“ITNE BHI bure din nahi dekhe.” It was a one-line response delivered with a smile and also one that captured both Mohammed Shami and his enigma. The question itself was the kind you expect to be thrown at an Indian cricketer whose origins are in the hinterland, especially in terms of the cricketing geography of the country. The query is about the tough times and how they’ve been overcome en route to arriving on this big stage.
But the way in which Shami dismissed it, despite the politeness, was a glaring indicator of how little is known about the fast bowler from Kolkata. In an era where few Indian cricketers have managed to keep their fourth wall from being breached and their back stories becoming urban legends – one even making its way to the silver-screen — Shami has kept himself safely in this cocoon.
It was during the World Cup last February that he had divulged the little insight into his background. Since, Shami has spent a whole year recuperating from a serious knee surgery and made an extremely successful comeback to international cricket. He’s now among the first names to be inked into an Indian playing XI across all formats. But still he continues to be revelling in his anonymity.
He’s also been the enforcer that Virat Kohli has employed to devastating effect whenever the Kiwis have threatened to make a fist of the game in both Tests so far. The much-publicized mega home season has mainly incited talk and debate over pitches favouring the Indian spinners and how many Test wickets R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja will end up with by March. But as India look to seal their third whitewash in four series on home soil, the 26-year-old seamer from Kolkata has shown that he’s a potent weapon for captain Kohli in the No.1 ranked Test team’s quest to dominate all-comers over the next five months.
There’s little to Shami the person that is honestly too eye-catching. He certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of the modern-day Indian cricketer, brash and wearing their attitude on their sleeve, body or mane. Neither is he a Cheteshwar Pujara or Ajinkya Rahane who thrive on keeping a low-profile. He almost slips through the cracks when you talk of cricketer’s public profiles. But he’s the kind of honest gives-it-his-all performer who will always top every captain’s popularity ratings.
Even his arrival on the scene came without much hullabaloo. Generally pacers who make it to the Indian Test team rarely do so without generating hype. If Umesh Yadav did so by dismissing both Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman in one fiery spell in a Duleep Trophy encounter, Varun Aaron came through after clocking the fastest ball recorded in a televised competitive game on Indian soil.
Shami neither stands out with his pace nor is he someone who swings the ball appreciably. If anything, in his early days in international cricket he had the look and air of someone you would imagine clocking many miles on the domestic circuit without ever catching anyone’s attention. Or maybe get one go at glory before slipping into oblivion.
But in his first two Tests itself during the Sachin Tendulkar farewell series against the West Indies, Shami showed that he had the ability to give his captain a breakthrough soon after he was thrown the old ball and also change the momentum of the game with a double-blow.
He broke a dangerous stand between Marlon Samuels and Shivnarine Chanderpaul within 10 balls in his second spell. In his very next over he removed Denesh Ramdin. Against New Zealand too while Ashwin and Jadeja have filled their pockets with wickets it’s been Shami’s incisiveness in his later spells that has made India’s job easier and ensured the mighty margins of victory.
At Kanpur he broke the gritty Mitchell Santner-Luke Ronchi rearguard in two deliveries. In Kolkata, he picked up a wicket in the seventh ball of a new spell before adding another victim three balls later. In the second innings of that Test he sent back Watling and Santner in successive overs.
It was a task that Zaheer Khan shouldered for close to a decade for captain after captain on Indian wickets. Shami seems to have slipped into that role rather seamlessly though it’s his remarkable seam position that has made him such an impact bowler.
Already 16 out of the 19 Test victims he’s accounted for in four home Tests have come after the 30th over but before the second new-ball has been taken. So pretty much once reverse swing is in the air.
In cricket, sometimes being too careful can prove dangerous. And after having spent a considerable time being overly conscious about their footwork against the probing spin of Ashwin and Jadeja a visiting batsman can often find themselves leaden-footed against a reverse-swinging full delivery at a speed in the 140s. And the fact that 15 off those 19 wickets have been either lbw or bowled tells you the length he’s been bowling at.
When you see Shami in overseas climes, you could dismiss him as a quintessential back-of-a-length exponent. But he’s shown repeatedly in spells on pretty much every tour that he has the uncanny knack of gauging exactly the length he needs to hit for maximum impact on every pitch he bowls on. It’s a skill that Ishant Sharma is yet to develop despite having appeared in 72 Tests.
So it wasn’t surprising to hear Kohli rave about the momentum-shifts that his strike-bowler can provide, especially when the going is tough. “You can see he’s able to bowl those five-six over spells now and he can run in … bigger momentum and then he can pick up two wickets on any surface. That’s the kind of skill he has, so as captain I feel that he’s a important bowler for us,” said Kohli.
No wonder then that Shami’s become a fixture in India’s scheme of things ever since he broke on to the stage. You just have to look at his stats to know how much India value this asset. Half of his first-class matches have been Tests. He hasn’t appeared in a single Ranji Trophy match since making his international debut — an ODI against Pakistan in early 2013 — and his last non-Test first-class game came in October 2013 for India A against West Indies A in Shimogha. Ever since, the only competitive red-ball cricket Shami has played have been Test matches.
And the Indian selectors waited on him patiently and didn’t even bother too much about making him play domestic cricket to prove his mettle and form. They just welcomed him back with open arms.
While Shami the person is yet to lose his enigmatic aura, with each outing Shami the fast bowler is exhibiting just why he’s India’s pace spearhead at the moment and why he is a vital element to India’s goal of domestic domination over the winter.