World Cup: Meet Mohammed Shami, the pace machine from the UP hinterland

Most people in the small village of around 5,000 have hardly travelled beyond Moradabad or Amroha, the biggest cities in the vicinity. But one boy dared to step out into the wider world: Mohammed Shami.

Mohammed Shami’s coaches say he never had any interest in any other sport, or in the world outside sports either.   -  AFP

Not too many in Sahaspur Alinagar know of Dalhousie Athletic Club. Or of Town Club either. Just off the busy National Highway 24, midway between Delhi and Lucknow, most people in the small village of around 5,000 have hardly travelled beyond Moradabad or Amroha, the biggest cities in the vicinity.

But one boy dared to step out into the wider world. Mohammed Shami, the man who delivers few no-balls and even fewer words on and off the field, epitomises the small-town journeyman in modern Indian cricket who straddles the two worlds.

“He now speaks with confidence. He puts his views across. He stands in the front row of team photographs. He even addresses press conferences,” says Badruddin Siddique, laughing.

It was Siddique who helped Shami take his first steps beyond gully cricket 15 years ago. “It wasn’t an exceptional start, nor was he some kind of prodigy or genius,” he says. “His father brought him to me through a common friend in 2004 while I was coach at the Sonakpur Stadium.”

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It was Badruddin Siddique who helped Mohammed Shami take his first steps beyong gully cricket 15 years ago.   -  Sandeep Saxena

 

“I remember he was wearing a loose red tracksuit and his first ball hit the pole holding up the net. The second hit the opposite pole, neither coming anywhere close to the batsman or the stumps,” Siddique recalls about his most famous student. “But as he got into a rhythm and overcame his nervousness, the line got better, the run-up became smoother, but, most importantly, the pace did not falter a bit for the entire 30 minutes he bowled in the searing summer heat.”

The train to Kolkata

Shami was just over 16 when he first appeared for the Uttar Pradesh under-19 trials in 2006; he reached the final round, but was rejected. “On our way back from Kanpur, he was on the verge of crying and simply giving up. He didn’t speak for many hours. That was when I got a call from a friend in Kolkata, Abdul Munam, who said Dalhousie AC was looking for a fast bowler ahead of its quarterfinal league match,” says Siddique. “They wanted a mature player because it was an important game. I told them to at least look at the kid. It took some time to convince him and his family to send him away. But that Punjab Mail ticket was the beginning of a one-way journey to success.”

Shami did not play the quarterfinal but was included for the semifinals, where he picked up four wickets and announced his presence in Kolkata.

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“If anyone should get the credit of introducing Shami to Bengal cricket, it should go to Suman Chakraborty of Dalhousie AC. Suman identified the promise Shami showed, with both pace and control, since Bengal had always lacked a quality pacer. He asked me to come to the Rajasthan Club ground one day, and what impressed me most in Shami was his bowling action. Specially his economy, because of which Shami hardly bowls any no-balls,” says Debabrata Das, secretary of Town Club, where the pacer moved to soon after.

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Shami's mother with a poster of the bowler at their village in Amroha.   -  PTI

 

Das was instrumental in getting then Bengal chief selector Sambaran Banerjee to watch Shami in action, and while he was not picked for the state’s Ranji Trophy team, he got into the under-22 side. Shami kept working hard at the nets – Das seconds Siddique, vouching for his hours at work and not being fatigued – but failed to get a game despite picking up more than 40 wickets for Town Club in the Kolkata league.

Matters changed when Sourav Ganguly was trying to return to the national squad. The former India captain had been batting in the nets to bowlers from Kolkata clubs.

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Siddique recalls Shami’s very words: “He said, ‘When I bowled the first ball to dada, it bounced and landed in the wicketkeeper’s gloves. Dada came forward, tapped the pitch and thought it was because of the surface. The next few balls were also similar and then he came up to me and asked kya khel rahe ho. I told him I am in the under-22 side but have not got a game yet. Dada muttered something in Bengali, batted for around 45 minutes and then spoke to someone on the phone. We have a game after two days and I am in the playing 11.’”

That, perhaps, explains why Shami holds Ganguly in such high esteem and, Siddique reveals, is one of the reasons he never considered returning to play for his home state despite the best efforts of Rajiv Shukla and Jyoti Bajpayi, who headed Uttar Pradesh cricket then.

Into the Ranji squad

On November 17, 2010, Shami was finally drafted into the Bengal team for a Ranji Trophy fixture against Assam.

“He was just brilliant. You had to pick him. By then, Ranadeb (Bose) was on his way out. (Ashok) Dinda was there, Sourav Sarkar was there, but he was head and shoulders above everyone else. He was hardly 23…,” recalls Deep Dasgupta, the former India stumper who was the chief selector for Bengal then.

“There are some players who you notice at one go, irrespective of how many runs they score or how many wickets they take. Shami was one such talent. It was just that somebody needed to sit with him and sort it out,” he adds.

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Shami’s debut turned out to be quite eventful. On the day of the match, the pacer had a fever and luckily for him, Bengal won the toss and opted to bat. With Wriddhiman Saha and Laxmi Ratan Shukla scoring big, Bengal batted till the second day, and by the time it was Bengal’s turn to bowl, Shami’s fever had worsened. “On the third morning his condition worsened. He did not field till about lunch. At lunch, he came to me and said that he will bowl. He could not bowl till tea due to penalty time,” says W. V. Raman who was coach then.

Raman, who is now the head coach of the India women’s team, remembers how Shami took the field after tea. “The guy was running a temperature of 100-plus and he bowled a fabulous spell, despite taking the old ball. He picked up three wickets – all of them were bowled – and went on. Though Assam managed to get a lead, Shami’s display was enough for me to realise that he would go far,” he says.

After the game, though, tests revealed he had dengue, which forced him to miss the next few games. When he returned to the side after a few matches, it was difficult to get in straightaway in a squad with pacers like Dinda and Sarkar.

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“He slowly got the opportunity. We knew that he was quick without too much of an effort, and it was certain that if things went right, he would have done well,” says Manoj Tiwary, who was captain of the team.

By then, Dinda had made his presence felt on the national circuit, but Shami slowly developed a healthy competition with him. “Ahead of him, Dinda was a consistent performer... In India, if you see a fast bowler who can bowl quick, you get noticed pretty early. It happened with Ashok and also with Shami,” Tiwary adds.

On to the IPL

While his performance in the Ranji Trophy was slowly being talked about, Shami caught the eye of Pakistan pace great Wasim Akram, who picked him for Kolkata Knight Riders in the Indian Premier League in 2011.

“The reason he came in was because he had impressed Wasim. He was still with CAB (Cricket Association of Bengal) at that time and he bowled pretty well. Wasim thought he was a special talent and he had a deceptive pace even then,” Dav Whatmore, who was the head coach of KKR then, says.

Shami could not speak much English, so in the dressing room he would interact mostly with Akram in Hindi. “He was really keen to learn and it’s nice to see him keep going,” adds Whatmore, who was coach of Sri Lanka’s World Cup-winning team of 1996.

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For Shami, working with Akram – his idol and inspiration and KKR’s bowling coach then – was to live the dream, but he had to warm the bench for two years. Siddique says Shami would get upset at not getting to play and was advised to stop thinking of playing and start picking Akram’s brains instead. “I told him, ‘Pakad lo usko,’ and thereafter he became Akram’s shadow. He learnt a lot without even playing in those two years, more than anyone could have taught him elsewhere,” he says.

Soon, doors opened for Shami as he performed well in India A’s tour to the West Indies in 2012. “He had a great tour and everyone noticed him,” says Tiwary, who travelled with him to the Caribbean.

On the personal front

Shami’s shyness is often mentioned by those Sportstar spoke with.

“He became a part of our family quickly because of his gentle and shy nature,” says Das. “Forget girls, Shami would not talk to even boys from the team whenever we went out to play a local or district match. He would go out, play, and then go to sleep in his room. There are only two things in Shami's life – cricket and sleep.”

His coaches say he never had any interest in any other sport, or in the world outside sports either. “They (Shami’s family) are landlords and have big orchards. Shami would pick up a mango or guava and bowl or catch with that also. His late father Tousiq once told me he would return home at night and then bowl on the cement track for hours before sleeping, clutching a ball in his hand,” Siddique reveals.

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Both Das and Siddique agree that Shami’s natural talent could do with some help from time in the gym, but the seamer has never been a fan of structured training. He prefers running barefoot and working out in his fields, and bowling with kids from Siddique’s academy – where he still goes every time he is back home on a break – or getting them to his house in the village and training with them.

When Shami was breaking into the Bengal squad, Ashok Dinda had made his presence felt on the national circuit, but the two slowly developed a healthy competition.   -  Prashant Nakwe

 

Always emotional but introvert is how Samrat Bhowmick, the cricket secretary of Mohan Bagan where Shami spent some time, describes him. “He is an introvert but loves to express himself on the pitch when the ball is in his hand. Off the field, he is a very soft spoken and on the field he is a real warrior and a great team man,” he says.

Shami’s personal life made news in 2018, when his estranged wife Hasin Jahan filed a domestic violence case against the cricketer and his family, sought protection and reparations and accused him of adultery. The case is still pending, with Jahan recently being detained at Shami’s house.

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“...it finally came out in public and I think that was the best thing to happen because once it was all out in the open, he could stop worrying about it and get his focus back on the game. He realised that if he broke down at that point, there would be no coming back to the national side,” Siddique says.

The youngsters around Siddique have become restless; they want his full attention. “Piyush Chawla is also from here. Then, most wanted to be spinners. Now, everyone wants to be a seamer. That is what having an icon from around you can do to the sport,” he says with a smile.

With inputs from Amithabha Das Sharma & Shayan Acharya.