Mohammed Shami should have been in the Indian playing 11 from the very outset of the 2023 ODI World Cup. His 5 for 51 against Australia in an ODI series right before the tournament indicated he would make a lethal combination with fellow pacers Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj. But he warmed the benches for India’s first four matches, before getting an opportunity. He is now undroppable.
His 5 for 54 against New Zealand in Dharamsala on 22 October was a match-winning performance. Shami’s breakthrough after a 159-run third wicket stand and back-end dismissals bowled the Kiwis out for 273 when they looked set to cross 300. That India lost 6 wickets and took 48 overs to reach that target underscored the value of their bowling effort.
Shami followed that up by combining with Jasprit Bumrah to demolish England in Lucknow on 29 October. The defending champions held India down to 229/9 and got off to a quick start of 30 in the first 5 overs before running into the Bumrah-Shami jugalbandi. Bumrah removed Dawid Malan and Joe Root off consecutive balls and Shami did the same to Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow. It was mesmerising.
Shami’s wrist position and smooth action lands the ball unerringly on the seam at around 140 kmph. Deviation off the seam makes him unplayable on a responsive pitch, as Stokes discovered. The England Test captain got desperate when he could not get a single run from nine balls in Shami’s first two overs, with Bumrah bowling a maiden over in between. Then he cleared his front foot to smash his tenth ball from Shami, which instead jagged in to castle him. This was as good a spell of seam bowling as you will ever see.
It is to Rohit Sharma’s credit that he brought Shami into the attack right after Bumrah’s two wickets in the fifth over. Siraj had given away 19 runs from two overs and the Indian captain wanted to keep the pressure on from both ends. It would make sense to opt for Shami as Bumrah’s new ball partner for the rest of the tournament.
Fast bowlers hunt in pairs, and it doesn’t get better than Bumrah and Shami when they’re both on song. To be fair, Siraj had an outstanding year as well, with 30 wickets from 14 matches, at an economy rate below five heading into the World Cup.
But the Siraj we see in the tournament has fallen off that mark, with six wickets in six matches at an economy rate of nearly six runs an over. Going by performance in the World Cup, he should be the third seamer, after Bumrah and Shami. So, if India encounter a turner on which they want to bring in Ravichandran Ashwin as a third spinner, Siraj should be the one to make way, and not Shami.
India have won all their six games with three different team compositions so far. It shows their adaptability and bench strength, but that should not make the team management complacent.
Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. India topped the league table in the 2019 ODI World Cup, but made poor selection choices for the semifinal against New Zealand.
They left out Shami on a seam-friendly Manchester wicket after he had taken 14 wickets in 4 matches. Instead, they picked an extra batsman: Dinesh Karthik. India had six batsmen, including three wicket-keepers, and two all-rounders, and still failed to reach New Zealand’s 239/8. It would have been better to have a stronger attack to bowl out the Kiwis cheaply.
Fortunately, the mistake of ignoring Shami has come at the start of the tournament this time, instead of the business end. Again, it was a conservative mindset to stretch the batting order, at least on paper, that prompted the inclusion of slow medium pacer Shardul Thakur at the expense of Shami.
Thakur has bowled 17 overs in three games, conceding 102 runs at a rate of six an over. He took two wickets and did not bat. Commentator Dinesh Karthik brought up the case for having a No. 8 who can bat a bit after India’s collapse on the tricky Lucknow wicket. But what are the chances of Thakur being a saviour in that kind of situation? He has a batting average of 17 in ODIs without any contribution down the order that had an impact on the team result.
Thakur has taken four wickets in an innings three times in his six-year ODI career. The last of these came on the West Indies tour earlier this year, which got commentators touting him as a clever partnership-breaker, never mind how many runs he gives away in his quest for variations. The danger is that one expensive over of 15-20 runs from Thakur could cost India a close game.
Shami, on the other hand, is a strike bowler who has six 4-wicket hauls in ODI World Cups. His 40 wickets from 13 ODI World Cup games is eight more than Bumrah’s 32 from 15 matches. And Shami, Bumrah, and Kuldeep Yadav are about as likely to contribute a tail-end cameo with the bat as Thakur.
India have an enviable bowling attack that can bowl any opposition out in this World Cup, as they showed against Australia, Pakistan, New Zealand, and England. It would be a travesty to blunt that edge for some dubious batting depth.
Shami only came into the picture due to an injury to all-rounder Hardik Pandya. But when Pandya recovers and replaces either Suryakumar Yadav or the struggling Shreyas Iyer, the team management would do well to remember 2019 and resist the urge to drop Shami. He should now be an automatic selection, with a toss-up between Siraj and Ashwin based on the pitch.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.