‘Lord’ Shardul Thakur is starting to show he is more than just a run-of-the-mill replacement player, writes Rohit Sankar.
Six years ago, in a tour game for Board President XI at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai against the visiting South Africa side, Shardul Thakur, minus the ‘Lord’ tag, picked up four wickets —Faf du Plessis and Hashim Amla among his victims — and then steamed in with a spring in his steps to bowl at a cricketing demigod, AB de Villiers.
The first ball he bowled at de Villiers was bang in the corridor of uncertainty, where he had been hurling in deliveries all morning, but the South African smashed him through cover-point for four. Shardul, eager to take every game at the time as a learning experience, went on to have a quick chat with de Villiers at the lunch break about the delivery and the response burst Shardul’s bubble of confidence like nothing else.
“I went and asked him why he hit that ball for four because I thought it was a good ball. AB said, ‘For me, it wasn’t a good ball'”.
Granted it was ‘Lord’ AB de Villiers himself, but this was an outsider shutting down a local Borivali lad in the living hall of his 1BHK apartment. The instinctive response is to retort, but Shardul, as aggressive in mindset as he is, isn’t one to do so.
At the post-match press conference where he revealed this conversation, Shardul was humble enough to accept that the match was “pretty big” for him and that had a “look at where can I improve.”
The match was an eye-opener for the 24-year old. He realised just being good enough — he had picked up 48 wickets in 10 first-class games in the 2014/15 Ranji season and was the joint-highest wicket-taker — among mere mortals wasn’t good enough to bring to reality the hopes he harboured to be in the national team. He had to find ways to survive among demigods.
Over the next few years, Shardul took baby steps towards making himself indispensable. Be it working on the knuckleball and cutters to unleash in the death overs or fitting in with the bat as a more-than-handy lower-order batsman, Shardul made sure he contributed. His IPL reputation grew and his limited-overs skills were enhanced. His enigma earned him the #LordShardul hashtag and it stuck, mostly because no one could point a finger at what he was doing right or wrong. But Shardul did enough for the team management to trust him.
Trust is the keyword in winning sides. It isn’t easy to be a newcomer in a winning group. You often get overshadowed by the superstars that fans worship, rarely grab the spotlight, and hardly ever get glorified in the media. One mistake, and you become fodder for the trollers. It is harder being the replacement player in a winning side. You need the management to trust you and that stems from grabbing the one-off opportunities that come your way and quietly rejoicing at one’s success as the others grab attention. The chance in Australia was one such. Having stayed back after the limited-overs leg, Shardul’s return to red-ball cricket was unexpected, yet he made sure it was unforgettable with a sizzling half-century.
There are many unheralded heroes from India’s series win in Australia, but none earned the backing of the Indian management as much as Shardul, mostly because he groomed himself over the years to merely just fit in. And he was willing to bide his time and grab his chance.
Take the Nottingham Test for instance. Shardul was backed over Ashwin and Umesh Yadav in Ishant’s absence and he stepped up with bat and ball. Barring injury concerns, he might have played at Lord’s too, who knows. When the opportunity came at The Oval, Shardul was at it again, scoring an important half-century in the first innings before cleaning up England’s Ollie Pope four overs before the second new ball. In the second innings, Shardul’s knock arguably set up India’s win. As though these weren’t enough already, he knocked over the rival skipper Joe Root, who was England’s only hope of salvaging the Test late on day five.
It’s odd that if you really think about it, there’s a good chance that Shardul may not play India’s next Test or the one after that. In fact, he may not even play in the next year if everyone in this team is fit and firing. And no one, not even news mongers, will likely miss him. But if the once-in-a-blue-moon chance comes calling, you’d know Shardul is someone you can trust. You’d know the hashtag will trend again and you’d know for the next few days, Shardul will simply just fit in like he’d always been there. In a group of demigods, that’s all a mere mortal can do.