Mention the Dronacharya award to Badruddin Siddiqui, and he responds with a modest smile and a subtle look away. Amidst the ceaseless production on his factory line, Siddiqui exudes confidence in the imminent breakthrough of Mohsin Khan, a rising star in the Lucknow Super Giants of the Indian Premier League. Before Mohsin, two cricketing talents from his stable left an indelible mark. Piyush Chawla, hailing from Moradabad in western Uttar Pradesh, blazed a trail to the Indian cricket team, defying the odds.
However, the second protege, Mohammed Shami, captured Siddiqui’s heart. It was in 2004 that Shami, then a wiry 14-year-old boy, turned up at the Sonakpur Stadium. It was at the insistence of his father, Tousif Ali, who felt his son was gifted with pace and that Siddiqui’s tutelage could do the trick. “Every father thinks their kid is special, but the coach wonders if the boy can work hard. I asked him to bowl for half an hour, and what impressed me was that his intensity did not drop the slightest bit,” says Siddiqui.
“Iske andar wo keeda tha (He had an insatiable desire to learn),” says Siddiqui. “What others took a month to learn, Shami managed in five to 10 days. He would constantly pester me. There used to be so many kids, and he was scared that if he did not hang around me, I would not pay attention. Initially, it was irritating, but later I realised that he has something special.”
In the decade since his international debut, Shami has seen more ups and downs than most have in their entire lives. On the cricket field, he torments batters with seam and swing bowling, but off it, he once hogged the headlines for off-field troubles.
Shami’s skills with the new ball and the ability to reverse the old one have made him a potent force. Siddiqui recalls early signs of these talents. “He had a habit of taking home the old ball and throwing it against his bedroom wall, flicking his wrist just before releasing it. His parents were worried; his father even called me and said, ‘Sir, he has gone mad.’ The wall turned red with ball marks,” Siddiqui reminisces.
Soon enough, Shami drew a line on the wall and kept practising. Holding the seam upright, Shami started directing the ball using his fingers. The right side of the wall was for the index finger, and the left was for the middle one. This is how Shami learned to reverse swing.
In 2016, Shami’s career hit a speed bump with a failed yo-yo fitness test. But during his hiatus, Shami found an unconventional solution in his backyard. “He started running in the sand while getting a farmhouse built. His brother told me he did it for two to three hours daily, which I think made him quicker,” Siddiqui explains.
However, Shami faced his greatest test when his father passed away a year later. Siddiqui encouraged him to carry on living his father’s dream, saying, “’You must stand tall again.’ His father did so much for Shami and would want him to keep going.”
Siddiqui admires Shami’s resilience and his passion for cricket, which was evident from a young age. At 17, Shami experienced the fierce competition of age-group cricket selection in India during UP’s under-19 trial in Kanpur, leaving him disheartened as he grappled with the reality of the sport’s challenges.
Siddiqui believed in fate and how it plays a significant role in a player’s journey. Soon after, Shami’s story took an unexpected turn. After returning home from Kanpur, a call from Kolkata altered Shami’s path in cricket. A friend sought a fast bowler, and Siddiqui, Shami’s mentor, saw potential in this opportunity. Convincing Shami’s parents to let him go, he emphasised the necessity of dedication to cricket, even if it meant staying alone.
Shami arrived in Kolkata after a tiring two-day train journey with his cousin. He was accommodated in a cramped single room. Despite his exhaustion, he attended a net session with the Dalhousie Athletic Club on the same day. His initial deliveries hit the poles on either side of the batter, but after some patience and a second attempt, Shami impressed his coach.
Although it took some time to adjust to life in Kolkata, Shami’s cricketing career began to flourish. His standout performances, first for Dalhousie Athletic Club and then for Mohun Bagan, caught the eye of selectors, earning him a spot in Bengal’s under-23 team.
Siddiqui hoped to see Shami play for their home state, but recognised that representing India was the goal. Despite the distance, their mentor-mentee bond remained strong through phone calls.
Game time was limited in the under-23 set-up, delaying Shami’s Ranji Trophy debut. However, an opportunity arose when Sourav Ganguly, a former India captain, gave him a chance. “Shami and a few others were called up to bowl to him (Ganguly) in the nets [in Kolkata]. His first ball bounced off the pitch and took off to the keeper. Ganguly thought that it was the pitch. But the second was the same, and so was the third. Ganguly asked, ‘Kya khel rahe ho? (Where are you playing?)’ and Shami told him that he was not getting games. After the session, Ganguly called up someone, and for the next match, Shami was on the team. That was how he got on the board’s radar. He performed consistently after that,” says Siddiqui.
Their reunions are now reserved for Shami’s visits back home.
Siddiqui playfully remarks, “Cricket never escapes from our discussions, not even with biryani on the table.”
As a pleasant surprise, Shami arranges impromptu net sessions for Siddiqui’s students. Siddiqui shares, “He tells me, ‘Send the kids to the farmhouse today.’ The young batters get nervous; they say, ‘All we do is watch the ball reach the keeper.’”
The aspiring talents in line have matured, and Moradabad is no longer shy about dreaming big. Siddiqui’s cricket factory keeps churning out prospects.
Aryan Juyal and Shiva Singh have represented India under-19, while a group is making their mark in the Ranji Trophy. Siddiqui says, “The label of ‘fast bowling coach’ has stuck. Perhaps one of them will help me shed that title.”
The elusive Dronacharya award remains a cherished aspiration. Siddiqui concludes with optimism: “If it’s written in our destiny, we will attain it.”
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