Shardul Thakur was waiting for the world to recognise his batting potential. With his plucky maiden Test performance with the bat in Brisbane, he’s given enough evidence of his commendable all-round evolution.
“He batted even better than me there for a while. He was unbelievable.”
Faf du Plessis said he hadn’t seen “tailender” Shardul Thakur bat before Chennai Super Kings’ Qualifier 1 match in IPL 2018. His ignorance wasn’t completely surprising, even if it was a slightly exaggerated statement: before the 2018 season, Shardul had faced a combined nine deliveries in his IPL career across two seasons.
The unflattering batting numbers didn’t deter him from pulling off a plucky contribution at No.10 that evening, scoring an unbeaten five-ball 15 in a two-wicket thriller. Batting alongside du Plessis, he hit three boundaries: one was an outside edge that flew between the wicketkeeper and short third man, another a loose waft that took the underside of the bat on its way to the fine leg ropes. The third was the most convincing, a thump down the ground off a full-pitched delivery. It was one of those rare, entertaining blitzes from a tailender. Nothing more, one would think.
But for Shardul, it was something much more serious. “I always told my coaches that I want to finish the game with the bat, and today I had the opportunity,” he said after that game.
For the last four years, the 29-year-old has been fighting competition and injuries to serve as a formidable backup pace-bowling option for India. Since his international debut in 2017, he has only played a total of 30 games across formats.
— 7Cricket (@7Cricket) January 17, 2021
Possibly fuelled by the need to cut competition and make his own identity in an ever-bulging bowling group, Shardul had recently put an increased focus on his batting skills. The public might not have been completely convinced by his abilities before. On Sunday, there were enough reasons to be.
Walking in at 186-6 in Brisbane, he nonchalantly pulled the third delivery he faced, off Pat Cummins, the No.1 Test bowler in the world, over long-on for a six. He’d managed a couple of cameos in the limited-overs cricket in the recent past, but they were odd, sporadic instances. Playing his first Test innings, Thakur had to undergo the test of survival and helped reduce Australia’s lead bit by bit. Just those enthusiastic flashes of the bat wouldn’t work. But the progress was evident with each stroke he pulled off on Sunday.
— Rohit Sankar (@imRohit_SN) January 17, 2021
The very next over against Cummins, he essayed a picture-perfect cover drive. This was not the ungainly hit a tailender would usually indulge in, but a steady, structured drill through covers. It was astonishingly beautiful. For many, it would have been a welcome surprise to see him belt out strokes of such quality over the next 100 odd deliveries. But Shardul has been earnestly working on this facet of his game for the last few seasons, almost to the point of imploring others to believe in his batting ability. Brisbane was a personal battle for him.
“In my head, I am already a bowling all-rounder, but I have to dish out some strong performances for the people to recognise it,” Shardul told mid-day in May last year. “I will have to go out there and prove it. That’s the plan.”
That month, he became the first prominent Indian cricketer to resume outdoor training after the Covid-19 break, hitting the nets in the small suburb of Boisar. Injuries had been frustrating obstacles in his career path thus far, but the time away from the game had given him the chance to concentrate properly on his batting, and get the opportunity to bat a little higher in the order.
“I have either batted at No. 9 or 10 for Mumbai,” Shardul, who has hit six first-class fifties, said in May. “There were some guys, who never believed in my ability but when I played under coach Chandrakant Pandit, I made some useful contributions with the bat. He encouraged me to focus on my batting. But unfortunately, he left. I kept telling the Mumbai team management that I can bat at No. 8, so we don’t need an extra batsman to increase the depth in the batting.”
Six months since the interview, Shardul stitched together a combination of determination and skill in that very position, unleashing cuts, drives and pulls with elan. The sweat of his toil in Boisar was reaping benefits in Brisbane.
He hit nine boundaries and two sixes in all, reaching his fifty by walloping Nathan Lyon over long on. Here was a man who wasn’t even in the Test squad to begin with, but continued to visualise that he would end up playing a vital role with the bat one day.
The new ball troubled him briefly, cutting him in half on more than one occasion, but his doggedness couldn’t be defeated. He repeatedly unleashed refined strokeplay against Australia’s pace battery – one shot even drew comparisons to Steve Waugh – along the way to his maiden Test fifty.
The applause from the dressing room after his dismissal highlighted how much the knock meant for India. But at a personal level, it was a big win for a cricketer who has been working hard to enhance his all-round skill-set, and fighting to stay afloat in India’s bowling whirlpool.
Once India’s full-strength attack returns, it would be difficult to find a place for Shardul, and he could end up being thrown into the fringes once again. A determined Shardul has proved that he is out to claw his way back in, one way or another.
Faf du Plessis might be sitting somewhere, marvelling at the remarkable evolution of his CSK teammate from a television set. Thakur, tailender no more.