Shami clears first hurdle on comeback trail
The setting wasn't as low-key as Mohammed Shami might have probably imagined. This was a warm-up game and yet there were at least 25,000 people at the Eden Gardens. There were several thousand more claps, whistles and screams until palms and throats gave in.
This is also his home ground, a city where he made a memorable Test debut in Sachin Tendulkar's farewell series. But there wasn't anything about Shami on Thursday that betrayed nerves although some amount of nervous excitement would have only seemed reasonable.
A spell of 4-0-30-2 against a batting line-up featuring Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and Marlon Samuels is impressive in itself but its worth is multiplied when you place it against the backdrop of what he has gone through.
Shami has over the last few weeks strived to go from 80-85% fit to being fully ready. It is learnt that he bowled to the India Women's team at the NCA nets in Bangalore to assist in their preparations for the Women's World T20, apart from playing matches with other men's teams where specific situations - like bowling at the death, defending a particular total or opening the attack - would be recreated.
But Shami would be the first person to insist on telling false dawns apart from real ones, especially after what has happened to him over the last two months. After all, the new year had begun well for Shami. He was nearly as thrilled about flaunting his suit as being on the flight to Australia with the rest of his mates. You couldn't grudge his just deserts. This was a man who had, after a promising beginning, spent close to a year in pain, uncertainty and the sheer frustration of his knee coming in the way of playing at the highest level.
But this new silver lining would soon be gobbled up by gloomy grey clouds as Shami's return to India was advanced by an injury to the hamstring. It's hard to surmise what he must have felt. Roughly as excruciating would be the analogy of a man being robbed soon after earning his wages.
While on one hand Shami's inner demons must have been multiplying, the team management too would have had a tough call to make. He wasn't a part of the Asia Cup squad as well after being deemed to have not recovered sufficiently. But that Shami was picked for the World T20 was as much a leap of faith as an educated gamble; MS Dhoni & co. wanted him. Period.
Dhoni has never been shy about his admiration for Shami's ability to provide thrust with the new ball and finish well at the death. Bouncers, made-to-order yorkers, Shami has always delivered what his captain wanted. His return to action has only added to the considerable gains that India have made recently.
After India had set West Indies 186 to win in Thursday's World T20 warm-up, he went about rolling out his bouncers and yorkers, not always achieving the desired results but nevertheless persistent in his attempts. For instance, the short-pitched stuff didn't quite work on this flat, easy-paced surface as Gayle demonstrated with a pull, one of his two boundaries off Shami.
After gong for nine runs in his first over, he began his second with a short ball outside off to Marlon Samuels and got away with a single. The next delivery was quick and had Johnson Charles stuck on his crease. Shami had closed in on his sweet spot. His third ball wasn't exactly a yorker but was fast and full. Charles' attempt to back away and carve him over cover only resulted in a caught behind. Shami, however, erred with his last two deliveries, going too full and too short on either occasion, and Samuels cashed in with two fours.
By the time Shami returned in the 16th over West Indies had lost eight batsmen and were down for the count. He stuck to a length that was slightly shorter of a full length and attacked the stumps. One such delivery had Ashley Nurse charging out of the crease and scooping the ball to deep point.
Shami finished with 2-0-11-1 in his second spell. There was no sign of restricted movement or controlled operation. His run-up was easy and the momentum generated by the smoothly-swinging non-bowling arm contributed to his rhythm. Rohit Sharma paid tribute to Shami's performance, and said he managed to do what he intended to.
"He just wanted to go out on the park and play. For a bowler to not play for so long it's never easy," Rohit said after the match. "So he just wanted to go out and feel the conditions and feel the atmosphere, and feel [the joy of] wearing the India jersey again. He has really worked hard all this while; coming back from a knee injury is not easy for anyone, not just a bowler. But he really worked hard and looking at [the fact that] he is playing his first game he did pretty well.
"He bowled bouncers, yorkers, slower ones, that's what we expect from him. The last game he played for India, till then he did pretty well for us. He was one of the main bowlers for us and expectations will be there from him, no doubt about it."
Dhoni has recently pointed to the happy dilemma he would face should Shami be fit, with Jasprit Bumrah sealing the other paceman's slot. Shami would then have to compete with Ashish Nehra for the second seamer's position and there is a possibility he might not find himself in the playing XI straightaway.
But for now he is unlikely to entertain such worries and would rather focus on dialing up the momentum in India's last warm-up match against South Africa in Mumbai on Saturday. Shami sure knows a thing or two about the value of taking baby steps.
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo