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Mohammed Shami Wins Arjuna Award: An Inspirational Tale of Grit and Brilliance

It was a salutation to Shami’s quest for perfection that echoed the determination of the Mahabharata's Arjuna.

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It was a moment to cherish for a lifetime.

A thunderous applause greeted Mohammed Shami as he shyly stepped forward to collect the Arjuna Award from President Draupadi Murmu last Sunday. The glittering National Sports Awards ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhawan was a nation’s acknowledgement of the peaks of excellence scaled by the Indian pacer. Like a fairy tale, it was the crowning moment for a man who had fought adversities and obstacles valiantly that had marred his career for long.

In a way, it was a salutation to Shami’s quest for perfection that echoed the determination of Arjuna, the Pandava hero of the Mahabharata epic. Just as the legendary warrior honed his archery skills with a single-minded focus on the fish’s eye, Shami has displayed exceptional concentration and commitment on the cricket field over the last several years. This unwavering ability to focus and deliver consistent as well as impactful performances for the Indian cricket team has been a major highlight of his international career.

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Over the past two years, Shami has emerged as the lynchpin of India's pace battery. His remarkable ability to swing the ball both ways, coupled with pace, has troubled batsmen around the world, and, like Arjuna's precision with the bow, Shami’s skill with the cricket ball has become a crucial weapon for India in the most challenging conditions. In the absence of the injured Bumrah, Shami was the spearhead of India’s pace armoury that made India reach the World Test Championship finals.

While Shami’s exemplary performance in the recent ODI World Cup was the prime reason for the Arjuna Award, it also is a deserved reward for his bowling brilliance over the past few years – especially since that nightmare game against Pakistan in 2021 T20 WC which led to heavy trolling with distinctly communal tones. Though all players were equally responsible for India’s failure to qualify for the knockouts after a resounding 10-wicket loss to Pakistan, Shami alone was attacked on social media.

A lesser mortal would have succumbed but given his unyielding determination, Shami bounced back with a string of remarkable spells in Tests, ODIs, and the IPL. In fact, in IPL 2023, he won the Purple Cap with the most wickets; 28 for Gujarat Titans. Instrumental in Gujarat’s IPL success in the first couple of seasons, Shami’s success was possible due to his remarkable accuracy and seam movement that had legends like Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis praising his seam control and ability to make the ball nip off the pitch — a rare art in cricket.

His skill bore full fruit in the 2023 World Cup as he picked up 24 wickets at an average of just 10.70 and a strike rate of 12.20. Apart from being the leading wicket-taker, the most interesting aspect of his feat was that he wasn’t in the playing XI for the first four matches! Only an ankle injury to Hardik Pandya prompted the team management to play him and his seven-wicket haul in the semifinals against New Zealand was the stuff that dreams are made of. In a high-run-scoring contest, Shami first broke the resistance of the New Zealand top order and then, in a later spell, finished the job by giving away only 57 runs in his quota of overs.

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But the journey for this paceman of the post-Zaheer Khan era has not always been this smooth. It was his stellar performances in the 2012-13 Ranji season that earned him a spot in the Indian team, wherein against Pakistan in 2013, he became the first Indian to bowl four or more maidens on debut and contributed to a crucial win. Unfortunately, his rise hit a roadblock due to injuries and personal issues though Shami emerged as India's leading wicket-taker in the 2015 World Cup.

However, after the tournament, it was revealed that he played with a knee injury, sidelining him. Amid the pain, he also faced personal challenges, including accusations of domestic violence and match-fixing by his wife, leading to the suspension of his central contract by the BCCI. Although the contract was reinstated, these trials took a huge toll and he candidly shared thoughts of committing suicide in an Instagram live with Rohit Sharma.

The 2017-2018 period saw Shami’s importance diminish even further as India found another fast-bowling talent in Jasprit Bumrah. Undeterred, Shami persevered in enhancing his mental and physical fitness and the resilience paid off as he staged a grand comeback as India’s premier bowler in the 2019 World Cup in England. Although he took the World Cup’s first hat trick in a crucial victory against Afghanistan, Shami wasn’t in the fray for most of the tournament. However, he still finished with an impressive tally of 14 wickets in just 4 matches, at an average of 13.78.

Shami’s commitment towards the team and the country has always been understated. It was only after the 2023 ODI World Cup that we learnt that Shami had played the matches with an injury while taking injections regularly. As he recuperates from the injury, his availability for the England tour of India is under a cloud. Yet, given his prowess, he will be essential to destabilise the ‘Bazzball’ plans of the English team.

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As Shami navigates the uncertainties of recovery, his potential contribution to India's cricketing endeavours is a beacon of hope for fans and teammates alike since he will be an important asset for the upcoming T20 World Cup in the US and the Caribbean. His significance in India’s T20 World Cup aspirations is immense, since he is a pivotal force in our bowling attack. With his ability to deliver crucial breakthroughs, Shami is indispensable; and the team planners must work judiciously to manage his workload.

A genuine pacer at the peak of his prowess and a genuine sportsman who knows how to handle the pressure of public expectations, Shami is in a league of his own as he uses stress to drive himself to higher honours and greater glory. If India does wish to achieve the crowning glory at T20 ICC WC 2024, it will be necessary that Shami is there to gun the opposition down with his brilliant spells. It seems that India’s triumph is somehow tied to the armoury of Mohammed Shami who, like Arjuna, is a silent annihilator of the opposition.

(Siddhaarth Mahan is a writer on sports who also works as an actor and filmmaker in the Hindi film industry. He tweets at @siddhaarthmahan.)

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Topics:  Mohammed Shami 

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