Just when the Indian team was leaving the ground – they’ll have to walk until the convention centre to board the team bus – a bunch of overeager teens approached Mohammed Shami and sought his autograph, and he obliged. It didn’t stop there, they sheepishly asked him whether he can fetch the signatures of Virat Kohli and, if possible, those of Ajinkya Rahane and R Ashwin. A middle-aged portly man scolded them: “Do you think he’s your pizza boy?”
Shami couldn’t suppress his laughter, called out Ashwin who was lumbering by, took his signature and promised the youngsters that he would get Kohli’s signature the next day. The surprised guardian, or whoever it was, marvelled: “So down to earth.” It’s the same feeling Shami conveys on the field; he’s rarely seen anguished or over-excited, whether he’s been torn apart or tormenting the batsman. A sudden gasp, a fleeting sigh, an impish grin, and a glint from the side of his eyes, before he ambles back and resumes his chores, the whole gamut of reactions repeated over and again, so much so that one wonders whether he’s the most phlegmatic of Indian bowlers. The Captain Cool of India’s bowling, like MS Dhoni referred to Zaheer Khan as the Sachin Tendulkar of Indian bowling.
Though Shami is not a polarising figure, opinions on him differ: Some drool over his mastery of seam bowling, both conventional and reverse tricks, the heavy ball at his disposal, the curve of his deliveries, the sudden burst of energy his pace can generate. Some others grouse his vaunted gifts only flicker spasmodically, that he is moody and whimsy. Some others mock his comical batting and clumsy fielding, his physique frail and mind fragile, not made of the stuff champion bowlers are made of. And recently has emerged the whole perception of Shami as a second-innings, second-spell workhorse.
As indisputable as the accusations are, the truth is that one needs someone to pick wickets in the second innings too. It’s as lame as saying some batsman is scoring runs only in the fourth innings, which, on the contrary, accrues lofty praise. Imagine how different it would have been had Shami not been at his brutish best in the last innings in Johannesburg. True that it was a battered, crumpled surface, but one still needed the craft and nous to wheedle out wickets. At one point South Africa were cruising, before his more glorified accomplice Jasprit Bumrah broke through a 119-run resistance forged by Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla. But India were far from safety with the high priest of back-to-the-wall rearguard classics, Faf du Plessis, in the middle. Shami nailed him and knifed through the rest – and how many times have India been fretting to mop up the lower order these days. Lest one forgets, it was Shami who snuffed Australia’s tail in the first innings in Adelaide. But one will forget, like several other under-appreciated efforts of his. True that there have been times he had wavered, bowled horrendously, but there have been several instances where his contributions had gone under-appreciated, vital two-three wicket bursts pushed under the gloss of grander feats. Like it could turn out in Adelaide, where the strip looks increasingly conducive for Ravichandran Ashwin to blow up the Australian resistance and fashion a famous Indian victory. Or it could be Jasprit Bumrah or Ishant Sharma, or Kohli’s celebrations, or the sheer momentousness of that moment. And when the match passes down in folklore, one will remember Cheteshwar Pujara’s unflinching hundred, or Rohit Sharma’s incredulous brain-fade, or the crowd that booed Kohli, but not the labour of Shami on the fourth day.
It was not hysterical helmet-rattling or toe-clattering stuff. He is no Mitchell Johnson or Brett Lee. Rather, it was methodical, nuanced seam-bowling deception, the skills shining as much as his brains. Minimalistic as much as penetrative. Shami incessantly pounded the deck, continuously banged the channel, made the ball seam both ways, late and subtly, on a surface that was getting tepidly slow. Occasionally, he would produce that heavy ball which explodes off the surface, hitting the unsuspecting batsman high on the bat-sticker. It was simple, uncluttered bowling – and Shami is at his best when his mind is free and clear – and one that was eventually rewarding, though his best deliveries of the day went unrewarded. Like the dropped catch off Marcus Harris. The extra width lit up the opener’s eyes, but the extra lift and pace deceived him. It was Shami the psychoanalyst, who mind-reads the batsman’s intentions and intuitions. He eventually nailed him, with a similar delivery, if a little shorter and closer to the body. On first impression it seemed a loose shot, but closer scrutiny revealed the late away movement in the delivery.
Likewise, both Usman Khawaja and Peter Handscomb were left at their wits’ end. The left-hander was repeatedly hustled by the incoming delivery, retrieved on most instances by the edges of the blade. Both were relieved to see out his spell. But Shami returned to devour Handscomb in the first over of his second spell, cushioning him with a spate of full balls before setting him up with a short ball that hung an eternity in the air after pitching, hitting the splice of Handscomb’s bat, as he went for a pull shot. It came at a vital juncture of the match too, when a partnership was incrementally gaining a toe-hold in the match. Besides the wickets, Shami was thrifty, conceding just a shade over two runs an over and a single boundary, piling up the pressure, tightening the noose over the batsmen. But all his precious efforts will go unnoticed if he doesn’t enter the honours board. Like when he’s dropped or injured. It doesn’t become a national obsession or discussion like when Bumrah or Bhuvneshwar Kumar miss a match. It’s just a passing afterthought.
But Shami could care less – he would just wink around, flash that half-grin and walk away, just like when he was asked to fetch the autographs of Kohli and others, unmindful to being the delivery boy.