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Shardul Thakur: Master of the Middle Overs?
Haridut Athi takes a deep dive into what makes Thakur so effective in the middle phase.
Thakur celebrates after dismissing Steve Smith during India’s tour of Australia (Photo Credit: David Gray/AFP)
Limited overs cricket in the past year or two, has seen a drastic change in the middle overs phase. We see more 'hit the deck' bowlers with extra pace, bowling a good chunk of these overs. Shardul Thakur's bowling attributes don't fit this bill. Neither does he have extra pace, nor does he hit the deck as hard as a typical enforcer does. Yes, he has added a couple of miles in the past year, but nothing that would leave batters short of time.
With only four fielders allowed outside the ring, overs 11 to 40 are arguably the toughest phase to bowl in ODI cricket. This challenge was only amplified during the recently concluded series between India and England, which featured two of the most dangerous batting sides in the format.
Overall, since 2015, wickets have come once every 44 balls in the middle overs. The India-England series was a continuation of this trend, where the average bowler picked up a wicket every 42 balls in this phase.
Shardul Thakur, however, was in a league of his own.
He bagged a wicket for every 15 balls he bowled between overs 11-40, picking up 7 wickets in the process. No pacer on either side bowled more deliveries in the middle overs; all this, while going at under run a ball in a high-scoring series.
Despite finishing as the highest wicket-taker in both the ODIs and the T20Is against England, there is a theory that most of his wickets come from rather innocuous balls. The full toss that Liam Livingstone popped straight back into the hands of Thakur adds meat to this theory. Yet, a deeper dive into his methods paints a different picture.
In recent times, Shardul has banked on mixing up his slower balls and cutters with cross-seamers. More than once, he caught the English batters by surprise with his cross-seamers. In the run-up to the Livingstone wicket in the 3rd ODI, Shardul went past his bat twice in a span of seven deliveries. The first time around, he went past Livingstone with the extra zip that his cross-seamer produced. Next time, a slower off-cutter that pitched around the same spot, deceived and frustrated Livingstone.
This wasn't the first time Thakur was using this combination. Rewind to the 2nd T20I, when Morgan was still fresh at the crease. Thakur anticipated Morgan chipping down the track and pushed him back with a 133kph cross-seamer. The ball hit the seam and reared up steeply, surprising Morgan. A few balls later, he out-foxed Morgan with an off-cutter bowled well outside off. The England skipper, realizing he was deceived by the change-up, tried checking his drive, but only managed to find a leading edge that was gladly accepted by Rishabh Pant.
The Palghar pacer was equally shrewd with the lines he bowled. He challenged England’s batters to take on the heavily guarded boundaries. With three fielders deep on the leg side, he bowled two off-cutters in succession from over the wicket to the left-handed Dawid Malan in the fourth T20I. Both times, Shardul ensured his deliveries started fractionally outside leg stump and cramped Malan for room. On both occasions, Malan tried to heave the ball to the leg side but completely missed. This was Thakur executing a simple, but well-thought-out plan to a batter who favours the off-side.
His methods, although uncomplicated, were executed to perfection, bringing him wickets in bunches. Throughout the white ball leg of England’s tour, except for Jason Roy, he dismissed every member of England's top order at least once and got Buttler, Morgan, and Stokes out twice. During India’s come-from-behind victory in the first ODI, he snared the scalps of Bairstow, Morgan, and Buttler in the space of just ten balls, slashing England CricViz win probability from 81% to 28%.
Shardul Thakur's improved control was on display even when he donned the CSK colours in IPL 2020. He bettered his 2019 numbers on both counts — economy and strike rate. There is a large enough sample size to suggest Thakur's methods might stand the test of time in the sub-continent. It also bodes well for him that two of the next three World Cups will take place in India.
Come IPL 2021, Shardul will be hoping to push his case for a starting berth in India’s T20 World Cup XI. His franchise, Chennai Super Kings, is scheduled to play five matches in Mumbai, four in Delhi, three in Bangalore, and two in Kolkata. Delhi has historically been the slowest of these four wickets and should offer some teeth to his variations. The other three venues may be more challenging for Thakur, but on more than one occasion, he’s shown that he’s someone who punches above his weight when you least expect him to.
In the upcoming IPL season, Shardul will be hoping to dish out another reminder that setting up a batsman isn't all about bouncers followed by yorkers or out-swing followed by in-swing. The cross-seamer followed by a slower one is an equally effective and rewarding set-up in the sub-continent.