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'I always told myself there is no one better than me'

Possibly the quickest bowler in the women's game, South Africa's Shabnim Ismail doesn't do anything by halves

Adam Collins
To be the fastest is a compelling human desire. Whatever the pursuit - physical or technological - we push to do it, surpass it, then do it again in a never-ending quest. The Olympics are a timely reminder of exactly this, and the obsessive commitment it requires.
Cricket is no different. Cast your mind back to the contest between Brett Lee and Shoaib Ahktar at the turn of the last century to pass the 100mph barrier. It was close to the most tantalising match-race in the modern game. The energy was comparable a couple of generations earlier when Jeff Thomson was hitting similarly high notes. From Spofforth to Larwood to Tyson to Holding to Tait, there's an abiding romance about the very fastest.
So here's another name for you: Shabnim Ismail. She talks fast. She likes fast cars. She probably eats fast. And she bowls fast. Faster than any woman in the world, if you ask her. And if you don't, it's likely she'll tell you anyway.
The spirited South African spoke to ESPNcricinfo while in England as one of Yorkshire Diamonds' overseas players in the inaugural Kia Super League.
It was during her brief cameo with Melbourne Renegades in the Women's Big Bash League in January that she was clocked - at the MCG no less - at 128kph (79mph). That number means a lot to her. It is the evidence on which she bases her claim to the mantle of the quickest.
"It was always something I wanted to do," she says. "Now that I bowl 128, it is a huge honour because no one would expect me to come up there and bowl gas."
Why wouldn't they expect it? It's because she's small. Tiny, even: 165cm tall in modern parlance, or about 5'3" in the old money. "To be honest, I'm not sure how that happens," Ismail laughs, reflecting on the disconnect between her stature and the speed gun.
"They told me before I came here, the only job they had for me was to bowl fast and take wickets. That's all I needed to do. I'm quite happy doing that."
She speaks of how the first wicket feels - how it puts subsequent batsmen on the back foot before they've so much as taken guard. It's a compulsion that was born of watching former South Africa quick Andre Nel in her formative years.
"His aggression was crazy and I looked up to him," she reflects. It's why the number she wears on her shirt is 89: Nel's. "His passion for the game was just enormous, and it makes my day to see youngsters coming through the system being aggressive. It motivates me to go out there, show them that this is how it is done."
At Diamonds she shared new-ball duties with Katherine Brunt, the only bowler in the women's game who could contest Ismail's tag as world's fastest. It all just adds to the fun for Ismail. "Once I knew I was going to open the bowling with Brunty, I was really excited about two fiery people coming from either side - the batters must be shitting themselves!"
But in women's cricket you need to have more than rapid pace and a refreshing disposition to make it all add up. You need to market your skills. That's precisely what Ismail did when the WBBL rolled around last Australian summer. She emailed every club.
No one bit until Renegades brought her in for two games when Rachel Priest was unavailable. It was on national TV when she hit that 128 mark and got people talking.
"I took that opportunity and look where I am today: I have got a full contract season for them this year," she reveals. "They are the opportunities you need to grab."
Opportunities she's determined to keepon creating for herself, having already approached Yorkshire to come back next year as a County Championship player as well. Now at the peak of her powers, she just wants to bowl.
'I like to say what is on my mind, and most people don't like that, but I think it is a good thing so people don't walk all over you.'
Sure enough, it isn't quite as easy as flying into domestic competitions without it eventually colliding with international duty. In the case of the four South Africans in the inaugural KSL it was decided they would all miss a tour of Ireland due to the experience they'd gain in England against the bulk of the world's best.
Ismail, by no means a mercenary, finds this balance challenging. But in practical terms, it's latitude that won't be repeated during the 2016-17 WBBL if South Africa have to qualify the hard way to get into next year's World Cup via the qualifiers in Sri Lanka in January. Ismail states very clearly that she would "obviously" miss anything else to secure that tournament berth. It's country over club.
Even so, it frustrates Ismail that South Africa are sixth in the rankings. Plenty needs to go right for them in a bilateral series against Australia to jump into one of four automatic entry positions. But this doesn't dampen her belief that they can triumph next year, using West Indies' unexpected World T20 victory as inspiration.
She does stress, though, that it would require a better start than they have experienced in recent ICC events. "It's always the case that we're starting off on the back foot and we have to do twice as much to catch up." Not wrong. South Africa only made it beyond 104 with the bat once, against Ireland, in this year's World T20.
Going back to the beginning, Ismail didn't have any cricket at school. Nor did the boys. So she played football with them instead. When the boys did get a cricket team, in the sixth year of her education, she joined them again - in her football shorts. "They called me the Demon," she remembers, suggesting the trademark zip was there from the start.
Thanks to the encouragement of her late grandfather, who urged her to read widely about the finer points of the game, there was no looking back. She has certainly done him proud, now that she is one of five South African women with a top-band contract.
But is it enough to live the life she wants? Of this Ismail isn't so sure. It doesn't help when she sees Brunt pocketing for England, by her estimation, three times the wage she gets for effectively the same job as her country's opening bowler. It's understandably a sensitive topic, likely magnified by her disadvantaged background.
"Now they have the Big Bash League for women and the Kia Super League, it keeps you interested and it makes you want to play even more cricket knowing you are meeting more people and you know you are going to make more money," she says.
She also knows she isn't always the most popular player at Cricket South Africa HQ for her tendency to say what she thinks. Renegade by WBBL club, renegade by nature.
"I am actually quite a rebel," she self-describes. "I like to say what is on my mind, and most people don't like that, but I think it is a good thing so people don't walk all over you."
This is no better illustrated by what Ismail declares a "crazy incident" when she was suspended from the national academy and ordered to attend counselling for alleged abuse of alcohol. More than two years have elapsed since the episode, but she is still angry.
"It was basically two bowlers but myself and [Trisha] Chetty got dragged into it as well," she recalled. Ismail says they were told it wasn't going out to the media, and then to their surprise, there it was. The perception she was "sloshed" angered her; she's a Muslim, where that is frowned upon. Her mum was in tears. "There was a lot of bullshit going around, which I don't like." She wishes it had stayed behind closed doors.
Ismail doesn't contest it was a breach of contract, but to her, the public airing was a breach of faith. And for her, faith means a lot. While many of her team-mates practise their religion publicly, that's not her own style. But she prays daily, and is the only Muslim in the South African national side.
In turn, she is proud how her story inspires younger generations of girls with similar upbringings. "There wasn't much cricket for the Muslim girls back home in South Africa," she says. So going back to address Muslim communities to promote the game is something she finds rewarding. "There are a lot of young girls looking up to me."
As for whether her faith has acted as a roadblock to her playing cricket as a woman, she's indifferent. If her mum is happy, that's good enough for her.
"I think that doesn't really affect me - that I am a Muslim and I am playing cricket," she says. "We have a diverse team - we have our blacks, we have our whites, we have our Muslims, we have our Indians, we have everything in there. So coming from a South African point of view, it's nice to have all of that. Everyone understands each other's religion and gives each other that space."
Another lesson she learned came last year courtesy of a broken finger. "You always have to have a career outside of cricket as well." The injury was the catalyst for pledging herself to a new challenge, studying mechanical engineering. In turn, she'll fulfil a passion. "I love cars; I love fast cars," she says. Between times she has started her own women's cricket academy in Johannesburg with Chetty.
Her energy in discussing these projects is palpable, which also comes through when the question of longevity comes up. After all, she's 27, in a game that can be unforgiving for those in her specific line of work. For Ismail? She wants maybe another decade in the game before worrying about any of that.
"I know I'm a fit person and I'm only peaking now," she says. "I always told myself there is no one better than me - that is just my attitude to the game. In my mind I am still 18 and I am still going to play like I am 18 - all the time."
Refreshing, honest, engaging, fast. Once you know Shabnim Ismail it's unlikely you'll forget her in a hurry.