IND vs AUS: In your craft, you should know what you are doing, how you are doing it, says Mohammed Shami

IND vs AUS: I remember a period early on in my international career when I couldn’t understand how to get the outside edge. Everything was there: perfect seam, perfect line, but the edges were not coming.

The only thing in my mind was to keep patience. Just laugh it away. Aayega, aayega, aayega, lekin woh aaya hi nahi [It will come, It will come, it will come, but it didn’t].

It was a very difficult time when I had to be patient. But yes, when the wickets began to come thereafter, they came nicely. Once you are set, once you are hitting an area, it becomes easier for you to push it a bit further. But if you lose your length, it gets hard for you to settle. I believe that was the period when I was settling. It is said that you have to keep hitting an area. That was the time when I was trying to hit an area.

People consider it unlucky but I believe it is lucky. My belief increased that if I bowled here, it will at least beat the edge, even if it didn’t find the edge. So I have kept repeating it till now.

My biggest test then was to remain patient. You know till what speed and where you can control a car. You see an empty stretch of road, and press on the accelerator a bit, but when there are people around, you won’t drive fast. It is the same with our game. If you are getting hit, you look to take cover. But if you are set, whatever you do, the batsman will find it difficult. When you are set, you can do what you want, push the length fuller, or pull it back. But you will have to be patient. That was my original test. People call it unlucky, but it was my test. Other things came later.

Seam-presentation is something I often get asked about. God certainly gives you some skill, but the rest you need to work on. No one is born a scientist. You might be intelligent, but to become a scientist, you have to work hard and change yourself. Similarly, no one is born as a batsman or bowler, you have to become one. There is hard work behind every success story. We fast bowlers like to get the feel, the grip, and I always try to release the ball along the seam (even when I am just toying with it), not like the spinners.

If you are not watching the replay or slow motion on television, you will have no idea about things like how much the ball has swung or from where it swung, or the seam position. Initially, I used to wonder ‘oh, the seam has gone so straight!’

I don’t see the ball after it leaves the hand! Then I understood it leaves my hand only, it’s my ball! It felt great.

The run-up is very important, because the momentum of your body should follow the ball. When you deliver the ball, the body momentum should be behind the ball. A lot of variables are there. Cricket is such a game that when you look at it technically, there is an explanation and logic for everything. But you don’t always look at it like that.

It was after my surgery in 2015 that I made my strides shorter. I found rhythm with the new run-up and didn’t feel any discomfort. I remember working with then India bowling coach Bharat Arun on the run-up. He would say I have everything from seam position to different types of balls, but the run-up was important to allow the body momentum to go through the action. I sorted that out after surgery, getting my strides shorter and gaining more balance.

Once the run-up was sorted came the confidence to do other tricks. For a while, I was praised as a seam bowler; not particularly known for swing.

Everyone has different skills of their own. Consider England’s James Anderson, he is a totally different bowler in home conditions and overseas. So in England, I would watch him very closely to see what his approach is and what are the areas he bowls at in home conditions, what length he bowls, how much swing he gets.

The ball leaves his hand so beautifully in England, whether inswing or outswing. So I was watching the delivery points, how he controls the seam. He has taken so many wickets. There has to be something special if the guy has played so many matches and been so successful. It is very important that you watch those bowlers whom you consider good, see their videos, and read their skills. I think that can benefit you; it certainly did for me. In the last series in South Africa, for example, I was swinging the ball well.

Seam bowling remains my strength, of course. People have asked me about the ball I bowled to West Indies’ Shai Hope at the 2019 ODI World Cup in England (the ball rushed along straight with an upright seam before it suddenly cut in sharply to clean up the stumps).

In your craft, you should know what you are doing, how you are doing it, the amount of control you have, the amount of movement the ball is getting in the air, the amount of movement it’s getting off the surface, and things like that. I always look to maintain good seam control and keep the movement of the wrist to a minimum. Sometimes, bowlers would search for big movement and end up giving clues to batsmen. They can cut the fingers across the seam rather exaggeratedly or some such variations.

But then the batsmen can watch the movement of the wrist and figure out whether it’s coming in or going away. But I like to keep the movement of my wrists to bare minimum, keep it straight as much as possible and look for (seam) movement off the surface.

India’s Mohammed Shami, center without cap, appeals unsuccessfully for LBW against Australia’s Matthew Kuhnemann, left, during the first day of the second cricket test match between India and Australia in New Delhi, India, Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

To get purchase off the track brings me more joy than swing. At that time (the dismissal of Hope), in the whole momentum, I didn’t think much about it. It is when you watch the replays that you understand how good the ball was.

All this doesn’t come overnight, of course. I had control during my Ranji Trophy phase but I wasn’t very sharp. The more you play, the better you get. You keep learning. That never stops.

The heavy ball is another delivery I have worked a lot on. It is all about release and force. One needs to have variety when one is trying to set up a batsman. That needs a lot of planning. When the ball is swinging away, the batsman keeps leaving the ball. That is when you try to make him get used to that pace. When you bowl a heavy ball, or the wicket- taking ball, you put in 20 to 30 percent extra effort and also ensure that you bowl further up. That is the reason, woh ball skid bhi karta hai aur nikalta bhi hai (so it skids and also carries). So it depends on what mood you are in and what is the match situation.

So I try to understand the situation of the game. If the situation demands swing and I have a 4-over spell, I will plan that in an over I will bowl two heavy balls and four balls that swing. Or I will look to bowl four balls on tappa (rising ball) and two skidders. So that is how I set up batsmen.

As far as the heavy ball is concerned, you should be aware of your ability and skill as a fast bowler. You should know how fast you can bowl. You should use your brain to utilise your pace and power. For example when I am setting up a batsman, I bowl at around 137-138-130 kph and gradually touch 140 kph. But when I have to bowl the heavy ball, it will be at 144 to 145 kph. So the batsman gets less time to negotiate the heavy ball. The sudden change of pace – from 137 to 145 – unsettles and hurries the batsman. They tend to be late in negotiating the heavy ball or hit the ball a bit early.

Labelled as a “Rhythm” bowler is something I don’t understand. I hear commentators go on about it. What does that mean? If you are a former cricketer and are doing commentary, you will definitely know that to create rhythm you need to do something. So if you have great rhythm, run in well, and bowl a full toss, is that rhythm? Because I sense by rhythm, they mean the way I run in to bowl. Bhaagne ka hi rhythm hoga na? (Running has a rhythm, no?)

But if there is no thinking, skill, and set-up in those 22 yards, what is the use of this rhythm? You can’t reduce what happens in those 22 yards down just to my run-up. To be a complete bowler, you need a lot of things. Don’t just harp on rhythm. I believe the job won’t be done just with rhythm, you have to be mentally strong, physically strong, and be very skilful. You have to tick all the boxes to become a complete bowler.

I like to bluff the batsmen at times. People generally think that I will bowl outswingers and when it reverses, I will get it in. Ulta daalega (bowl reverse swing). But at times, I will bowl incoming balls repeatedly. Wicket-taking ball Bahar wala daalonga (the outswinger will be the wicket-taking ball). For that, you have to be very strong mentally as you are going against yourself, your own urges. That gives me great joy and I value those wickets.

Sometimes Virat (Kohli as captain) would say jokingly, “marwayega tu! (You will get us killed!) And I would say, let it be na, he (batsman) will hit a four or six at worst… let me try. You have to seed doubts in different ways, make them think and react in different ways than usual. When the batsman is new to the crease, the feet aren’t going to move, pair to nahin chalne wale hain. For example, let’s say I have three slips and gully. I would take out one slip, put him at leg slip. Take midwicket for a catching option. So now, if it was me, I would be thinking it would be a short ball. Square-leg is back, leg gully, and what not. But I would bowl a full ball. By the time the batsman shifts his weight from the back to the front, he could only edge it behind. It’s a different sort of mazaa (enjoyment) when you bluff.

When do you set up? When a partnership carries on, you have to set up a batsman.

There have been many times. I remember the dismissal of Alastair Cook once. It was totally set up, planned. I kept taking it out and then I got one back in to hit the stumps. I enjoyed that dismissal. I had taken a few away, across him, from a length. And he had left them. All along the set-up was in the mind. When such things become successful, bada mazaa aata hai (it’s very enjoyable).

Only thing I think about when I am setting up someone, and working on a line of attack for a while before the surprise option later, is I shouldn’t give too many runs in attempting that. I am not worried about getting impatient and don’t try that (potentially wicket-taking) ball a bit early. The only thing I don’t want to do is give too many runs and let the pressure off. Because if you give away runs, pressure khatam. What pressure then?

A relationship with the ball is important. The batsmen have a fondness to fiddle around with the ball and the bowlers like to play around with the bat. But my focus, love was always the ball. What natural shots I had as a batsman as a kid, I still have them today! With the ball, it was like, if I get a good ball today, I would use it tomorrow as well. I know how much harkat (movement) the ball does, I know how much it swings, how much it reverses, so I never felt like throwing the ball away. I used to keep the ball beside me, and would use it in the nets the next day. If it’s not good for the nets, I will give it to kids in the village. Take this, have another one. Even in the Indian team, if I like a ball, I tell the coaches that I have this ball and even tomorrow I would like to use it. There are some balls that give you a feel, when it leaves the hand, it gives the feeling that it would do the things you want it to do. Like how it feels and how it behaves with regards to how it complements your skills, sort of whatever you want to do with it, it does.

Growing up, I never collected any posters of cricketers but did like the fast bowling units. West Indies used to be very good, when we see the videos and records. Pakistan also had a good time with Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar. Australia was also good then with Brett Lee and Co. I would like different fast bowlers, search for the similarity in my bowling, see what I can take out of them, and try to execute it better.

(Excerpts from Idea Exchange, first published on February 28, 2022)

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