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 recollections of an obsessive boy running in the streets, miming a bowling action, and wary whisperings of reporters and Crime Branch officers seeking information. Between Simmi , the timid middle child of the pradhan, and Mohammad Shami, the troubled international cricketer.

So intertwined have Mohammad Shami s off-field travails been with his on-field exploits that the villagers platitudes come with asterisks attached. Cricket ki lagan thi, 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 of adultery, dowry demands, domestic violence and match-fixing.

If the salacious yarn of a marriage gone wrong threatened to overshadow the story of a child born far from cricketing hubs, the ongoing World Cup has put paid to that.

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

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, the village lies down an easy-to-miss turn off NH 9, past green swathes of sugarcane and wheat fields.

On this particular sweltering June afternoon, India are playing West Indies at Manchester in England. 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 power outages which can go on for six hours.

But there s another reason for this disinterest in the match. It is when Shami is bowling that Sahaspur truly awakens.

Two 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, 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, bursts out, Tell me, why didn t Shami bhai get Man of the Match, despite a hat trick in the last over?

The clearing is where Shami holds court during trips home. He gives us tips, says Moumin, 14, who trains at an academy 5 km down the highway. Shami s brother Kaif also trains there. In fact Kaif bhai took me there.

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, 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, with mounds of cowdung for wicket-keeper and slip cordon.

Kaif, 23, remembers bearing the brunt of his brother s junoon (passion) . Break tabhi milta jab ball peeche kaanton mein ya jhaadi mein chali jaati (One got a break only if the ball went 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 about the lack of a proper pitch to test one s speed and bowling. So he made it himself. I remember father always standing there his arms crossed and monitoring. It was never about just his sons. He made this for everybody. 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. Now he rests in the cemetery overlooking the largely-concealed 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, says Guddu.

Shami s uncle, 36-year-old Imran kept wickets to the budding pacer. After a batsman, it s only the wicket-keeper who realises how good a bowler is. 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.

Leading a ragtag bunch, Shami settled a long rivalry with neighbouring Deep Pur village. Those matches used to be as intense as India-Pakistan matches, says Imran. His eyes misting up, he adds, We would walk down for matches. Then we started going to places further away by bus… 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.
After a practice session or a match, he would say 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 complain, 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. Straightaway I noticed the rhythm, the speed and the way he ran. He never dropped the level. He bowled for 30 minutes and the last delivery was as quick as the first one.
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… 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, and after practice he would collapse on it. Then he had some of this bhujia, says Guddu.

It s not just the namkeen. Fellow India pacer Ishant Sharma spilled the beans on the YouTube show Breakfast with Champions. 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?… Eat red meat, that is recovery.

Kaif says all of them are fond of eating. Har cheez dekh ke man lalchaata hai (almost everything is enticing)… But these are the sort of sacrifices that make you a player. Shami bhai cut down on everything.

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, he proved costly and was phased out of the limited-overs set-up. After the World Cup semi-final 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 child who would run endlessly all hot afternoons returned. Shami would run barefoot on the freshly-tilled land of his farmhouse, rinse himself at the tubewell, and repeat.

Fitness after all is the second-favourite F-word of India captain Virat Kohli, who spends multiple sessions pumping iron. But the cold steel of machines has never been for Shami.

The connect with your roots, the ground, is something else. Shami sprinted, sweated, says Siddiqui.
When in town, Shami still makes it a point to host the kids from the academy on the makeshift field at his farmhouse. He stands monitoring, with his arms crossed.

Like father, like son

Last year was very tough for him. All the controversy, and the accident… of course he lost his form, says Siddiqui.

Shami and Hasin Jahan had got married in 2014, and the relationship remained smooth despite occasional furore over her not wearing a hijab. 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. In the 15 months since, the BCCI momentarily excluded Shami from the contracts list and Kolkata police filed a chargesheet against him.
No matter what the allegations, what is being said, he hasn t said anything back, points out a relative, who didn t want to be named. Even now, he is trying to repair (his relationship). It s not in his DNA to lose cool.

In the field as well, there are no snarls or glares at the opposing team, no chatter with batsmen. Often we would urge him to get angry. But he wouldn t respond, says Imran.

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

Electricity may play hide and seek, but 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. 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, 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 sandwiched between Mohammad Shami and suffixes of case latest news are two search items: Mohammad Shami hat trick and Mohammad Shami salute .