Mumbai in domestic cricket.
"I'm enjoying it a lot," he said. "Even when I'm playing in the IPL or domestic cricket, I bowl a lot of overs in the death or fourth, fifth or sixth over in the powerplay. So, I bowl a lot of overs where batsmen come hard at bowlers. Kind of getting used to it now."
The Thakur of the old, however, wasn't used to white-ball cricket. He had fairly limited exposure with the white ball, having played a bulk of his age-group cricket in Mumbai with the red ball. Then, in senior cricket, he first broke into India's Test squad in 2016 with his strong Ranji Trophy performances. He has since learnt on the job, adding more tricks to his repertoire and knowing when to use them.
When Thakur made his T20I debut in 2018, he only seemed to have the knuckle ball as his change-up option. He can now bowl a split-finger variation, cutters into the middle of the pitch, and a cross-seamer that he gets to swerve by imparting backspin. In the ongoing T20I series against England on the grippy Ahmedabad tracks, he has taken all his five wickets with the offcutter, according to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, giving up 65 runs off 43 balls. And he bowled 21 of those offcutters on Thursday alone.
India's attack, much like their batting line-up, is packed with options in the approach to T20 World Cup, but not too many have the adaptability and variety of Thakur. Plus, he can give it a good whack with the bat in the lower order.
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo