Six years ago, a light bulb went off in someone’s head in the Mumbai Cricket Association and they got in Jeff Thomson, the legendary Australian pacer whose idea of preparing for a cricket series during his career was to chase down pigs. The humid October sun was roasting him through his sun hat but the man who “didn’t bowl your little outswingers” was in a conversation with Shardul Thakur. Later as he sauntered beyond the boundary, Thommo would say he had spoken about the need for aggression in line, length, pace, demeanour and body language to all the Mumbai pacers. “This kid, they tell me, likes to bowl bouncers,” and the gaze of the man infamous for crash-landing batsmen in hospitals was focused at Thakur.
They were right. There have been Indian bowlers who have used bouncers effectively as a wicket-taking weapon but Thakur is a rarity; he loves to get it to snarl at the batsmen’s head. It would be hard to find a Ranji batsman whose head hasn’t been under threat from him. At times, he couldn’t drop the bouncer-addiction and would suffuse a spell with so many bouncers that one would lose count. Luckily, the broadcasters kept count in the Brisbane Test match – a whopping 84 per cent of Thakur’s deliveries in the final session of the fourth day were pretty short in length. And this when he is visibly slower after a slew of injuries threatened to waylay his career.
At one point, a couple of Indian players including Rishabh Pant seemingly intervened to tell him to go easy at Pat Cummins. On air on SonyLiv, Mohammad Kaif asked the producers to replay the visuals so that he could lip-read Thakur. “He is telling Pant, nahin, I will bounce him,” and reminded us that Cummins had bowled a few at Thakur. For a man who doesn’t even need a reason to bounce at batsmen, the payback urge would have been impossible to resist. On the second day too, after lunch, he had tried them but ended up spraying them with width and when he went in for tea, it’s learnt that the pacer got a gentle spray from the think tank. It hasn’t deterred him in the past and on evidence of what we saw on the fourth day, it is unlikely to do so in the future.
Lack of height an advantage
Even though he isn’t as pacy as before, Thakur doesn’t let go of his obsession because he knows he has the ability to direct his bouncers when in rhythm. His height is an important ally. He is relatively short and unlike taller bowlers, he can bang it in his half and still get it to rear at batsmen’s head. A luxury that taller bowlers don’t have. The easiest thing for a bowler gunning for a bouncer is to hurl it into the middle of the pitch. Bang it in. Fling it down, without worrying excessively about where they are landing it. But when taller bowlers do it, the bouncer can fly over the batsman’s head. They have to tweak their release point to target an area slightly fuller – and unnatural to an extent – to get the ball to stay under batsmen’s head. Zaheer Khan said as much when he mentioned Thakur’s “short” height as the secret behind the efficacy of the bouncers in a tea-time studio chat on SonyLiv. Thakur still has to direct it properly, have enough pace behind it, have a feel for it, of course, but his height does help.
Like it helped the great Malcolm Marshall. Whirring arms at release and the ability to skid his bouncers made him even more deadly, but so did his short stature. Youtube has enough destructive chunks to make us wince. Just one story would suffice. When he broke the Mike Gatting’s nose, he saw skeletal remains on the ball. “Funny thing is when I went to pick up the ball, there was a piece of bone. I was so scared that I dropped it, left it there,” once said Marshall, with a laugh, just after jesting, “at least it made him [Gatting] a lot better-looking man!” Luckily, Thakur didn’t leave any Australian scarred but did rattle a few.
Too good for Aussies
In years gone by, not many would have thought that an Indian from a village on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad rail corridor would one day make an Australian opener look silly. Marcus Harris ducked, took his eyes off the ball, and held his gloved hands above his head to a sharp bouncer from Thakur.
That had an element of surprise; not what transpired in the post-tea session. Repeatedly, Thakur banged them in to test out the Aussies’ technique and resolve. Tim Paine was slow on the hook and top-edged it to Pant. And he didn’t let up on the Australian bowlers just as they hadn’t gone easy on him.
One Indian in Brisbane would have been happy to see the aggression. Sunil Gavaskar has swayed out of plenty of missiles directed at him. Ten years back, in a Barbados press box, he was chatting with Andy Roberts. As the legendary pacer known for his two types of bouncers, walked away, Gavaskar would say, “Itna baat karta hai ab! (How much he talks now!) I just remember his cold stare, not a word he would say but my god, what a fearsome man he was.” It seemed as if he was talking to himself, trying to reconcile the present with the past. Gavaskar, who had clapped from first slip when a debutant Kapil Dev bowled his first bouncer in a Test in Pakistan, would have enjoyed the well-directed snarlers from Thakur, though probably not as much as the man who hurled them.