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Analysis

Shardul 'Beefy' Thakur's day out at the Wanderers

He isn't quite Botham, but he's a perfectly good fourth seamer who produced a Bothamesque spell to live up to his dressing-room nickname

Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah had beaten Dean Elgar's bat multiple times in the morning and over the previous evening. So had Mohammed Siraj. It wasn't as if Elgar was batting with steadfast compactness, not letting his hands follow the movement of the ball. No, Elgar had been jabby and fidgety, and lucky. Lucky as hell.
He'd survived for just over an hour on day one, and he'd survived the first hour of the second morning, and in all that time he'd barely played a scoring shot. Having moved to 11, he'd been scoreless for 47 successive balls, defending, leaving, jabbing, getting squared up, getting beaten, but surviving.
Lucky as hell.
Until Shardul Thakur arrived. He bowled the kind of ball that Shami, Bumrah and Siraj had all bowled to Elgar multiple times, but where they had all gone past his outside edge, multiple times, Thakur brushed it.
Elgar c Pant b Thakur 28. South Africa 88 for 2.
Shardul Thakur. How do you even explain him?
Well, it turns out that you can, if you look past Lord Thakur, that creation of social-media caricature, and focus on Thakur the flesh-and-blood cricketer.
Watch the Elgar dismissal again. Thousands of right-arm fast bowlers have dismissed thousands of left-hand batters in exactly the same way since the dawn of Test cricket. A good length, the angle from right-arm over. The ball pitches on leg stump or thereabouts, and Elgar simply has to play, especially since Thakur's stock ball would swing into him. But it doesn't swing in; it nips away off the seam. Elgar, flat-footed by the length and forced to play by the line, jabs and nicks off.
And why does he nick this one and not all the other balls that have threatened his outside edge from the other three India seamers, from over and around the wicket? Well, it's partly down to luck, and that might be the more significant part of the explanation.
The other part could be that Thakur is at least 5kph slower on average than the other three quicks, so where a similar ball from Siraj might zip past Elgar's bat before he's finished jabbing at it, this one was at the perfect pace to make contact with the edge.
Like everyone else, Thakur also bowls good balls that don't get wickets. He'd beaten Elgar once in his previous over, and he'd squared him up the ball before the dismissal, only for the batter to adjust and defend awkwardly.
The good balls, whether they get wickets or not, are the key. Bowl enough of them, and wickets will follow. Thakur has done this throughout his Test career so far, and the rewards have come. He's a natural outswing bowler (to the right-hander), and he bowls a potent nip-backer. He uses the crease cleverly, as he did multiple times to Kyle Verreynne today, going so wide on the crease that even his outswinger would test the inside rather than outside edge of the bat. There was steep bounce to be found if the bowler hit the pitch hard, and Thakur did this as well, numerous times, even though he isn't the archetypal hit-the-deck bowler.
Thakur is, in short, an aggressive outswing bowler of nippy but not fearsome pace, eager to mix things up and get at batters. All that, combined with his ball-striking talent and a not-particularly-streamlined silhouette, have earned him this affectionate nickname within the India dressing room: Beefy, à la Ian Botham.
When Thakur chipped away at South Africa's line-up, however, Botham wasn't the England allrounder referenced on an ESPNcricinfo Whatsapp group. Messages there instead likened him to the '90s trundlers Mark Ealham and Dougie Brown.
Thakur is clearly not Botham, but he's definitely not Ealham either. He's built like the stereotypical county trundler, but his pace is gentle only when viewed against the backdrop of his leaner, meaner India colleagues. He's more Matthew Hoggard than Ealham, a genuine swing bowler with genuine wicket-taking ability, who might have taken the new ball in India attacks of the past. He just happens to be playing in an era where he probably ranks sixth, purely on bowling merit, in India's seam arsenal.
Thakur gets into India's XI away from home because of the historical quirk that none of the other five quicks can be trusted to bat at No. 8, while he has the eye and the shots - if not always the footwork - to be something of a seven-and-a-half. He's thumped three half-centuries in eight Test innings, and all three were match-changing innings that contributed to famous Test wins away from home.
It's a compelling package, and picking him is as valid an option for India as picking a specialist sixth batter or a specialist fourth seamer.
And here's the thing. Even if Thakur isn't the equal of Ishant Sharma or Umesh Yadav - who have sat out both Tests in South Africa so far - as a pure bowler, he's still a perfectly good fourth seamer. He isn't the quickest, and he's likelier than the rest to bowl a spell that's too wide in line to make the batter play consistently, or to send down the odd boundary ball, but he's definitely capable of bowling good spells and dismissing good batters.
And so, while there might be innings where he's barely used - he only bowled five overs in South Africa's second innings in Centurion, for example - it's not a slight on his skills or a sign that he isn't trusted. It's simply the fourth seamer's lot, unless that fourth seamer happens to be playing for West Indies in the '70s and '80s.
When he's been called on, Thakur has almost always delivered. When Bumrah was off the field with a twisted ankle during the first innings in Centurion, Thakur took two important wickets.
And on Tuesday, Thakur was called on when the Wanderers Test was buzzing with possibility. Siraj wasn't fully fit after tweaking his hamstring late on day one; Shami and Bumrah had gotten through an utterly brilliant, utterly absorbing, and inexplicably wicketless first hour; South Africa were 75 for 1 in response to India's 202.
The response befitted the man who shares Thakur's nickname. The gently swaying run-up giving way to the treacherously curving outswinger, even with a ball more than 40 overs old. The nip-backer and the odd, disconcerting lifter. Close to the stumps, then wide of the crease. Edges, lbws, miscued lower-order slogs. Botham got his fair share of wickets with innocuous deliveries, and Thakur does too, interspersed among the jaffas.
When Thakur led his team-mates off the field, he had 7 for 61 next to his name, and India had limited South Africa's lead to 27. A Beefy who isn't quite Botham, but a display most Bothamesque.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo