At the end of January 2018, as India celebrated a break-through win on a raging green-top at Johannesburg, Mohammed Shami looked jaded. Despite taking 15 wickets in three Tests in South Africa, there was something odd about his demeanour.

It reflected in the effort he put in during those three Tests. 1-47 and 3-28 in Cape Town, 1-58 and 4-49 in Centurion, and 1-46 and 5-28 in Johannesburg – it was a weird phenomenon that earned him a nickname – ‘second innings Shami’.

Part of India’s first-choice pace attack, Shami appeared at loggerheads with his own physical self. Fatigue was the word that came to mind, as he had arrived in South Africa after heavy-duty spells in the Ranji Trophy for Bengal.

Can you hold it against him though? For any fast bowler, rhythm is the watchword their lives revolve around. Batsmen are different in that they can adjust to conditions in a particular time frame, but for bowlers – particularly pacers – more than one factor needs to be in sync. Mind, body and adjustment to conditions – this cannot be achieved by sitting and resting. You bowl, and bowl, and bowl some more.

Shami, with his simplistic approach, bowled a lot before that South Africa tour. Twelve months later, when the team management stipulated a particular number of overs for yet another Ranji Trophy appearance, he went against that directive and bowled twice as many overs in lead-up to the recently concluded Australian tour.

It is an intriguing story, not one of a bowler gone rogue, rather of a player saved from wasting away. Part of the team management’s job is about handling resources at their disposal. The manner in which Shami’s life unravelled, and then came together in the first half of 2018, is a foremost illustration of this.

Uphill fight

Since 2015, being a professional cricketer has been an uphill fight for Shami. Plagued with knee and hamstring injuries, it took him nearly 15-18 months to get fit and back in shape, enough to handle rigours of international cricket. At different times, the team management has backed him enough – for example, picking him straight for the 2016 World T20 and the West Indies’ tour later that summer.

What of troubles in his personal life? As international calendars get bigger and more matches get squeezed in, not enough premium is attached to players spending quality time away from the game. In Shami’s pertinent case, this was not even possible, as family troubles took a toll. Involved in an ugly, public spat with his wife, Shami’s confidence nosedived.

So much so, flustered with personal issues, it isn’t unfathomable that Shami might have thought about giving up cricket altogether. That BCCI withheld his central contract for nearly a month, pending fixing allegations, didn’t help matters.

Later, Shami even had to break away from the 2018 IPL to take some time away from public scrutiny (after a road accident). Only after the biggest names in this Indian team management talked sense into him, Shami’s faith in cricket was reaffirmed.

“I had to fight a lot in between but my effort was that I have to keep doing what I love most and what is most important to me (cricket). I wanted to just keep doing my job and then see what happens to the rest of the stuff in my life. Whatever difficulties I face, first I wanted to play cricket and keep doing it,” he said, in Birmingham, after picking 3-64 in the first innings of that five-Test series.

At end of this 2018-19 overseas cycle then, Shami had picked 47 wickets in 13 Tests. Two key points matter here; first, no one pacer dominated (in terms of wickets) during the past 12-plus months. The phrase ‘hunting in a pack’ comes to mind.

Why is it important?

It allowed each of the Indian pacers freedom to bowl within themselves and not exceed limitations. It was a stern examination, of their supreme fitness emboldened by the mandatory yo-yo test, and one that they passed bowling in partnerships Test after Test against stern opponents.

Shami himself stresses on this fact as a source of his success, and it is also where the second pointer emanates. He bowled 404.5 overs in South Africa, England and Australia, gaining vital rhythm that allowed him to recover his key weapon – pace.

Jasprit Bumrah might be ruling the Indian charts currently, yet with his ability to move the ball both ways, utilize reverse swing and surprise the batsmen with a skidding bouncer, Shami is India’s best pacer, no doubt about it.

A big challenge

As 2018 transformed to 2019 then, there was one more challenge before Shami – to channel this red-ball form into white-ball cricket, as the Men in Blue started finalizing their plans for the upcoming World Cup. In a way Bumrah’s absence from ODIs in Australia and New Zealand helped – India may have used as many as eight pacers (not counting Hardik Pandya) in ODI cricket since August 2017, but barring Khaleel Ahmed none of them have had a long run in the playing eleven.

The underlying point herein being the vital game time – seven out of eight ODIs – Shami has been afforded and the immediate impact he has made, picking 14 wickets in Australia and New Zealand.

Look beyond statistics though, the key element is how Shami has been utilised at different stages. He has struck with the new ball in the first spell within ten overs in every game; then he has been brought back for a short second spell in the middle overs, before taking up the death overs’ role.

It is akin to how India have utilised Bumrah in the past, and now they have an additional pacer to do a similar job, thus adding options for the skipper and confirming Shami’s spot for the World Cup. Not to mention, in his current form, it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that the team management might even opt for a Shami-Bumrah (ahead of Bhuvneshwar Kumar) pairing at some point during the English summer

“If there is one man I have to single out over the last five months or so, it’s Mohammed Shami,” Shastri told broadcasters Star Sports after his side defeated the Kiwis by 35 runs in Wellington.

“He got a kick up the backside after failing the yo-yo test. He went back, did the hard yards, came back fit and has not broken down since. He has been outstanding, that too across all formats.

“In the morning, he was telling [bowling coach] Bharat Arun that Anderson’s seam position is like this... another bowler’s is like that. Arun told him ‘look at your seam presentation. People around the world are taking notice of you, and don’t try to imitate anyone’,” Shastri said.

On Sunday night then, a year on from South Africa, Shami quietly slipped into the dressing room at Westpac Stadium, clutching his man-of-the-series’ trophy tightly. There wasn’t a smile on his face, his usual demeanour. Rest assured though, there was an acceptance about him, of blood and sweat put in, and of sacrifices made to get back to this juncture.

Today, across formats, Shami is a very different bowler than at any other point in his career so far.