As she watched Andre Nel bowl bouncers, she asked her mother as to why he is aiming for the batter’s head. She then learnt that it’s a surprise delivery and is good to have in one’s armoury. That was the first time she had watched a bouncer and it was Nel, who was the protagonist.
12 years is a very impressionable age and Shabnim Ismail was captivated by what she had seen. She then decided to bowl the bouncer. The aggression and fierceness of Nel had Ismail drooling and she had decided that was the way forward. At 12, the seeds of ‘pace’ bowling had been sown in her head.
Ismail didn’t really start off as a bowler, let alone a fast bowler. “I actually wanted to be a soccer player,” she tells Women’s CricZone, reminiscing about her early days. “Well, my mom said if you’re playing soccer your ankle might give away anytime, whereas if you play cricket you have to catch the ball and hit the ball.”
To “hit the ball”, she began as a batswoman. Admittedly, she kept on getting out and realised that a bowler has six chances to have a go at a batter – it seemed like the odds were better. And there she was, taking to fast bowling like a fish to water.
“I made my under-16 debut for the Western Cape and they used to call me ‘The Demon’ because I was the quickest there,” she states. “A lot of the girls who came there were scared to face me.”
With the long run up she has – 19 steps, she reveals – it’s hardly a surprise that she can bowl fast. But her lean physique hides the pacy bowler in her. “I always believe dynamite comes in small packages. When I have my long run up that I have, I don’t think it is completely unexpected. It’s just the way I bowl, the way I portray myself as a fast bowler on the field takes a lot of control.”
On the field Ismail is quite aggressive. She wears her heart on her sleeve and gives it her all when she unleashes deliveries that rattle many a batter. “Everybody loves the aggression, the adrenaline of me.”
Off the field, though, she is a different personality – extremely naughty, as opposed to someone who appears incredibly serious and focused on the field. “(I like) just going out, obviously having fun with the girls. I never want to be in the hotel, always want to be out exploring, meeting new people.”
“I always believe in on and off switch. So for me, obviously, off the field I am probably one of the naughtiest but as soon as I cross the boundary line, (the aim is to) just to turn into another person and just be into my zone and just deliver as quick as I can and just have fun.”
Ismail’s enthusiasm reflects well when she talks about the adrenaline rush that gets her going. Since she has been taking the new ball for South Africa, and whichever side she turns up for, for some time now, the umpires walk to her to hand her the new ball. “Just for me to pick the ball and open the bowling, I’m just excited. I always look forward to playing cricket. Just at the top of my run-up… I’m just excited all around.”
For someone whose role model is Nel, the enthusiasm and the excitement is not out of place. Nel himself was amused when Ismail told him that he inspired her. He laughed at the admission and brushed it off, she says. But Ismail was always spellbound by what her role model did when he had the ball in hand. Such was her admiration for him, she recalls his bowling style, almost creating a sketch of it.
“He never had a consistent run up. As soon as he got to the crease, he got one step in, one step out and he used to bowl the ball. I remember everything clearly.”
Clearly, the Andre Nel impact has extended to her donning jersey number 89.
Few might recall, but Ismail made her debut for South Africa in 2007 when she was just 18. Having played over 12 years of international cricket, she has been one of the most prolific bowlers for them and – needless to say – is the country’s leading wicket-taker in limited overs internationals.
“The way I am playing my cricket at the moment, I am excited and still at the age of 30, there’s a lot for me to learn,” she reckons. During our conversation, it emerges that she is beginning to focus on her batting as well in order to become an allrounder.
Ismail has risen steadily through the ranks. Playing grade cricket and performing well there, she was picked for Western Cape, before she went on to represent South Africa. She realises how it is to have the support of seniors in the side during the formative phase.
“I have come through the pipeline as a youngster and I have had Ashlyn Kilowan and the seniors looking after me and telling me how I should go about my game. For me to give back to the youngsters now is a huge privilege to me,” she says.
“People like Tumi (Sekhukhune) are looking up to me and asking for advice. So for me to give back is one of the greatest moments – to see them deliver in the game alongside me I think that is one of the most important things and makes me happy as a senior player.”
Sekhukhune is a promising 20-year-old medium pacer. Earlier this year, in the T20s against Bangladesh Emerging side, she picked up nine wickets in three games. In 25 international matches so far, she has taken 23 wickets, and is also one of South Africa’s best fielders.
Ismail is impressed with her mentee. Her face lights up as she talks about Sekhukhune. “I met Tumi when she was quite young, and (she) told me that I was one of her role models. So, for her to play alongside me is a huge privilege. And for me to see her perform so well makes me happy as a person,” she says with delight.
From playing backyard cricket with her brothers to ensuring more girls take to the sport after watching her, Ismail has been inspirational to say the least. Fast bowling is not an easy task on the body, but to have played, performed and persevered for over a decade speaks volumes of her fitness levels. She aspires to share her experiences with the youngsters and help them grow as well.
A chat with Shabnim Ismail reveals she is fast but not furious – much like her role model, Mr. Nel.