Crash and bang. A peach. Batsman baffled.
The ball, from its point of release, was never in line with the off-stump. Then, mid-way, its trajectory started changing, coming into the line at a brisk pace and before the batsman had time to adjust his bat speed, the stumps were shattered.
This could be an apt description of how Mitchell Starc bowled Ben Stokes at Lord’s on Tuesday. Instead, it is how Mohammed Shami bowled Shai Hope at Old Trafford on Thursday. There is Starc’s yorker, and then there is Shami’s inswinger, both swerving in at raw pace, both bewildering batsmen, both unplayable. Both, a thing of beauty!
As a pacer, Shami is really easy on the eye – a bristling run-up, gathering momentum with each step, and finally a burst of energy at the point of delivery. Then, there is the delivery arc – his left-arm stretches out, almost as if loading a catapult, and the right arm extends forward, hurtling the ball at speed, as he commands the shape and movement.
If Starc is a force of nature, and Jasprit Bumrah is a unique phenomenon, then Shami is your textbook fast bowler. There is nothing average about him, though – his pace, ability to land the ball perfectly on seam, move it both ways, reverse swing, yorkers, bouncers...everything ticks off the requisite skills desired in such a bowler. None of this is possible without peak fitness.
“I am in my comfort zone. I have rebuilt my fitness, and the moment I lost weight, I found a rhythm for myself,” said Shami, after picking 4/16 against West Indies in Manchester. “I have been trying to ensure that I maintain my fitness and that diet I have been following. And on the field, it helps me that I feel I can express myself on any wicket.”
That word – fitness – takes centre-stage herein. Two days after Bhuvneshwar Kumar was ruled out with a hamstring issue, attention turned towards Shami, as he went through a rigorous session in the Hampshire Bowl nets. India’s strength and conditioning coach Shankar Basu kept a vigilant eye on him, among others, of course.
Part of the support staff with the Indian team, Basu is on every flight to every part of the world. However, he stays away from the limelight – his work is mostly behind the scenes (at the National Cricket Academy when not travelling).
Often, he is seen taking fitness drills and administering Yo-Yo tests ahead of, or after, training sessions. At times, he is spotted at some restaurant sharing stories over dinner with players. Maybe once a year, he will also address a media conference, mostly when the regular faces are tired of facing the press.
“I had told Shami that there is no point of training hard for 20 days. Now, training is his lifestyle, and his pace doesn’t drop even in the last Test of five-match series,” said Basu ahead of the Afghanistan game. He is the one credited for changing Shami’s lifestyle, his diet and training habits, and much of this transformation has come in the last two years.
Mohammed Shami on his remarkable comeback for India – Read
Shami’s tryst with recurring injuries was well known. But, like with everyone, there comes a seminal moment when they pick themselves up, and dive headlong into what enforces their existence away from all troubles. All you need is a helping hand. Faced with fitness issues and family troubles back in 2017 and 2018, the pacer needed to find a direction, and it was Basu who helped chart the course for him. When he says ‘fit Shami is my biggest achievement’, it is as accurate a statement as any bouncer from the pacer.
Just consider the results of this transformation. In 2018-’19, Shami featured in 13 of 14 Tests India played, rested only in one home game against West Indies. That he didn’t miss a single overseas Test in South Africa, England or Australia is an ode to Basu’s efforts and Shami’s own determination. That he picked 49 wickets across these matches is a different matter altogether, and more to the point. It helped his comeback to ODI cricket.
That word – rhythm – comes into prominence herein. It is the watchword for any pacer, and through non-stop Test cricket, Shami became a well-oiled bowling machine. So much so, as Bumrah was rested for the ODIs in Australia and New Zealand, he picked 14 wickets in seven matches to confirm his spot as the third pacer in the 2019 World Cup squad.
It had been one of the few remaining headaches on the experimental road to this tournament. Perhaps, he even made Virat Kohli wish that solving the number four riddle were as easy.
During that New Zealand tour, bowling coach Bharat Arun had told this writer about the challenge of managing workloads during the 2019 IPL. Shami cleared this hurdle unscathed too – 19 wickets in 14 matches for Kings XI Punjab without losing his rhythm to slam-bang cricket. It brings us to this moment in his journey, wherein he became only the second Indian bowler to pick up an ODI World Cup hat trick (4/40 against Afghanistan at Southampton).
“I have confidence in my skills. I have always been confident whenever I have come on the field, and whenever I have been given responsibility. I have been successful in fulfilling that. That adds to my confidence. I have the belief that I can do it. I stay ready when I get my chance so that I can execute my skills,” Shami replied, when asked about his dream resurgence.
Eight wickets in two matches, average 7.0, and economy 3.46 – in two low scoring games where the Indian batsmen messed up. Now, it presents an interesting selection quandary ahead of the all-important game against England on June 30 (in Birmingham). Kumar is expected to be fit and available, so whom do you pick?
They are different bowlers, Kumar and Shami, and each compliments Bumrah in his own style, whether with movement and control, or raw pace, or indeed both. Will this decision be based on rhythm and form, or the fact that India’s tail begins at numbers eight in Kumar’s absence? There is no way all three pacers can feature in the same playing eleven – it disturbs India’s balance.
A selection conundrum indeed, but this is a happy problem of plenty. And unlike the middle order mess, captain Kohli will probably not mind this headache.