During the 2014 ICC World T20 in Bangladesh, Pakistan’s mercurial speed merchant Shoaib Akhtar was making his commentary debut in Hindi for the official broadcasters. During the innings break in the high-profile clash between India and Pakistan in Mirpur, Akhtar walked in to the media dining area, and, with typical narcissism, asked for feedback on his commentary.
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He also had a friendly chat with some Indian journalists. Despite hailing from Pakistan, India’s fiercest political and sporting rival, and a fertile land of obscenely talented fast bowlers, he was surprisingly philanthropic in praise of Mohammed Shami, who he had just seen live.
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“Bahut dino baad aap logon ko ek heera mila hain. Ise aapko sambhalna hoga (After a long time you have got a diamond. You will have to manage him),” he gushed. Akhtar was incensed when told that Shami had been named even in a depleted Indian squad for the meaningless Asia Cup which preceded the World T20.
Despite being in just his second year of international cricket, Shami had already made an impression by then because of his wrist position, rhythmic action, sustained pace and of course, movement.
Akhtar’s ex-captain and sultan of swing, Wasim Akram, who had mentored Shami at Kolkata Knight Riders, had also marked him out for special things. “Din bhar tez daal sakta hain yeh ladka (This lad can bowl fast all day long),” he remarked during a commentary stint during Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell Test at Wankhede against West Indies in November 2013. Akram had missed out on watching Shami’s debut at the Eden in Kolkata, where the pacer had grabbed 4-71 and 5-47 – dishing out a clinic in reverse swing bowling – but he had followed the game on TV.
Shami has played 30 Tests for India and has picked up 110 scalps with three five-fors. The most famous and recent among them came against South Africa in January in Johannesburg, where he bowled a lion-hearted spell in the second innings and picked up 5-28, bowling India to a memorable away Test win. He had also bowled well in the previous two Tests, but had also infuriated observers with his now famous mood swings, when he just tends to float the ball without much intent.
A google search on Shami should have pointed to that and other career highs, but such has been his fall from grace, both personally and professionally, that the links that the Internet throws up are of stories involving a cheque bouncing case, his alleged extra-marital affair, his marital discord with wife Hasin Jehan, his failure to clear the yo-yo test and of course about him initially missing out from the contracted players list and eventually making it.
After an average IPL and sitting out of the Afghanistan Test, Shami has been handed a lifeline by Kohli and the team management in England. This is his chance to show what he is capable of. It’s a massive vote of confidence in his quality. With Bhuvneshwar Kumar out of the first three Tests at least participation and Jasprit Bumrah too missing from the first couple of Tests, India’s pace department will depend on Shami’s skills, Ishant Sharma’s sustained accuracy and Umesh Yadav’s pace to provide the breakthroughs.
Bhuvneshwar, of course, was India’s hero in England last time, picking 19 email@example.com and scoring 247 firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also comfortable bowling with the Duke ball, which requires getting used to with its larger seam and bright red lacquer. Ishant has also tended to bowl well with the Duke ball, but Shami struggled last time and Umesh was not part of the last tour. Shami, though, can hit the ideal length and his natural line can be perfect in English conditions, especially if the sun plays hide and seek, which has happened very little this hot summer.
The Amroha-born pacer was sensational in India when the Englishmen came calling in 2016, picking up 10 scalps in three Tests and surprising quality players like Root and Bairstow with reverse swing at searing pace. He even used the short ball expertly in Mohali to hasten England’s slide in the third Test.
Since 2011, India have been cursed with injuries to their key pacers. Zaheer Khan went down in the first Test at Lord’s. Ishant Sharma did not play a single Test after his 7/74 at Lord’s in 2014. This time, there are injuries to Bumrah and Bhuvi, two key men.
What better time for Shami to anaesthetise his recent demons and show that he is indeed a diamond.