Manchester, June 28: Four years back, in Australia and New Zealand, Mohammed Shami was central to India’s World Cup plans. Alongside Umesh Yadav and Mohit Sharma, he formed the first-choice pace attack on the back of which India carved a scything run to the semifinal, bowling out all seven opponents in the league phase and the quarterfinal combined.
Shami missed the four-wicket defeat of the UAE in Perth as a precautionary measure because of back spasms, yet finished the tournament with a commendable 17 wickets from seven matches, only behind Umesh (18) among Indians.
The intervening period hasn’t been kind on the Bengal paceman. Injury and fitness issues stymied his progress in the immediacy of the World Cup – he was forced to undergo knee surgery that kept him out of action for nearly a year and a half – and he hit rock-bottom towards the middle of last year when domestic issues were exacerbated by his failing the yo-yo test that forced him to be dropped from squad for the Test against Afghanistan in June.
That was make-or-break time for Shami. He could have slipped into self-pity, wallowing at the unfairness of the world. Or, he could have girded his loins and rediscovered himself. To Indian cricket’s good fortune, he chose the wiser but harder option, and is reaping the rewards of a serious work ethic that has left him leaner, fitter and faster, if not necessarily meaner.
Shami came into this World Cup as the third-choice quick behind the irrepressible Jasprit Bumrah and the versatile Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who had the additional string of batting to his impressive bow of swing. When Bhuvneshwar limped out of the match against Pakistan at Old Trafford on June 16 with a hamstring issue, Shami was ready. Ready to unleash mayhem, ready to wreck opponents, ready to write his name into the record books.
In Southampton last Saturday, he became just the second Indian – after Chetan Sharma -- to snare a World Cup hat-trick as he comfortably defended 16 in the final over against Afghanistan. Four for 40 were fine, fine returns on his comeback, but the 28-year-old wasn’t resting on his laurels. There was more devastation to be let loose, more wickets to be snaffled.
Those boxes were ticked on Thursday (June 27) when Shami ripped through admittedly
feeble West Indian resistance at Old Trafford. Bowling at great pace with excellent control of his wrist and therefore a seam position that even coaching manuals will be hard pressed to replicate, Shami drove daggers of despair and fear into the opposition, an outstanding four for 16 from 6.2 overs of naked hostility just rewards for sustained ruthlessness.
Among his victims were Chris Gayle, still topping the list of most feared batsmen in world cricket. Shami troubled the giant Jamaican no end, eliciting an inside-edge in the first over that trickled away to fine-leg, beating him repeatedly with away movement, and finally getting his man with a short delivery into the body that got big. As Gayle essayed an awkward pull, the ball ballooned off the top of the bat, and into the waiting hands of mid-on.
“We have been together during the IPL, we have played each other often. Once you play against someone for a while, you get an idea,” Shami was to say later, the glint in the eye suggesting a throwaway line in the offing.
“The one thing I didn’t want was to allow him to free his arms. Then he would be forced to go for the big one. And that’s exactly what happened.”
The next big fish was the seriously gifted Shai Hope, who played a glorious punch on the up that rocketed past point. Shami showed who the boss was next ball, a lovely fullish delivery with the straightest of seam darting back wickedly on pitching to hurtle between pad and the bat that had gone looking for an expansive drive, and crashing into top of off. Hope looked shell-shocked, Shami was over the moon. It is the kind of ball you dream of; Shami, of course, is the man who makes dreams come true.
Shanker Basu, the strength and conditioning coach, has called this avatar of Shami the 2.0 version. And Shami is happy to take full credit for his comeback. “I was the one faced with the biggest challenges,” he reasoned. “I am thankful to God for giving me the courage to fight my issues – both fitness and family. But I will give myself credit.”
Why not, indeed?
(R Kaushik is a cricket writer who has followed the sport closely for nearly three decades, and is covering his seventh World Cup)