Thousands throng to welcome home India’s new pace find

Before his impressive ODI debut at the Kotla, Sehazpur Ali Nagar would hardly register Shami Ahmed's homecoming. All that the residents of the villge in UP's Amroha district knew about the 22-year-old was that he played cricket in Kolkata. They were surprised by Shami's career choice but they didn't express their scepticism publicly. Things changed on Sunday.

Sehazpur Ali Nagar, like rest of the world, saw Shami on television bowl an inspired opening spell of 5-3-12-0 to help India defend a modest total in a tight 3rd ODI against Pakistan. Bowling in the high 130s, the nippy swing bowler returned in the tense final overs to take the wicket of Saeed Ajmal. He was to finish with impressive figures of 9-4-23-1. Though India lost the series, Shami provided hope. Here was a youngster who could hold his nerve in front of packed stands in an India-Pak game.

On Monday, Shami returned home to a hero's welcome. Doubts about his cricketing skills and anonymity faded after the foggy evening at the Kotla. Sehazpur Ali Nagar couldn't get over the fact that one among them had made it big. "I have never seen such a big reception in my life. Close to 30,000 people were present to greet him (Shami). Fans came from Morabadad, 21 km from our village. Even now, as I speak to you, there are still about 1,000 people in my home. But I am loving it. I am overwhelmed," Shami's father Tousif told The Indian Express.

Tousif was the president of the panchayat for 12 years. All of his three sons—he also has a daughter — played cricket till the college level but Shami's talent stood out. In 2003, Shami was just 13 years old when his coach Md Badaruddiun advised his father to send him to Kolkata. "I told Shami that he would be granted permission on one condition—that one day he had to play for India. He promised me and has now fulfilled my ambition. Words can't describe my feelings when I saw him on TV yesterday," said Tousif.

When Tousif imagined Shami's debut, he pictured his son playing against Pakistan. "Indeed, I wanted it that way and yesterday it was the biggest moment of my life," he said. "We didn't miss the action for a moment. And the way he bowled, he made us proud."

For Shami, too, it's been an "overwhelming" experience. "It is late in the night right now but people are still dropping in to wish me luck," he said. How did he manage to be calm in a high-voltage debut match? "The tougher the match, the more comfortable I am. A day before the match, I had met former Pakistan pacer Waqar Younis at an event. He told me that it is very important for a pacer to keep his cool. That stayed in my mind during the game," said Shami.

Shami will have to leave home on Tuesday for Rajkot, where India will play England in the first ODI. But the family is doing its best to make this evening special. "Today's biryani will have a special taste," said mother Anjum. On the eve of his India debut, Shami called Badruddin, his first coach, for advice. "He was a little nervous. I told him to bowl the way he bowls in the Ranji Trophy. After the game he called me to say that captain and all the team members had words of encouragement for him," Badruddin said.

W V Raman, Shami's Bengal coach, was impressed by his showing in the third ODI against Pakistan. "Four maiden overs on debut is an extraordinary performance. It was a low-scoring game and the bowlers were under pressure. He handled the situation very well. As far as his progress is concerned, a lot will depend on how he is going to be used from here on. A bowler needs to be handled well by his captain," Raman said. Sourav Ganguly, who has played a significant role in Shami's rise, wants the fast bowler to carry forward his good work. "He has made a good start. He bowled with a lot of maturity for a debutant," he said. "Now he has to grow into the game."

(With Wajiha Shah in Lucknow)

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