Look at Mohammed Shami in this video, taken after the mad-bat heist that Afghanistan almost pulled off against India. In the only bit of media work he did after sealing the match, Shami looks spent, but grateful. His voice is hoarse but his eyes are level, looking up to the taller Jasprit Bumrah. He is still in his match kit, although he looks like his eyes would close if you just said the word, ‘pillow’. But if he did sleep in that moment, it would be a satisfied, sated rest.
Just a few hours earlier, he was top-ten material, becoming only the 10th man to get a hat-trick in a Cricket World Cup. Re-watch this video, because you’re sure to have seen it already. The wicket of Mohammad Nabi had concern on his face, then hope, then relief. Aftab Alam’s wicket was celebrated with gusto but then restraint; there were two balls left in the match and Afghanistan were a miracle away from victory. But when he saw Mujeeb Ur Rahman’s bails light up, he lets go. A swirl of dust billowed across the screen, as if kicked up by his whirlwind celebration. The force of Shami’s fist pump sent him in a circle. Fitting, because that’s exactly the shape life was drawing for him.
Shankar Basu, the Indian team’s fitness trainer, said Shami practices intermittent fasting without even knowing what it is. I’ll save you the trouble of googling it: it involves fasting for 16 hours, and eating only within the remaining eight. Maybe Shami’s ODI career is in intermittent fasting as well. If you zoom out, his last meal looks like it was in 2015.
Shami finished that year’s World Cup in Australia with 17 wickets at an economy rate of 4.81, becoming India’s second highest wicket-taker and an instrumental cog in their run to the semi-final. But he missed the months after that tournament due to surgery on a knee injury he was carrying while in Australia. While he remained a part of the Test squad, he didn’t play an ODI again until 2017, as the talents of Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar blossomed. In 2018, he bruised himself on the bottom: carrying the weight of personal issues being played out in the public eye, as well as many extra kilos, he failed a Yo-Yo test and was dropped from the Test squad against Afghanistan.
His comeback since has been as welcome as it is astonishing. As India auditioned for a left-arm seamer, Shami’s Test numbers (the Indian pacers took a record 131 Test wickets in 2018, Shami took 47 of those) earned him a place in the ODI squad when Bumrah was rested. That he has played non-stop cricket since then and still maintained his form and fitness has consigned that Yo-Yo test to the past. On the way, he has ticked past the milestone of 100 ODI wickets.
“The best part is that he has changed his entire training regimen,” said Basu of Shami’s fitness revival. “I think training is now part of his lifestyle, which never used to be the case before. Everything has changed over the last three-four years.. after personal setbacks and failing that fitness test, he is a changed man.”
Since the beginning of this year until the start of the World Cup, Shami is the third highest wicket-taker in ODI cricket, tied with Bhuvneshwar Kumar. He had his best ever IPL by a distance, playing all 14 games, taking 19 wickets (his previous best was 12 games and seven wickets). He solved India’s concerns about the third seamer’s position, allowing them to bring in his experience rather than handing a youngster a first World Cup.
The hat-trick will be remembered much longer than his first spell of 4-1-6-1, where he cajoled movement from an unhelpful pitch. He removed the dangerous Hazratullah Zazai and ensured Afghanistan got no flying start. With Bhuvneshwar likely to be fit in two games time, Shami has provided the think tank with a welcome headache and sent a message to oppositions: there is no respite from this Indian team.
When the tournament began, Shami was a third seamer, who might play if ‘the pitch has to offer a lot’. On a slow surface that suited the spinners, he showed he was more than a windmill bowling action and dead-steady seam position. He was skillful, disciplined and hungry.
The fast is over. Stand back, because Mohammed Shami is feasting.
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Afghanistan captain Gulbadin Naib admits his team would benefit from the emergence of a top-class pace bowler to supplement their quality spin attack.
For Afghanistan, it was the sort of performance that, had it come in their first match, it would have sent ripples of alarm through their remaining opponents. It was finally the Afghanistan that the tournament had been expecting rather than the shambles that turned up.
Mujeeb Ur Rahman said that, at the World Cup, the Afghanistan team is not merely going to participate but will aim to win the Cup.