During the pandemic, to kill the lockdown boredom, two India pacers Mohammed Shami and Irfan Pathan had an hour-long podcast. It was the time Shami had moved to his village, Alinagar in UP, where he had turned part of his family’s acres of farm land into a cricket ground with 80m boundary lines. In a reflective mood, he shared his views on different formats. “T20 is about entertainment, but kaleje ke liye khelna hai toh Test match hai. (if you want to play for your heart, it is Tests),” Shami would say.
With India’s cricket itinerary this year lined up with IPL, the WTC final and the 50-over World Cup, Shami would be needed to put in a lot of his heart in white-ball cricket too.
With the other all-format pacer Jasprit Bumrah unlikely to be match-fit for most of this year, Shami has silently become India’s irreplaceable first pick, a status even the superstar batsmen in the team don’t enjoy. Shami’s versatility has been a blessing that Indian cricket has taken for granted for some time now. In the present series – famously played on pitches where even the first day morning isn’t kind to pacers – he has shown many dimensions of his art.
On spin-friendly or dead tracks, he has done his bit in India’s two wins. He struck early with the new ball on the first day of the series at Nagpur to set the pace for India. In the next Test at Delhi, his 4 wickets with reverse swing dealt a deadly blow to the Aussies. He was missed at Indore and the Aussies won the Test. At Ahmedabad, India laid out a near-dead track, that didn’t stop the world class pacer from being the highest wicket-taker on Day 1.
Watching Shami this series, you take his word. Tests are certainly about ‘kaleja’ for him. Regardless of the conditions, he was ready to run-in hard. Even his wicket-less spells had those dream balls that were so good that they even missed the edge of the bat.
Shami’s heart might not be in T20, but his mind certainly is. He played a big role in Gujarat Titan’s title triumph in last season’s IPL and he has more wickets and a better strike-rate than Bumrah in ODIs. This isn’t about Shami being better than Bumrah but facts fished out to underline his importance in the Indian team.
— BCCI (@BCCI) March 9, 2023
Unlike Bumrah, Shami has the smoothest run-up and a classically clean action. His run-up strides have the synchronicity of a hurdler between obstacles. When he bowls with Umesh Yadav in tandem, because of the contrast, his measured approach to the stumps becomes all the more eye-catching. Yadav breaks his strides and has a slight stutter when he is about to hit the crease, Shami, meanwhile, retains the momentum of his long run all the way through. The nuanced deceleration helps him to efficiently transfer the body’s kinetic energy into the speed of the ball.
As good as it gets! 🔥🔥@MdShami11 uproots the off-stump to dismiss Handscomb for 17! 👏👏
— BCCI (@BCCI) March 9, 2023
And once the ball is released, the striking beauty of Shami’s bowling hits you. The famous upright seam cuts the air above the pitch and grazes the surface before it reaches the batsmen. Mind you, it doesn’t hit the pitch, it skims over it. This adds to the pace and the reason why pundits say ‘Shami is fast off the pitch.’
Sometime back, the pacer had spoken about this seam position mastery. “God certainly gives you some skill but the rest you need to develop. No one is born a scientist. You might be intelligent but to become a scientist, you have to work hard and change yourself. There is hard work in every success story. We fast bowlers like to get the feel, the grip, and I always try to release the ball along the seam,” he had said.
Since the days he was a young pacer with promise, ‘watching the seam’ of a cricket ball has been Shami’s biggest fascination. He has spoken about his adolescent days’ logic of picking his cricketing idols. It wasn’t the pace or the persona of a fast bowler that impressed him. For him his heroes needed to land the seam perfectly. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra were the Indian bowlers he watched closely as he tried to understand the complicated art of moving the ball at pace. If there was a tearaway fast bowler who didn’t move the ball in the air and off the wicket, he wasn’t worthy of Shami’s attention.
It was after years of training, that Shami would learn the trick of getting the ball to move without compromising on pace. “If you are not watching the replay or slow motion on television, you will have no idea about how much the ball had swung, from where it swung or the seam position. Initially, I used to wonder, “Oh the ball seam has gone so straight, but I did not see the ball after it left my hand. Then I understood the movement depended on my hand. It felt great,” he had said.
Shami and a cricket ball have a deep connect. A compulsive collector of cricket balls, his hands are rarely free. Be it a ball, an apple or anything spherical, he keeps throwing them up in air, gazing at the real or imaginary seam. “Even in the Indian team, if I like a ball, I tell the coaches that I would like to use it the following day. There are some balls that give you a feel when they leave your hand. It seems that each ball would do the things you want it to do and that it would complement your skills,” he had said.
It’s this deep love and passion for the ball and bowling that can harm Shami and Team India. For any coach or captain, it is always very tempting to play him in every format, since the colour of the ball doesn’t change his effectiveness or commitment.
On any day of the week, or weekend, Shami can be trusted to bowl 30 odd overs in the sweltering, skin-burning heat of Ahmedabad or give it his all in the 4 overs of a T20 for Gujarat Titans. He never holds back. That was the reason, Shami was rested after the first two Tests of this series. And that is also the reason, he should be asked to sit out of IPL and be fresh for the 50-over World Cup later in the year. After Bumrah, India can’t afford to miss Shami.