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Mohammed Shami: With 23 wickets from 6 matches, he is already the Player of the Tournament

It’s time to talk about Mohammed Shami.

When he first burst onto the serious cricket scene, he was referred to as Shami Ahmed, and WV Raman, then coach of the Bengal team would correct people at every possible option, online and in real life, saying, “You must mean Mohammed Shami.”

In Sahaspur, in the Amroha district of Uttar Pradesh, Shami learnt to bowl fast, honed the God given talent of holding a seam upright and imparting revs on the ball, the backspin that keeps the seam on target in cross winds and when batsmen try to hit him off his length.

In Kolkata, where Shami moved when UP did not give him the chances he deserved, the seam bowler made a home in Town Club. He was paid little, playing unglamorous cricket, stayed in tents with curators of maidans and his major reward was a mutton biryani when took a five-for.

In the Indian team, Shami was treated as a master craftsman with the red ball, a Test match specialist who had a penchant for delivering match-changing spells in the second innings. He yearned to play white-ball cricket, One-Day Internationals especially, but the ecosystem did not see him as a right fit.

Then, in his home in UP, Shami soaked white balls in water all day and then bowled for three or four hours in the nets to batsmen he sometimes paid to face him. Shami taught himself how to bowl with the white ball in a limited-overs situation. But, even then, when his coach once suggested he might try to bowl cross-seam, he shuddered. That was people not brave enough to embrace a tough art. And it has been artistry of the highest order on display in this World Cup.

Benched for the first four matches of India’s campaign as the team put more of a thrust in balance than incisiveness, Shami must have been wondering what he needed to do to get a foot in the door. As it turned out, it was not he, but Hardik Pandya, who held the key. Once Pandya was injured Shami was drafted in and the results were beyond spectacular.

Successive returns of 5 for 54, 4 for 22, 5 for 18, 2 for 18, one wicketless match and then the epic 7 for 57 in a semifinal ensured that his place in the eleven was no longer up for debate.

For the longest time, Shami had been the outsider. But, he has found a way to make himself so important that he belongs. First, it was a question of building strength in his legs and core.

Shami had to bowl the long overs in Test cricket. He had to get into a rhythm and be able to deliver in his third spell, in the dying light of a day what he could with the new ball.

In order to do this, the work had to be put in. But our Biryani lover is not one who collects gym memberships or enrols for pilates. Rather, he bowled and bowled and bowled till every muscle he needed to deliver the goods was strengthened and working together. No spring chicken, Shami valued being limber to showing off a sixpack on Instagram.

As a bowler, he didn’t have one stand-out feature. No hooping swing, no crazy reverse, no scary pace. But, he had intelligence. Shami could read conditions and batsmen and use that to set up a dismissal. From the three-card trick to the long con, he had both at his disposal.

As Charles Darwin put it, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

And Shami’s life has been one where he has been forced to respond to change, on and off the field and be physically strong and mentally sharp, just to do the things he does best.

India are reaping the rewards of the seeds Shami sowed and nurtured so diligently for years, in this World Cup. To think he may not have even featured in the mix beggars belief now.

Shami is already the Player of the Tournament, even though an actual jury will make that decision in due course. India’s captain, Rohit Sharma, their batsmen, and Shami’s coterie of fast bowlers, know just how big a part he has played in this campaign.

Strong, intelligent and responsive to change. Shami in a nutshell.

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