Shami: We are stronger than Australia this time

"I know what to expect in Australia. When I first went there, it took me a while to figure things out. But after spending more than four months there, I can say that I know what it takes to succeed there. I know how to do well there. My experience will hold me in good stead this time," says Mohammed Shami, who is making a comeback after a long injury lay-off.

Mohammed Shami ... fully fit and raring to go against the Australians.   -  Getty Images

Mohammed Shami celebrates after scalping Steve Smith of Australia in the Sydney Test in 2015. The Indian medium-pacer has been comfortable bowling with both the SG and Kookaburra ball.   -  Getty Images

During the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, Mohammed Shami picked up 17 wickets to finish fourth-highest wicket-taker in the tournament. The fact is he played through a lot of pain. Soon after returning home, he underwent a complex knee surgery that left him bed-ridden for several weeks. Also, he was on crutches for 40 days. Nine months after he had last played for India, the Bengal pacer has fully recovered. In fact, he has proved his fitness in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, and is now eager to take on the Australians in their own backyard. He thinks it’s a good omen that he is taking off from where he left. The time away from the game was frustrating to say the least, but the arrival of a baby girl — Aairah — changed his outlook towards life. In a heart-to-heart chat with Sportstar, the 25-year-old talks about rehab and recovery, fatherhood, reverse swing, M.S. Dhoni, Virat Kohli and bowling in Australia.

Excerpts:

Question: Can you explain what it means to go through pain and frustration during a nine-month injury lay-off? We hear you were on crutches for 40 days…

Answer: It’s very difficult to explain. For someone who is used to being outdoors — practising, playing and travelling — lying in bed for 40 days can be very tough. It was irritating, so to speak. You are told not to get out of bed and you are told not to walk. It was a really difficult time. But that’s when your mental strength comes to the fore. You must know how to train your mind to keep the negatives out. Those 40 days were the toughest of my life.

Were you in Kolkata? Who looked after you?

Yes, I was in Kolkata with my wife and daughter. My parents, who live in Uttar Pradesh, also visited me. The biggest plus was that my daughter was born (July 17) when I was at home. I am glad I got to spend a lot of time at home. I remember spending hours together with my daughter, lying next to her in bed, watching her smile, play. It was really special. My wife was also happy to have me home for such an extended period of time.

Did you go through moments of self-doubt?

For someone who has always lived life outdoors by training, playing matches and travelling, it was tough for me to lock myself up at home. At times, I was mentally disturbed. Thoughts like, ‘Why am I in this situation?’, ‘When can I get out of here?’ kept coming to mind. It’s a different kind of pressure. So, to get over these negative thoughts was important. And I can proudly say that the presence of my family helped me.

What else did you do to kill time?

I watched cricket! I was missing being out there. Even my body was itching to do what it loves the most — play. Apart from that, I watched a lot of movies and ate well (smiles). But that was tough, too. When you are advised bed rest, there is no scope for any exercise. You tend to put on weight. It was the same with me, but I am glad that I am in top shape again.

Can you tell us about your daughter? She is just about six months old…

She was born on a full-moon day, a Friday. It is a very auspicious day for us. And it was in the month of Ramzan. I can only hope and pray that she gets whatever she desires (smiles). I am glad she was born when I was at home. I couldn’t have asked for a bigger blessing — a baby girl. I am sure she will bring us a lot of joy and luck. I have a lot of dreams for her. Fatherhood has changed my perception of life. Now, I just want to finish practice quickly and get back home to play with her. It’s a special feeling. I can’t explain it. All I know is that I am loving every bit of it. She looks just like me (smiles). There are times when I just have to talk to her on the phone and she would stop crying. My wife thinks that’s magic. My daughter has already started playing with the phone. She loves to sleep on bean bags; she loves to lie down on the swinging couch. She is lovely.

  It’s also interesting to note that you played your last match in India colours in Australia. And you are now going to stage a comeback in the same country.

That’s great for me. I am at an advantage because I know what to expect in Australia. When I first went there, it took me a while to figure things out. But after spending more than four months there, I can say that I know what it takes to succeed there. Every ground in Australia has a character. The pitch in Melbourne behaves differently from the pitch in Perth. I know how to do well there. My experience will hold me in good stead this time.

What is it that you love about bowling on Australian pitches?

Some pitches offer bounce, some offer extra bounce, some offer great carry and some are just normal. For example, Brisbane is different from Perth. Another thing is the size of the grounds. You feel like bowling your heart out. You know that you are always in with a chance. Top edges don’t usually lead to fours and sixes; they lead to catches. There are way too many plusses. Yes, there are many gaps in the field, but as a bowler, you know you have enough opportunities to pick up wickets. The batsmen are also circumspect. They know they have to hit it well to get a six. They know the ball will stay in the air and not just sail for a six because the grounds are huge.

During your debut Test series against the West Indies in November 2013, you destroyed them with a great display of reverse swing using the SG ball. You then did well in Australia using the Kookaburra. Can you safely say you have mastered the art of reverse swing whatever be the make of the ball?

Yes, I can say that. If there is conventional swing on offer, I know how to use it. Be it the red or the white ball, you must know how to train your mind to adapt accordingly. It’s all about living in the present. You must read the conditions and do what is required at that point in time. I try to do that quickly. The earlier you learn the better it is.

A lot has changed in Indian cricket over the past nine months. Virat Kohli has eased into the role of Test captain with back-to-back series wins against Sri Lanka and South Africa. How do you view the progress of the Test side under his leadership?

When you represent India, it becomes your team. It doesn’t matter whether you are in or out of the side. It’s like your home. So when you watch your team-mates play well, you feel happy. You feel part of that success. Similarly, when the boys don’t do well, you feel bad. So, to watch my mates do well against Sri Lanka and South Africa made me proud. I made it a point to send text messages to the guys whenever they performed well. In many ways, I believe I was part of that success.

How different is Kohli from Dhoni?

They are both very good batsmen, very good readers of the game. Mahi bhai is a little cool and calm. Virat is aggressive. That’s just his personality. There is no other difference. Their aim is the same. Both want to win. Mahi bhai is a little shanth. Virat is a little pumped-up. That’s his nature. He is like that. And he tells us all to express ourselves.

According to many, including Kapil Dev, you are the most improved fast bowler in India. How do you react when people expect big things from you?

I feel good. There is no doubt about that. Yes, it leads to some pressure but then I tell myself to take it up as a challenge. When the greats of the game think you are on the right track, you feel good. But it also enhances your sense of responsibility. I try and keep it simple. I don’t think of the past or the future. I just live in the present.

We couldn’t win a single match against Australia during the long tour last season. Even the defeat in the World Cup semi-final was a bitter pill to swallow. How important, do you think, will it be to change that record this time?

It will be a different series. Remember they are without the two Mitchells — Johnson (retired) and Starc (injured). The new set of bowlers will take time to settle in. And let me also remind you that we gave them a run for their money last year. It wasn’t like they thrashed us. The series was very, very competitive. But, yes, if you look at the scoreline, we had nothing to show. Make no mistake, we are stronger now. And our team is certainly stronger than theirs.

What are your long-term goals?

When you are given the ball, you just want to bowl well. But deep within, every bowler wants to end up with 300, 400, 500 wickets. I don’t deny that. I have some big dreams too, but I choose not to go ahead of myself. I like to set short targets. If I have 50 wickets now, I would like to reach 100. Slowly but steadily, I will achieve the ultimate goal. But that will happen only if I continue to bowl well. So, right now, my job is to bowl well. My job is to perform according to the situation.

Have you brought about any changes to your action, run-up after the injury?

Thankfully, I didn’t have to. I can proudly say that everything is just the same. I am fully comfortable now. Yes, I felt some tightness in the body but that is a thing of the past. I was a little circumspect during the first couple of net sessions. ‘What if I get injured again?’ was a constant thought then. I am glad that’s no longer the case. I can’t wait to join my team-mates (smiles).

COMEBACK MAN

Here’s how Mohammed Shami has performed for Bengal since his return from a nine-month injury break.

Vijay Hazare Trophy (50-over competition)

20 (27 balls, 2x4, 1x6) & 10-0-52-2 versus Uttar Pradesh in Rajkot (December 13, 2015).

6 (5 balls, 1x4) and 8-0-40-1 versus Madhya Pradesh in Rajkot (December 17).

Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy (T20 competition)

2.2-0-18-3 versus Hyderabad in Nagpur (January 2, 2016).

4-0-30-2 and 4 (3 balls, 1x4) versus Tamil Nadu in Nagpur (January 3).