Mohammad Shami’s run-up

Gaurav Bhatt
Consigned to the bench for the first four matches, Shami got a fortuitous look-in after Bhuvneshwar Kumar pulled a hamstring. (Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

Sahaspur Alinagar is a village torn between celebrating its hero and protecting him. Between nostalgic recollections of an obsessive boy running in the streets, miming a bowling action, and wary whisperings of reporters and Crime Branch officers knocking on doors for information. Between "Simmi", the timid middle child of the pradhan, and Mohammad Shami, the troubled international cricketer.

You can see it in the face of a younger brother. There’s the grogginess of a disturbed siesta, and the bashfulness that runs in the family along with love for fast bowling and biryani. There’s also apprehension that amidst an innocuous line of questions, will be a sly query.

So intertwined have Mohammad Shami’s off-court travails been with his on-court exploits that the villagers’ platitudes come with asterisks attached. "Ekdum seedha ladka hai ye bachpan se (He is a simple boy since childhood)." "Cricket ki lagan thi, ab dekho naam kharab kar diya (He was crazy about cricket, see now his name is spoiled)." There is also speculation about why his wife Hasin Jahan accused him adultery, demanding dowry, domestic violence and match-fixing.

If the salacious yarn of a marriage gone wrong threatened to overshadow the story of the struggle of a child born far from cricketing hubs, who took the unconventional route from the backwaters of Uttar Pradesh to Kolkata, not exactly a fertile ground for Test cricketers, the ongoing World Cup in England has put paid to that.

Consigned to the bench for the first four matches, Shami got a fortuitous look-in after Bhuvneshwar Kumar pulled up a hamstring. Once in the eleven, Shami picked up from where he left off four years ago, continuing his marauding run at World Cups. The 29-year-old, who took 17 wickets in 2015, is now the fastest to reach 25 and 30 wickets at World Cups in 9 and 10 matches respectively. The 14 scalps this edition include a hat-trick, only the second time an Indian bowler managed the feat in the World Cup, 22 years after Chetan Sharma.

New balls have landed on that hard, pronounced seam and jagged in or deviated away. Old balls have reversed and tailed in. In England, much like most of his life, Shami has let the cricket ball do the talking.

***

Your best bet to reach Sahaspur is not to ask for the village by its name, but Shami’s. Lying mid-way between Amroha and Moradabad — 20 km each from both — the village lies down a sharp, easy-to-miss turn off NH 9. A ‘shared auto’ (or special, if you have Rs 200 to spare) will take you past vast green swathes of sugarcane and wheat fields and drop you at a small cluster of single-storey houses.

On this particular sweltering June afternoon, India are playing West Indies at Manchester. But there’s not even the crackle of a radio to be heard.

Sahaspur loves its cricket, but a chunk of its 5,000-strong population loves its nap more, before going back to toil in their sugarcane farms or brick kilns. Those awake are airing themselves with paper fans, cursing the routine power outages which can go on for six hours.

But there’s another reason for this disinterest in the Manchester match. No offence to the stroke-making of Rohit and Co., but it is when Shami has a ball in the hand that Sahaspur truly awakens.

Two restless teens are playing catch with a jagged pebble outside a shop. The older of the two, Moumin, takes up the offer of a tennis ball in exchange for a guided tour. First stop, the burial grounds where a young Shami made leather balls come alive. One can make out the clearing in the uneven, dusty terrain, the site of hard-fought cricket where Shami defended targets much smaller than the 16 runs against Afghanistan in the last over, in the match held five days earlier.

Mention the match and Moumin, a fast bowler in the making, tries to mask his frustration with politeness. "Tell me, why didn’t Shami bhai get Man of the Match, last over mein hat trick lene ke bavajood (despite a hat trick in the last over)?"

The clearing is where Shami holds court during trips home. "He gives us tips, watches every bowler closely," says Moumin, 14, who trains at an academy 5 km down the highway. "It’s isn’t a very old academy. Shami’s brother Kaif also trains there. In fact Kaif bhai took me there after I dismissed him in a match."

A decade and a half ago, Shami’s father Tousif Ahmed would have given anything for an academy nearby. With no place for his three sons to train, Tousif, a third-generation ‘Pradhan’ who ran a spare tractor parts shop, poured cement in his field to prepare a pitch, albeit with a short run-up.

While Tousif’s eldest son Hasib’s career was curtailed due to kidney stones, villagers remember Shami, the middle child, bowling for hours at a stretch, sometimes alone, in the heat, with mounds of cowdung doubling up as wicket-keeper and slip cordon.

Kaif, 23, remembers bearing the brunt of his brother’s "junoon (passion)". "He would keep bowling non-stop. Break tabhi milta jab ball peeche kaanton mein ya jhaadi mein chali jaati (There was a break only if the ball when into the thorns or bushes behind). That pitch made all of us," says Kaif, a university cricketer who also plays in Kolkata.

About Tousif, Kaif says, "He was a medium-pacer himself, and he was always sad that there was never a proper pitch where one could test one’s speed and bowl consistently. So he made it himself. I was too young to see him bowl. But I remember, father would always stand there with his arms crossed and monitor. It was never about just him or his sons. My father made this for everybody in the village to come and play. He just wanted somebody from here to go on and play for India."

At the pitch where Shami spent hours, his uncle Imran, who still likes to try his hand at wicket-keeping, was the first to spot his talent Express photo by Praveen Khanna

Tousif died two years ago from a heart attack, but not before seeing Shami play all three formats for India and finish World Cup 2015 as the fourth-highest wicket taker. Shami posted a photo of himself digging the grave on Facebook with the caption: "Ye lamha bahut mushkil hota hai jab koi insaan apne walid ki kabar khodtata ya banata hai (It’s a very difficult moment for anyone to be digging a grave of one’s father). Miss you papa…"

The post offended some for hurting their sentiments, but Kaif says, "Bhai’s Twitter photo is also of him with papa in the hospital. Nobody else can understand our love and what we owe to our father."

Tousif rests in the cemetery overlooking the now largely-concealed, overgrown patch of cement in his field.

***

Mohammad Imran calls himself "Sahaspur ka Nayan Mongia" and Moumin, and his shopkeeper father Guddu, back him up. "He wouldn’t let a ball go past him. He was the district’s best wicket-keeper."

Shami’s uncle, 36-year-old Imran kept wickets to the budding pacer and was one of the first ones to see his talent up close. "After a batsman, it’s only the wicket-keeper who realises how good a bowler is. I remember, from the first time Simmi bowled, it thwacked into my tattered pair of cloth gloves," Imran says, cupping his palms and jolting them back to demonstrate a sharp take. "It was hard for ordinary players like us to deal with his speed and swing."

Leading a ragtag bunch, Shami settled a long rivalry with neighbours from Deep Pur village. "Those matches used to be as intense as India-Pakistan matches. At least a thousand people would come to watch," says Imran. His eyes misting up, he adds, "We would walk down for matches. Then we started going to places further away such as Rudrapur and Bareilly by bus. Those were the days. He got us so many wins."

Wins, but no money.

"Back in those days, nobody paid any money for these matches. But Shami always got his reward," says Imran. "He would always keep the ball. He would say, ab gaaon me ek aur ball jud gayi (now one more ball is added to the village’s collection)."

"Net balls. Match balls. After a practice session or a match, he would say that he is taking the ball home," laughs Badruddin Siddiqui, Shami’s first coach, at an academy in Moradabad.

Once home, Shami would station his younger brother or sister across a courtyard and hurtle the ball at them, continuing often way past bedtime. "Thak. Thak. Thak. His family members would be so annoyed, and they’d come to me and complain, ‘What’s this obsession? And if we tell him anything, he says, I have to keep my wrists straight’," recalls Siddiqui. "Years later, I was watching a match with Shami’s father and I told him, ‘This is the magic of those wrists’. You look at his seam position and release. That junoon strengthened his wrists, and bowling fast in the ground behind helped him learn about reverse swing as well."

Siddiqui remembers seeing Shami for the first time, when Tousif brought him to the academy, in 2005. "He was skinny but strong. Ajeeb se PT shoes pehne hue the (He was wearing some strange PT shoes). But all you need to see in a fast bowler are the legs and how he runs. The father-son turned up during a match, and I took Shami to the nets. Straightaway I noticed the rhythm, the speed and the way he ran. And he never dropped the level. He bowled for 30 minutes and the last delivery was as quick as the first one. I knew we had something special on our hands."

In 2006, Shami went for the under-19 Uttar Pradesh trials, where he was asked to bowl three balls before being deemed inadequate. "I was in the train with both the father and son when I got an offer from a club in Kolkata," says Siddiqui. "Shami’s father was worried because it was just too far. But I knew Kolkata had decent, and more importantly, experienced bowlers who would help him grow. So I went with him to get it all sorted. The rest is history."

***

Sitting in his shop, Moumin’s father Guddu smiles and holds up Shami’s kryptonite: A jar of green bhujia.

"I had a sofa in my shop back then, and after practice he would collapse on it. Then he had some of this bhujia. He loved the whiff of mint, this was something special for him," says Guddu, opening the jar, before scrunching his nose and closing it shut. "They don’t make it like that anymore."

It’s not just the namkeen. Foodie is selling it short. Shami is a food hedonist. Fellow India pacer Ishant Sharma spilled the beans on the YouTube show Breakfast with Champions.

"First, Shami has this way of speaking," said Ishant with a twang, doing his best ‘Soorma Bhopali’. "Shami ko PUBG khilao, khana khilao. Biryani, mutton, nalli nihari. Uske baad bowling karao aur sulao (Let Shami play PUBG, then give him food, bowling, and let him sleep). Recovery? What recovery? Eat red meat, that is recovery. If I would say I am a vegetarian, he would say, ‘Tabhi toh dheere ho gaye (That’s why you slowed down)’."

"Yes, Shami loves his food," laughs Siddiqui. "Not that he would eat a lot, but he has always loved food. That’s why you need to realise the sort of sacrifices he has made in the last year. He has had to look after his diet so much."

Kaif says all of them are fond of eating. "Har cheez dekh ke man lalchaata hai, dil ke aage majboor ho jaata hai fir aadmi (Almost everything is enticing, and then one succumbs to the temptation). But these are the sort of sacrifices that make you a player. In today’s game, you can’t survive without being in shape. Shami bhai cut down on everything. He knew he had to focus on fitness to break back into the team."

His first coach Badruddin Siddiqui training a fresh batch in his academy at Moradabad, which has seen a surge of bowlers in Shami s wake. (Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

Shami made both his ODI and Test debuts in 2013, but while he earned a reputation as a wrecker in whites, warming up and shifting gears as the match wore on, especially on responsive tracks overseas, he proved costly and was phased out of the limited-overs setup in favour of exciting upstarts. After the World Cup semifinal loss to Australia in 2015, Shami only featured in five one-dayers until his return in January.

Last June, Shami failed the yo-yo fitness test and was withdrawn from India’s one-off Test against Afghanistan. It was then that he decided to shape up. The biryani-gorging, paunchy pacer took a back seat, and the maniac child who would run endlessly all hot afternoons returned. Shami would run barefoot on the freshly-tilled land of his farmhouse, rinse himself under the running water of the tubewell, and repeat.

Fitness after all is the second-favourite F-word of India captain Virat Kohli, who always has nut butter and gluten-free bread handy and spends multiple sessions pumping iron. But the cold steel of machines and colder regimented sets and reps of a gym have never been for Shami, who has been tempered by the harsh sun and dirt.

"The connect with your roots, the ground, is something else. Shami sprinted, sweated and lost weight. I also believe that the more you sweat in the ground, the more you gain," says Siddiqui, adding that seeing a Test cricketer train like that also inspired others at his academy.

When in town now, Shami makes it a point to host the kids from the academy on the makeshift field at his farmhouse. As the aspirants sweat it out, he stands monitoring, with his arms crossed.

Like father, like son.

***

"The last year was very tough for him. All the controversy, and the accident. Of course he lost his form," says Siddiqui. "At that moment, there was nothing much we could do to help. I just told him, the country needs you, it’s all part of life, don’t think about it so much. He did just that. That’s the sign of a big player."

Shami and Hasin Jahan got married in 2014, and the relationship remained smooth barring the regular public furore over her not wearing a hijab in family photos shared on Christmas, New Year and daughter Aairah’s birthday celebrations. Then last March, Jahan accused Shami of extra-marital affairs and domestic abuse. A week later, Shami suffered head injuries in an accident in Dehradun, where he had gone to train for the IPL.

In the 15 months since, every bit of dirty linen has been washed, dried and soiled again in the public. Jahan has accused Shami’s family members of mentally and physically harassing her and the cricketer of match-fixing. BCCI momentarily excluded Shami from the contracts list and Kolkata police filed a chargesheet against him. Jahan was detained in April for ‘trespassing’ at her in-laws’ place in Sahaspur. The latest entry in the news cycle came on 28th June, when Jahan slammed Shami for allegedly following too many women on TikTok.

"People should notice one thing. No matter what the allegations, what is being said, he hasn’t said anything back," points out relative Mohsin, name changed. "Even now, he is trying to repair (his relationship). It’s not in his DNA to lose cool."

Out in the field as well, there are no snarls or glares at the opposing team, no chatter with the batsmen. "There never has been," says Imran. "There were moments when we would urge him to get angry. But he wouldn’t respond. And there was no point, since he would get the wickets regardless."

Siddiqui says it was years before he saw Shami even laugh. "… let alone talk to somebody else. There were times I would ask him to sit with other team members. Whenever there was a break, you looked around for Shami, and he would be sitting all alone, with a ball in his hand."

After one sleepover with teammates in Moradabad, Shami never stayed back at the academy either, choosing instead to return every night to sleep at home. "Turns out, it was because the other kids chased him or made fun of him for being too quiet," says Siddiqui. "Now he has opened up a lot. I was talking to him the day before the Afghanistan match, and he messaged me that he was going out with the team. It was nice to hear."

So Shami’s almost-apologetic ‘salute’ sendoff of Sheldon Cottrell, an imitation of the West Indian bowler’s celebration, tickled Siddiqui. "Even Kohli was laughing at it," chuckles Siddiqui. "This shows Shami knows his standing in the team now. That he is also an important member."

***

Electricity may play hide and seek, but cheap smartphones and cheaper data have made inroads into Sahaspur. Imran fires up the streaming service just in time to catch Shami amble into the crease to Chris Gayle. The 140+kph delivery pitches at a length and takes off, thwacking into the gloves of M S Dhoni, who collects not without some discomfort.

Imran looks up with a knowing smile, for it’s one of the few instances where he knows what’s going on inside India’s greatest wicket-keeper’s brain. Shami then bounces out Gayle with another snorter, and loud roars sweep down the sleepy streets. Sahaspur is up and about.

Shami finishes with four wickets against West Indies, to follow the four-fer against Afghanistan. In the match against England three days later, he takes five. Moumin’s bowler math of ‘one wicket = 20 runs’ means Shami scored 80, 80 and 100.

But quantifying Shami’s wickets, or overall performance, is a tough ask. You can try and gauge with the sharp, co-relating growth of aspiring fast bowlers in the area who are playing for more than just a used ball, such as Moumin, Kaif or the dozens that now inhabit Siddiqui’s academy, which is desperately looking for batsmen.

Or you can head to YouTube and measure it through the search algorithm. Type in ‘Mohammad Shami’ and the auto-fill suggests options based on popular searches. Sandwiched between Mohammad Shami and suffixes of ‘case latest news’ are two search items: ‘Mohammad Shami hat trick’ and ‘Mohammad Shami salute’.