Television has its blessings but watching a craftsman live at work offers us an intangible and mighty beauty. No matter what the distance between the man and his audience at a stadium, the man in the middle always remains human scale. Height, weight, frame, physique. Always seen in proportion to someone you know. The guy next door, the man on the street, the teller at the bank, the owner of the gym. It is when that man does what he does, what he must, in a stadium full of people squealing, screaming, shouting that he becomes The Maestro. It is what Mohammed Shami did on a golden Manchester afternoon at a ground dappled by blue shirts and backlit flags. At Old Trafford, Mohammed Shami showed us his Maestro.
In the space of a week, Shami has gone from backup option to hat-trick taking match-winner. In the space of six balls on Thursday, Shami was to let the West Indians know that their World Cup was over. And have the Indians take one more step towards a place in the final four, with one win required from their next three matches. He was to ensure that his delicious dismissal of Shai Hope could be entered in the ball of the World Cup contest or at least challenge his pace-bowling buddies to try and match its perfection. In only his second match in the World Cup, Shami has stepped in and stomped his name on the contest. He has bowled less than 17 overs in this World Cup, but he already has eight wickets; his economy rate of 3.46 is the best of all bowlers at the World Cup, currently, and his strike rate, 12.1, is the best among all frontline bowlers.
The numbers will always tell their own set of tales. But Shami's unflustered and switched-on presence in the two matches when he has stepped into the XI, following injury to Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, has been impressive and looks for the moment irreplaceable. During the pre-match warm-up on Thursday, Bhuvaneshwar was seen running around Old Trafford and having a bit of a bowl, but is widely expected to sit out the game.
It was Shami who turned up ready when West Indies openers Chris Gayle and Sunil Ambris came to the crease in pursuit of 269. The ball that everyone will remember and cite is the one that destroyed West Indies hopes, (yes, yawn, predictable but couldn't resist) but it wasn't just pulled out of his sleeve like a magical rabbit. It was in the planning from his many morning nets and from the first time Hope was to run into Shami.
The Gayle wicket was the breakthrough that began the deluge, Shami giving Gayle little room to free his arms and outside of an inside-edge four, offering cramping width. The two play for the same IPL team, Kings XI, and Shami says he knew that if he kept Gayle quiet, "in a little while he would have a go at the ball and get out". The first West Indian wicket in Gayle took away not only West Indies' most dangerous batsman but also their most experienced. It was the short ball that rose far less quickly than Gayle had anticipated and when Hope came to the crease, the next bouncer took off towards MS Dhoni's head. Christopher Henry gone, a considerable target to chase plus uneven bounce. Goodness.
Four dot balls and one cut for four was the next exchange between Hope and Shami before the peach arrived. Landing perfectly on an upright seam jagging back through the gap between an extended bat and Hope's pad and clipping off stump. He practices these things, Shami was to say later. Bowling with the new ball in the nets, trying to land it on the seam, and looking for benefits like he did at Old Trafford on Thrusday: the cut, the seam movement and trying to exercise a grasp of what the new ball will do off the seam and what control can be exercised over it in a live situation.
"In the morning the ball was moving, it was cutting in and out and the bounce was up and down. All you had to do was be careful with line and length," Shami said, mischief in his smile, "after that 268 runs are enough."
Coiled within Shami's regular unfussed run-up and a bustling delivery action is latent, unexpected and disconcerting pace. His last delivery of the day was to move faster than the umpire's eyes could see. It flicked Oshane Thomas' glove onto the keeper and Shami celebrating with a fist flung in the air, even before the batsman had been given out. It needed a referral to check before the game could be declared ended and Shami was grinning throughout.
It is what Shami has done in his brief, brilliant 2019 World Cup: come running into the heat of the moment and leave wreckage lying in his wake. He was grateful for Jasprit Bumrah leaving him with 16 in the final over to defend versus Afghanistan without their most proficient batsmen, accepted. But the hat-trick had to be taken and Shami did so.
He has handled sitting out three matches being pragmatic: "Fifteen of us have come to play for the country, so there is something in you that you are here, you have to be patient and stay positive. If you remember you are here to represent your country you don't feel the pressure of whether they will play me or they won't play me. There is only one thing: your mind has to be clever, alert and your execution has to be spot on."
What must be appreciated is that the Shami of 2019 is nothing like the ODI struggler and straggler whose 50-over career went into a tailspin after a blazing start as the fastest Indian to 50 ODI wickets after his 2013 debut. He only played sporadically after an impressive 2015 World Cup, and sat out an entire year of ODI cricket between July 2017 and October 2018. The attention he gave to his five-day cricket in that period, however, has given fresh impetus to his ODI game, according to former India wicketkeeper Deep Dasgupta. Shami was going through a multitude of professional and personal issues, but the focus on what mattered - cricket - cleared his mind. Increased fitness and conditioning to bowl long Test-match spells without breaking down has made Shami not merely quicker but consistently quicker, and added to his potency in the ODI game. "I have confidence in my skill, that I can bowl on any wicket in the world."
At Old Trafford today, a regular man in human scale showed us his exquisite, singular craft.