Shami should be kept in ‘cotton wool’, not over-bowled and over-exposed

Of the 80 international bowlers who have taken 200 Test wickets each, only seven have a better strike rate than Shami

Md Shami bowling in South Africa
Md Shami bowling in South Africa

Qaiser Mohammad Ali

Even after a lapse of four years, Manoj Prabhakar remembers a spell of bowling by Md. Shami. Representing Bengal in the Ranji Trophy, Shami had run through the Delhi first innings with a six-wicket burst in Pune. It was December 19, 2017 recalls Prabhakar.

After dismissing two centurions, Gautam Gambhir and Kunal Chandela, Shami returned to deliver telling blows and check a rampaging Delhi’s lead by wrapping up their tail. “Gambhir had completed his century, and yet he didn’t know how to play Shami. What a five-over spell he bowled, exclaims Prabhakar, who was then the bowling coach of Delhi, while chatting with National Herald. That Shami failed to prevent an innings defeat for Bengal that day, is a different story.

Since then, Shami has appeared in just one more Ranji Trophy match, in November 2018. Injuries -- including a broken arm against Australia in Adelaide in December 2020 -- and rest from international matches kept him away from domestic tournaments.

He recently took his 200th Test wicket, and helped India register a win in the first Test against host South Africa in Centurion, becoming the 11th Indian – and only the fifth Indian fast bowler -- to achieve the coveted feat, at an average of 27.10 and a strike rate of 49.4. Interestingly, of the 80 bowlers who have bagged 200 Test wickets, only seven have a better strike rate than Shami.

Shami is so precious to India that he should be kept in cotton wool, quips Prabhakar. “He is 31 and has matured as a bowler. The only issue is that captains should know how to use him. He was over bowled in the first two Tests against South Africa,” points out the former Delhi all-rounder.

In three of the four innings of the first two Tests, Shami bowled the most number of overs for India. Captain Virat Kohli made him bowl 16 out of 62.3 overs in the first and 17 of 68 in the second innings of the first Test that India won by 113 runs. In the second Test, in injured Kohli’s absence, standin captain K.L. Rahul gave Shami 21 of the 79.4 overs in the first innings and 17 overs out of 67.4 in the second of the second match as India lost by seven wickets. And as South Africa inched towards victory in the second Test in Johannesburg, Shami went out of the field and was seen applying ice to his right, bowling shoulder, perhaps a result of over bowling.

Badaruddin Siddiqui, Shami’s childhood coach, points out two main reasons for the coming of age of the diminutive pacer. “The demise of his father in 2017 and his personal woes have made him more determined and focus on his game better. He hadn’t tackled those situations earlier, and they made him stronger mentally. Actually, he was already quite strong earlier too,” says the veteran coach from Moradabad. “He never had the kind of rhythm that he has now. When you are strong mentally, it shows in your performance – and that’s happening with Shami now.”

Shami has been lucky, surviving three major injuries in six years. In 2015, a career-threatening knee injury sidelined him for 18 months – “it was the most painful period of my life”. He had bowled with the same knee in the World Cup and ended up as the fourth highest wicket taker (17 in 7 matches). Then, in March 2018, he sustained a serious head injury in a road accident. “I considered committing suicide three times in that period, so stressedwas I,” he had revealed last year.

Shami then broke his arm off a Pat Cummins delivery in the Adelaide Test in December 2020 as India were bundled out for a mere 36 and it ruled him out of competition for a long period.

But even when Shami’s arm was in a cast, he didn’t leave cricket.

“Apart from running and gardening at his farmhouse in Sahaspur, Ali Nagar in Amroha district of Uttar Pradesh, he and his brother would ‘bowl’ at each other while lying down on their beds. This, despite Shami’s bowling arm being in a cast. Years earlier, his father would complain that Shami had damaged the walls of his home as he would bowl at them relentlessly,” Siddiqui says of his most famous ward’s obsession with bowling.

In 2019, before he left for the tours of Australia and New Zealand, Shami, who had been criticised for lack of fitness, transformed himself by slogging it out at his farmhouse. He had the field levelled, marked the field for 50m and 100m sprint lanes and then sweated it out. The reward came in the form of the Man-of-the-Series trophy in the ODIs in New Zealand. Earlier, in 2018-19, he had bagged 16 wickets in four Tests in Australia, exhibiting his fitness and his newfound sharpness in bowling.

Shami was India’s most successful fast bowler in the World Test Championship final against New Zealand last year, capturing 11 wickets in the Test series that followed against host England.

He is today the lynchpin of the Indian pace attack – an ‘all-weather’ bowler. Despite being five-foot-seven-inch tall he has been lethal with the ball -- and promises to deliver many more blows.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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