The only thing predictable about Mohammed Shami is his unpredictability but when he gets it right, he is quite something. © BCCI

The only thing predictable about Mohammed Shami is his unpredictability but when he gets it right, he is quite something. © BCCI

If Robert Louis Stevenson hadn’t written The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde more than a century ago, he might have got inspiration from watching Mohammed Shami in Cape Town and then in Centurion during India’s ongoing Test series against South Africa.

At Newlands, while Bhuvneshwar Kumar was dismantling South Africa’s top order, Shami struggled to find rhythm or radar, and his lengths and lines were a bit scattered, particularly in his opening spell. Then on day four, after the washout of the previous day, Shami came out with intent and hostility to hit top gear. The result was 3 for 28, the first two wickets of the day that began South Africa’s slide, and the home team bowled out for 130.

At SuperSport Park, on a pitch that made bowlers work much harder, Shami seemed off first, then on again. His opening spell went for runs, and though he came back well enough, India would have wanted more than 1 for 58 in 15 overs from him, especially given the conditions. Shami had the skill as a bowler to rise above any problems the pitch posed, but he was given the fewest overs to bowl. The second innings too seemed to be meandering along. Virat Kohli had thrown the ball to each of Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and R Ashwin on Tuesday (January 16) morning when South Africa resumed. Ten overs into the day is when Shami got the ball – and was promptly hit for two fours.

And then, the switch happened again. Off went AB de Villiers, the ball kicking up from a length around off to take his gloves and settle into the ‘keeper’s. The ball was reversing now and Shami soon got Dean Elgar too, done in by the short-ball trap and pulling to midwicket. His next over was even more eventful, with Quinton de Kock edging each of the first four balls. The first three went through the slips and ‘keeper to the boundary. If a catch had been taken, it would have been a very good or spectacular take. The fourth one was straightforward, and suddenly Shami had removed both set batsmen and the dangerous de Kock. South Africa had gone from 144 for 2 to 163 for 5, and India had a sniff. Before that spell, those whose thoughts had turned to the third Test in Johannesburg were already wondering if Shami would make way. And he then ended up taking 4 for 49 in 16 overs.

Asked if he felt any difference in rhythm at various points in the first two matches, Shami came back with, “Samajh nahin aata ki aap log kaise dekhte ho iss cheez ko. Aap hamesha chahte ho ki toofan ban kar jaye banda.”

A rough translation that still can’t do justice to the Hindi flavour: “I don’t understand how you people are seeing this. You want that I should always come like a storm.”

“For any bowler, it is very frustrating when the fielder is there, edges are coming, what you want is happening but the batsman isn’t getting out." © BCCI

“For any bowler, it is very frustrating when the fielder is there, edges are coming, what you want is happening but the batsman isn’t getting out.” © BCCI

Essentially, he meant that he was human, and he couldn’t run in like the wind every time. Fair point, and what do we – sitting in the stands or on couches – know of the unique stresses and challenges of being a Test match fast bowler?

Shami did go on to give an explanation of sorts for how the intensity could vary during the day. “You have to bowl according to the wickets and how much bounce, carry, there is,” he said. “You have to see these things because it is a five-day match, not a two-hour match. You have to save energy, you have to see for the team… you have to see all these things (and decide) when do you put effort, that is more important.”

In keeping with the unpredictability of how his tour has gone so far, Shami didn’t bowl in the post-lunch session despite having delivered the spell that brought India back into the match and netted three crucial South African batsmen. He candidly admitted that he did feel like bowling – he was finally called on to bowl only the last over before tea – but that he followed the captain’s dictates.

“There are some stages in front of you that you want to bowl more but the captain thinks that we should get them out quickly,” he said. “So you should not mind that, but yes sometimes you do feel inside that maybe I could have got five wickets. But if you see from team’s point of view, you will not feel like this.

“It depends on the captain, when he wants to bowl you and when he wants to bowl which bowler. It also depends on the conditions. I bowled before lunch, so I couldn’t bowl immediately, I would have been a bit tight. So the captain is also thinking that we should rotate bowlers. The plan was that whenever I will get chance, I will come to bowl.”

Just like he was candid enough to admit that he would have liked the ball earlier than he got it, Shami had no qualms in admitting to frustration at the de Kock sequence. “For any bowler, it is very frustrating when the fielder is there, edges are coming, what you want is happening but the batsman isn’t getting out,” he said. “There is a little frustration mentally but you need to be mentally strong at that stage and how long you can persist with it is more important. He got three boundaries off three consecutive good balls. I did the same again and I got the result with that.”

On another day, one edge might have been followed by a short or wide one. There is nothing linear about Shami. The same holds true for his bowling too, which is why he has a strike-rate of 52.7 in Test cricket, the best among Indian pace bowlers who have at least 100 wickets. But with the non-linearity comes the unpredictability of which Shami will turn up for which spell.