It has been a strange year for Mohammed Shami. He began well by topping the wicket charts, albeit jointly, in the Test series against South Africa, although India’s 1-2 loss somewhat obscured that fact. His heroics in Johannesburg have not be forgotten that easily. A late flurry of runs from Shami’s bat was followed by a five-wicket haul as India earned the victory its display merited in challenging conditions at the Bullring.
Arguably, the 28-year-old has not touched those heights since. It may have to do with personal troubles. It would not be ridiculous to suggest that the serious allegations of domestic abuse made by Shami’s wife this April have affected his performance. The case is unresolved, even though the accusation of match-fixing was brushed aside. Shami was also accused of financial fraud by his estranged partner and he must appear in court upon returning from Australia.
It is under this shadow that Shami has played cricket for the last six months without much discussion of its consequences. In this time, he went to England and featured prominently in another disappointing tour for India.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s injury meant that the Amroha-born seamer’s place in the Test side was never really under threat but 16 wickets at 38.87 runs in five matches were not ideal returns. Especially in a series where the English batting unit nearly always stood on the periphery of a collapse. For India, nobody bowled more overs than Shami but it was more toil than a breeze for the pacer.
Since pitches in Australia are closer in behaviour to South Africa than England, Shami may find the conditions better suited to his skills. His ability to reverse swing the ball will be particularly handy Down Under where conventional assistance can be difficult to find once the ball gets old.
But will he even make the starting lineup? It’s an answer we may not learn until the 6th of December. With the return of Bhuvneshwar Kumar to the Test side, Shami is most likely to be dropped among the pacers. The stock of Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma is arguably higher at the moment.
If Shami does keep his place, though, there is much to be said for the seamer’s persistence and effort. The pacer is certainly key to India’s plans still as seen during Bengal’s recent Ranji Trophy game against Kerala. Shami’s participation in the match was subject to a directive issued by the BCCI which mandated that he should not bowl more than fifteen overs per innings, lest the physical burden hamper him.
The board had his recent fitness record in mind. Shami’s knee injury earlier this year had ensured that he missed a major chunk of the IPL and Afghanistan’s debut test in Bangalore. Since then, fortunately, he has not given the physio or team doctor much to ponder. But nobody wants to take any chances ahead of a tour which could grant India its first ever away Test series victory in Australia.
However, as it turned out, Shami went on to deliver 26 overs in Kerala’s first innings. “I decided on my own. It was better to bowl for your team and state rather than practising somewhere else. The more you bowl here, the more it will help in Australia. It was good preparation. For me, bowling in a match is the best preparation. I prefer that any day,” said Shami afterward, explaining his decision.
As any bowler would tell you, bowling more when you are in rhythm is too good a chance to pass. Shami’s mood and feeling certainly spells optimism for the tour ahead. It is backed by the thorough work done away from the playing field. Like his teammates, the pacer has watched plenty of videos in anticipation of the challenges that will present themselves in Australia.
On the tour of South Africa, Shami had finished with 15 wickets at an excellent average of 17.06 runs. His lengths were impeccable and he really came into his own in the second innings. But he picked up only three wickets in as many first innings played by South Africa. As Shami heads to Australia, he will be looking for a more equitable wicket spread.
The big picture for the pacer, though, has many shades of pink. Shami has prepared as well as he could, played Tests in varying conditions this year, and he finds himself in a good moment. However, Shami’s personal issues lurk in the background. Is he mentally in the right place? Can Shami produce the kind of devastating spells we have seen from him in the past? In the coming weeks, we await the answer to these questions.
Priyansh is an independent writer in New Delhi. He tweets @GarrulousBoy.