THE BIG INTERVIEW
Shami has grown into the role of India’s pace spearhead in Tests © Getty
November 6, 2018. A packed day on the international cricket calendar, with Asia the hub of on-field action.
In Sylhet, Bangladesh are tumbling to a rare home defeat in Test cricket. More importantly, they are facilitating Zimbabwe’s first win in the longer version in five years and their first overseas victory since 2001, a huge shot in the arm for the struggling African nation.
In Galle, debutant Ben Foakes is threatening to spoil Rangana Herath’s going-away party, even as Test cricket’s most prolific left-arm spinner becomes only the third bowler to take 100 wickets at a single ground.
In India, Rohit Sharma heralds Lucknow’s Ekana Stadium’s debut as an international venue whilst dancing to an unprecedented fourth Twenty20 International century and sealing a series win against Windies at the first time of asking.
Away from the harsh glare of the unforgiving spotlight, a 28-year-old quietly goes about his paces without fuss at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru as he slips into his sixth year as a Test cricketer.
Mohammed Shami would have loved being out in the middle in Lucknow, knocking poles over and hustling batsmen with his pace and versatility. Instead, one of India’s premier fast bowlers, largely a long-form exponent in the last three and a half years, was hard at work preparing for the Test series in Australia, which is now less than a month away.
The Amroha-born right-arm quick, who moved to Kolkata to pursue his cricketing dreams, had made a sensational Test debut, destroying West Indies in the opening match of Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell series with bursts of 4 for 71 and 5 for 47 at his ‘home’ ground, Eden Gardens. During the course of stacking up the best figures by an Indian quick in his maiden Test, Shami unleashed devastating bursts of reverse-swing. Six of his nine victims were bowled, a seventh trapped palpably in front.
On day one of the Test, November 6, 2013, Shami had received his Test cap from Ishant Sharma, the senior pro who he replaced in the playing XI. It was quite the proverbial passing on of the baton.
“When I received my cap, it was a dream come true — that you are going to become a Test player for India,” Shami begins, leaning forward to activate silent mode on his mobile phones. “You are going to be in a Test XI for the first time, something you had yearned and worked hard for all your life. The best thing for me was that I was playing at my home ground, I knew the conditions really well. I knew how to handle the heat and the humidity, I knew how the pitch would behave. The way I performed in that game, that confidence lifts me even today, when I don’t have a good day. The confidence that I got from that Test debut, I play with that today, and will do so for the rest of my career.”
That confidence has manifested itself in 230 international wickets across formats, with more than 50 percent — 128, to be precise – coming in 36 Tests. As the numbers are placed in front of him, his face breaks into the broad grin of a kid given total freedom to ransack a candy store.
“It’s been a good, long journey,” he reminisces. “I never thought how long I would play, how my fitness would be. These questions don’t occur to you when you make your debut. But after five years, when I look back, it feels very good that I have played for the country for so long, that I have served the team for so many years. Till such time that I am able to put in the effort and keep improving my fitness levels, I want to serve my country.
“I only moved to Kolkata (in 2005) to chase my cricketing aspirations. I attended two or three selection trials in Uttar Pradesh prior to that, but I didn’t get picked. Then, I felt that I must do something (different) to try and break through. Everyone used to say that I was a good talent – you obviously don’t know it yourself – and so I wanted to give it my best shot. They have a good league structure (in Kolkata) and I felt I would get the chance to prove myself. That was uppermost in my mind when I shifted base to Kolkata. That, maybe if I do have the talent, I will be able to express myself. And here I am, sitting in front of you today.”
Shami was only 15, and unsure of what lay ahead, as he moved out of his comfort zone and made the trip to an unfamiliar land. “While I did have a long-term dream of playing for the country, I didn’t think only about it at that time in my life. My first target was the Ranji Trophy,” he offers. “I wanted to progress step by step, not think of the end-of-the-day scene. My effort always has been the next step, and what I should do to get to that level, how hard I must work to climb the next rung.”
The one word that repeatedly dances in and out of my thoughts as Shami holds forth is ‘uncomplicated’. His bowling is a lot like that, and his batting is entirely like that. As we veer suddenly away from his bowling to his willow-wielding, he laughs out loud. “I always enjoy it, like you have seen in the matches. I love to smash the ball,” he guffaws. “I just feel that if we can add runs towards the tail-end of the innings as quickly as possible, 40-50 runs in rapid time, it will be very good for the team. That will only help us later when we are setting a target or chasing a total – that yes, we have contributed to the total and made the jobs of the others a little easier, not to mention our own. I don’t work a lot on my batting but I enjoy whatever time I get in the nets. I try to make the best use of it, do the best that I am capable of.”
Determined not to digress from his specialist vocation, we drag the chat back to bowling. Fast bowling? Not necessarily a big, powerful physical unit, how did he get attracted to that thankless discipline on unresponsive surfaces? “It runs in my family, my brothers and my dad were all fast bowlers. I used to enjoy watching them run in and hurl the ball when I was a kid. I grew up watching them, and bowling fast seeped into my system naturally, it cemented itself in my mind. It wasn’t as if I was thinking I should become a batsman or a bowler; whatever came naturally to me, I just backed that.
“In the beginning, I used to bowl very quick. In fact, I feel I used to bowl much faster earlier on than I do today. But as you keep moving up the levels and the stage keeps changing, the need to complement pace with accuracy becomes pressing. I was lucky to be surrounded by a lot of good senior players at various times, starting from the Ranji Trophy camp. Then I met Wasim (Akram)bhai, I learnt the skills of using the new ball from him. I watched a lot of television, they show action replays, in slow motion, so many times. All those things registered in my mind, I had a fair idea of the skills I needed to hone. You have to improve your skills all the time.”
One of the keys to improvement is picking the brains of virtuosos past and present, and customising their advice to your benefit. Shami is choosy about who he turns to for suggestions, but that doesn’t mean he is averse to learning. “I don’t talk to too many people about it, but if I run into an ex-player or a senior player, I love chatting with them,” he says, somewhat paradoxically. “You will definitely get to learn a lot – about conditions, about situational awareness, things like that. I prefer seeking out seniors depending on which stage of my career I am at because I feel that I should always be able to learn from the other person. If he has played more than me, has the experience and has a better idea of the conditions, then you definitely feed off his knowledge and expertise.”
As early as in his first Test, Shami showcased his mastery of reverse, though the length he bowled at the Eden wasn’t nearly as full as that particular craft generally necessitates — it was almost reverse-cut from a little back of a length more than reverse-swing. “It all depends on the kind of wicket, what kind of pace you get off the wicket,” he explains. “If you end up bowling too full, it comes nicely on to the bat. Sometimes, you have to see the gap between bat and pad. That dictates what length you bowl. One is more focused on getting the batsman out. But yes, I do try as far as possible to bowl stump-to-stump and adjust whatever reverse I am getting so that the ultimate goal is to hit the stumps.”
There are days when Shami looks like he is sleepwalking through his opening spell, and maybe even his second, but he then suddenly springs to life, producing a sensational burst that can blow the game wide open. It happened in South Africa earlier this year, and then in England during the summer as he finished with 31 wickets from eight Tests combined.
“If you are playing cricket, no matter whether you are a batsman or a bowler, there will be good days and bad days,” he observes, sagely. “But I will go back to the one thing I unwaveringly believe in – you need to be mentally strong. If your preparation is good, then there will be more good days than bad. You can have a good day or a bad day; how quickly you bounce back from a bad day defines your character. The stronger you are mentally, the faster you will recover from a bad day.
“A lot of time, it so happens that when you bowl the first ball and it leaves your hand nicely, you feel in good rhythm and your confidence immediately increases. You then know that you will be able to land the ball where you want to, move it the way you want to. You get a sense of surety in your first couple of overs about your rhythm. That happens with everyone, bowler or batsman – how your touch and feel is.”
While Ishant was already six and a half years old in international cricket, India’s pace crop otherwise was primarily in its infancy when Shami donned India colours for the first time. Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron and Bhuvneshwar Kumar too were all reasonably early in their careers. Today, while Aaron has fallen off international reckoning, Shami has slipped into the ‘senior’ category alongside Ishant, Umesh and Bhuvneshwar, a mentor of sorts to the rising bunch spearheaded by Jasprit Bumrah.
“We have a very good group, I feel that this is the best batch of fast bowlers. I don’t think India have ever had this kind of pace battery, where you have four-five quick bowlers at the same time with so much experience,” he says. “It is a very good combination, we have very good understanding between ourselves. The best thing is that we share information, how to bowl in which series, in what conditions, how we must bowl as a unit. We are very attached to each other, we walk the journey together. I think that is the main reason for our success.
“Who plays and who doesn’t, that depends on luck and what the team management feels is best for that game. But whoever plays, does so whole-heartedly, and whoever doesn’t get to play backs his mates totally. All of us have an open mind and are very frank; we want the group to do well, the team to do well, rather than focus on individual success alone.”
India’s pace battery that keeps on giving © Getty
It is the lot of any professional sportsperson to be riddled with his or her fair share of injuries. Shami has been particularly in the wars since the 2015 World Cup. A knee injury kept him out of action for nearly 17 months; since then, he has been afflicted by hamstring and toe issues, which have tested his resolve more than anything else on the field of play, he admits.
“The times you spend away from the field because of injury, those are very difficult phases,” he says with a little grimace. “In this day and age, there are a lot of matches, there are back-to-back series. There is very little time between games. Injuries can happen to anyone, but when you are forced to miss matches, it can be very frustrating. I spent one and a half years here at the NCA between 2015 and 2016. It can be very irritating. You always feel ‘When will I get fit, how quickly can I leave this place?’ That’s the mindset.
“But it’s important that you exercise a lot of control, discipline and patience in your rehab. If you are tempted to rush back, it can be more damaging. To me, coping with injuries is more demanding mentally than any challenge I might have faced while bowling. You have to fall back on reserves of mental strength when you go through the grind of recovering from injury and regaining fitness. You must accept that you are injured, and a comeback will take time, that you have to steadily go through the process. You have to work on your strength, your running, your gym, your rehab – you have to will yourself to stick to the process. The entire staff is with you, so it is not very difficult physically, but mentally it can be extremely frustrating.”
It’s primarily because of injuries that Shami has played just five ODIs since the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, where he took 17 wickets in seven matches and formed a potent pace trio alongside Umesh and Mohit Sharma. He didn’t play a 50-over international for 27 months between March 2015 and July 2017, during which time Bumrah stepped up and established himself as a white-ball master, Bhuvneshwar ramped up his game and Hardik Pandya started his climb towards permanency.
“It is not difficult (to primarily play only one format internationally),” Shami insists, without any trace of bitterness or self-pity. “I am a great believer in fate and luck. Whatever is written in your destiny is what will happen. My desire is that whatever responsibility I have been entrusted with, whatever job I have been given to do for the team and for the country, I must be as well prepared as I can be to complete that task to the best of my ability. You need to be mentally strong. I am happy with whatever the team management and the BCCI decide, my focus is on fulfilling the role allotted to me.”
The recent grassy knoll at the Eden Gardens is an exception in India in that it keeps the faster bowlers interested throughout a Test match. Most of the other venues offer precious little for the quicks, so it is easy to get carried away in South Africa, Australia or England, where you can run into more pace, more bounce and sometimes seam movement too.
“That is the biggest challenge,” Shami agrees quickly. “Sometimes you go to England and get good bounce there, you get good carry. It is more important then to maintain control over your bowling, your mind. In the last series, as you saw, it was all ‘beat, beat, beat, beat’ but not necessarily getting wickets. Your patience is tested, more than anything else. To control your mind is imperative. In Indian conditions, we know when to bend our backs, when to bowl normally. When you travel abroad, you don’t have the same familiarity. It looks from the outside as if the ball is swinging a lot, bouncing a lot, but you need to control yourself, stay calm and not become impatient – that is your main test.
“Otherwise, my mindset is the same, no matter where I am bowling. I am always aggressive, I am always looking to take wickets, whether we are playing in India or overseas. I know what length is ideal, what are the lines I must maintain. Once you are sorted in your mind about the lengths especially depending on the conditions and the bounce, things will fall in place. You can’t make wholesale adaptations in Test cricket, length will be the key – the line is always the same.”
After setbacks in South Africa and England, India travel to Australia eyeing an elusive series win Down Under. This four-Test showdown offers Virat Kohli’s men a glorious chance to break India’s duck in Australia, what with the hosts missing Steve Smith and David Warner, both serving suspensions following their role in the ball-tampering scandal in Cape Town in March. Shami can’t wait for the action to start.
“I am someone who always look ahead, not backwards. I work on my skills keeping the series to come in mind. I know what kind of wickets we can expect in Australia, I prepare accordingly. Obviously, when you go overseas, your primary objective is to return with a series victory. We have done well this year in both South Africa and England; if you look at the last five-six years, it has been a good period for us away from home. Our thinking, our motivation, is to win every series we play. But the outcome depends on a lot of other factors too – conditions, a little bit of luck, how we grab the key moments.
“As you have been seeing over the last few years, the Australian wickets have changed a lot in character. There is a world of difference between the pitches in Australia earlier and the ones now. They have better bounce than our wickets, but otherwise there is not too much difference. Saying that, the challenge is that we will be playing with the Kookaburra ball. You need to stay patient, you have to be true to your plans and stick with them. On those wickets with the Kookaburra, you have only a limited window (when the ball is new). After that, you have to disciplined; that is the challenge.”
The little red 5-1/2 ounce of orb has been the talking point for a while now. Different host countries use different makes – it’s Duke in England, Kookaburra in most other parts, the SG Test in India. The balls that are being used in India have received plenty of flak in recent times, from Kohli, from R Ashwin and from Umesh Yadav, despite his ten-wicket haul in the Hyderabad Test against Windies last month.
Shami, however, threw his weight behind the SG Test ball, almost entirely for reasons of familiarity and comfort. “We are used to playing in India, and we have always used the SG for Test matches in India from the time I have started playing for the country,” says the man who is the designated ‘ball-selector’ for his team. “There has been some talk that we are not getting good quality balls but in our conditions, we have to use the ball that suits us best. The English players prefer to play with the Duke’s, the Kookaburra is used widely. We can’t interfere with that. But I prefer the ball with which I have played from my early days, because I am used to it. The feel of that ball on the hand is very good.
“The SG ball that we would get earlier, the darker ball, that was excellent. Now, you can see that the ball loses shape quite frequently and gets changed, sometimes just when it is about to start reversing. The better ball we have, the better it is for us. If we get a good quality ball with good shape, we can use the old ball really well. A little prominent seam, the shape should be good, the ball should have good balance – a lot of it depends on the leather. As a fast bowler, when you hold the ball in your hand, you will know that it is a good feel. I prefer those kinds of balls. It all depends on the how the ball feels on your fingers.”