On the National Highway 24 which connects Delhi and Lucknow, lies the dusty Sahaspur Alinagar. The village of 5,000 people is just a 30-minute drive from Moradabad. Most of the villagers make a living out of the sugarcane plantations and mustard cultivation. A nearby brick kiln is gnawing away at the soil on the local cricket field, leaving only one side of the uneven pitch intact. The bowlers have to strictly maintain an off-stump line. This is where Mohammed Shami took his first steps to become a fast bowler.
The dire ground conditions didn’t deter Tousif Ahmed from dreaming big for his son. A third generation landlord, he prepared a cement pitch nearby which Shami used daily to hone his skills, albeit off a short run-up.
Tousif was determined not to let another talent wither away. In his 20s, he had earned the sobriquet ‘tez gendbaz’ (fast bowler) in local tournaments, but his dream to play for Uttar Pradesh didn’t go beyond the uneven grounds of Amroha and Moradabad.
His elder son Haseeb followed in his footsteps, but he was diagnosed with kidney stones a day before trials for the UP under-19 team in Kanpur, dashing his cricket dreams. Till then, Haseeb had been in demand at local tournaments, and Shami used to tag along. Everything he learnt about swing bowling from watching Wasim Akram and Michael Holding on TV, he passed it on to Shami.
But it was clearly not enough, at least for the selectors at UP’s under-19 team trials. For three years in a row, Shami crossed three processing rounds but never got selected. “You can’t judge a bowler in six balls. Shami was very fast and his bowling was accurate. We had to wait for days for his turn to demonstrate his bowling, but the selectors didn’t give him enough time,” Tousif recalls.
The rejection only strengthened Shami’s resolve as he continued to train under coach Badruddin in Moradabad, 22 km from his village. And then the lucky break arrived.
“From the beginning, I knew what Shami was capable of,” says Badruddin. “In 2006, I got a call from the Dalhousie Club in Kolkata. One of their pace bowlers was injured. The club was gearing up to play the local league quarter-final. I was asked if I had any pacer, and I said, ‘the best’.”
Two days later, Badruddin handed a ticket to Shami and put him on the Punjab Mail. “He was just a kid. Before boarding the train, he kept looking at me. I said ‘ja beta, tere liye acha hi hoga.’ (go on son, everything will work out well for you).”It was the start of Shami’s journey towards wearing an India jersey, but not before he went through the grind on the Kolkata maidans. At Rs. 500 per match, Shami played for Dalhousie till Debabrata Das, a senior office-bearer of Town Club, spotted him. "We needed a pace bowler. I gave him a contract of Rs. 70,000 for the season and Rs. 100 as daily food allowance and brought him home," says Das.
People began taking notice of Shami. “He got selected in the Bengal under-22 team, but with Ranadeb Bose, Ashok Dinda, Shib Shankar Paul and Sourav Sarkar around, it was difficult for him to break into the senior squad,” he says.
It took the intervention of former national selector, Sambaran Banerjee, for Shami to get into the squad. Banerjee, still a Bengal selector, was invited by Das to watch Shami bowl in an important CAB league game, between Town Club and Port Trust. Shami had already taken three wickets. After some overs, Banerjee sent a message to the captain, asking him to make Shami bowl against the wind. He got two more wickets. Shami was selected in Bengal’s Vijay Hazare squad in the next meeting.
But only after shifting to Mohun Bagan, an influential club in Bengal cricket, did Shami get his Ranji break. Within a couple of seasons, and with some help from Wasim Akram during his stint with Kolkata Knight Riders, Shami had become a name to reckon with.
A Test debut at Eden Gardens in November, 2013 was fitting given that Shami’s career took shape in Kolkata. Only then did UP cricket officials realise that they had driven away a good talent.
“During the ODI against West Indies at Kanpur, Jyoti Bajpai and Rajiv Shukla asked me to bring back Shami to play for UP. I told them politely that Kolkata gave my son identity and respect and he will play only from there, and you wise people should understand why he opted for another state,” says Tousif.
Shami has stayed grounded. “He is careful with his money and saves whatever he can,” says Das.Haseeb feels his brother will make an impact at the World Cup. "There is nothing bigger. From here, he will be different, the pitches there suit him. I firmly believe destiny awaits him in the World Cup."