There was a time before the England tour last year when you wondered if we would get Mohammed Shami back as the bowler he was. He was going through domestic trouble, the BCCI had withheld his annual contract, he was not fit to play during the IPL, he didn't want to go home. It must have been a tough time for Shami, not always known for his fitness but for a lot of heart. The next few months were going to test that heart.
Shami's heart is what every coach of his praises. His club coach in Kolkata says he used to take the new ball in every nets session, bowl the first ball, and the last one too. WV Raman, at one time his Bengal coach, remembers him bowling through illness. In Kolkata in 2016-17, he bowled for India while his 14-month-old daughter was in the ICU. For someone who grew up in rural Uttar Pradesh, he is not the naturally fittest player, but he has vast amounts of heart for bowling.
Shami comes from a village called Sahaspur. Its literal translation is "land of courage". It is debatable whether all this crosses the line between courage and other things, but the obsession for cricket and fast bowling is beyond argument. Whether cricket is his escape or whether it is his true love, Shami in the end is a captain's dream.
At the end of this overseas cycle, as India go through the final formalities in the way of their first-ever series win in Australia, a slow rain-interrupted day is as good a day as any to celebrate their unsung hero. The Man-of-the-Match awards and the five-fors might have gone elsewhere, and Shami's big hauls have not come in wins except for Johannesburg, but he has bowled a lot of pretty and an equally high number of dirty overs for India. Since the start of their tour of South Africa, which is pretty much the start of the last year, no fast bowler - not just from India - has bowled more balls than Shami. That is a number not to be scoffed at just because he has played at least one more Test than any other fast bowler. It is a big tribute to him and India's support staff that he has been on the park all along.
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Shami has been there for India every match, every time, every desperate session the ball has been thrown to him. Except for the Test against Afghanistan and one against West Indies, Shami has played every Test for India since the start of 2018. No Indian - fast bowler or slow - has bowled as much. He has bowled 2399 deliveries, 25 ahead of team-mate Jasprit Bumrah. He has done so even as part of two-man pace attacks, he has done so with all his intensity. The seam has forever been upright; if there has been any movement to be found, he has found it; and he has made a big correction to his earlier bowling style.
Shami earlier could be accused of straying to leg once too often, searching for wickets. Now he has shifted the line of attack to the left ever so slightly. When he bowls in the channel, he really does bowl in the channel. There are no easy leaves, which Ishant Sharma can sometimes be accused of offering.
A Test after Shami bowled with his daughter in hospital, his captain Virat Kohli paid him a big tribute. "Shami is someone who is a character in the change room," Kohli said then. "On the field you won't see him coming out in the open and expressing himself too much. But he is someone everyone loves in the team. He is someone everyone gets along with. Whatever might be happening with him, we won't know. I had no clue that his daughter was in the hospital."
What Shami has gone through over the last year we don't know much about, but what we know is that he is bowling through all discomfort, with that seam absolutely and beautifully upright, and he is bowling more than anyone.