The day after Mohammed Shami’s seven-wicket haul against New Zealand at the Wankhede Stadium, the best figures of any bowler in a World Cup knockout game, and another note in a tournament where Shami has seemed to be running on air, the Bombay Times ran a heartwarming profile drawing attention to his struggles against adversity.
“Mohammed Shami aces challenges on and off the field, inspires others,” ran the headline. Beneath was an article devoted entirely to his hair transplant, which the Times pointed out, “conveys a meaningful message on mental health and motivation”, further proof that “struggles such as hair loss should not impede the path to success”. And who could disagree? Here we have Shami out there representing for the bald community, which he has also now abandoned by having a magnificent bristly new mane implanted.
For all that, the headline is unarguably true. Shami’s World Cup of the gods is a genuine outsider story, the tale of the 33-year-old fast-medium seamer who came in from the cold. Albeit, with some slightly jarring details that have been a little glossed in a nation consumed by cricket, success and, above all, Indian cricket success.
A few years back, Shami was sleeping in a groundsman’s tent in Kolkata and playing semi-professional cricket at a level where he was once awarded a mutton biryani for taking a five-fer. Fast-forward to the lighted stage on Wednesday night and Shami’s seven wickets were rewarded with a message from the prime minister, and with the news, as reported in the Economic Times, that his brand endorsement fee had already doubled during the World Cup, with offers flooding in from fast-food and electronics companies.
And what a World Cup it has been. Shami has a tournament-high 23 wickets at 9.13, with a wicket on average every 11 balls. He needs four more in Sunday’s final to match Glenn McGrath and Mitchell Starc as the most-prolific bowler at a single World Cup. And Shami has done this the hard way, sitting out four matches before Hardik Pandya’s injury, coming on at first change, taking none-for against the Netherlands, saving all his biggest days for the biggest days.
This has involved a hard-won personal reinvention. Covid lockdowns helped make Shami as a white-ball bowler. He went to the nets, and when there were no nets to a floodlit running track and paid local batters to face him, bowling for hours at a time with a white ball soaked in water, training himself to master the old ball, dew, lights and flat tracks.
It began to show at the 2021 IPL, when Shami was one of the leading bowlers. What he does now is about control, not innovation. Endless practice has left him with a total mastery of the angle of the seam at release, combined with pronounced pitch-biting backspin. Shami bowls in the same channel, hits the same spot and alters the angle of his wrist to encourage the ball to jag different ways. He is essentially a mystery seam bowler: same action, same ball, different kinds of nip, on a length to make you play, but play uncomfortably.
There are other subtleties, notably the variation in where he lands on the crease, as seen in the semi-final wicket of Rachin Ravindra, drawn into a waft at a ball delivered from wider, brain muddled by the pressure of that line and the jagging ball.
Shami has produced this high-craft fast-medium mystery seam at the age of 33. He isn’t particularly athletic, has no obvious super-strengths beyond the application of wrist and brain. This is, in its own way, the best kind of sporting story with the chance to dish up the defining moment of his career in the final against Australia in Ahmedabad.
Before this becomes too much of a feelgood story there are two things that stand out. Shami is also India’s most prominent Muslim cricketer, at a time of rising Hindu nationalism. He was abused relentlessly online, called among other things a “Pakistani traitor”, after the T20 World Cup defeat against India’s neighbours last year.
The abuse was so sustained that Virat Kohli was moved to defend his teammate, stating that “attacking someone over their religion is the most pathetic thing that a human being can do”, a significant intervention given Kohli’s profile. This week it felt like a moment of cultural significance to see Narendra Modi of the BJP party posting “well played Shami!” on social media. Sometimes sport actually can send a grappling hook across the divide.
At which point we come to the second thing. It is a mark of different cultures and expectations that Shami has been allowed to do all this while remaining accused of the attempted murder of his estranged wife. Four years ago charges were laid against him of attempt to murder, domestic violence, criminal intimidation and poisoning. His wife, Hasin Jahan, also accused Shami’s brother of rape, a crime she alleged took place at Shami’s parents’ house.
Shami denies all the claims. He described his wife as “evil” and “mentally unstable”. He was on suicide watch among his friends for a while.
Twenty days before the World Cup, Shami and his brother were bailed by the court. As the tournament rolled on, Puma revelled in the brand value of having Shami wearing their spikes. Hell Energy Drink, a key Shami sponsor, said he “represents the pulse of India”. Newspapers will refer to the accusations as “a divorce battle”. Most jarringly, after Wednesday’s victory, Delhi police sent a cheery X post to Mumbai police, asking “how do you not book Shami for tonight’s assault?”. It’s funny because he’s accused of attempted murder.
And so, on to Sunday. Shami’s success is interesting in a purely sporting sense too. This is essentially a Test match method, seam-up with a few cutters thrown in. He has been fortunate to come on after the squeeze from Jasprit Bumrah and before the squeeze from Ravindra Jadeja.
But this is basically all Shami’s own work, reward for craft plus graft, and a tribute also to the depth, the skill-levels and the enduring charm of the most menaced of the formats.