We live in a time where commentators and sportswriters throw around various adjectives to describe athletes. Most of this could be the result of recency bias or television-based, but we are all guilty of it. However, relentlessness is not a term that is used very often by the sporting fraternity.
Relentless could mean 'unceasingly intense' or 'refusing to give up'. Rafael Nadal is relentless; so are Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams. In cricket, Pat Cummins is relentless, and Cheteshwar Pujara has displayed this characteristic at times. The more celebrated players, like the Steve Smiths, Virat Kohlis, Sophie Devines or the Meg Lannings have many other qualities, but relentlessness is not one of them.
It is a tag that is far more difficult to earn because it is more than just the weight of runs or wickets. It is not something that makes the cut to be part of the highlights package. Among the current players in the women's game, the first name that should pop up in a discussion about relentlessness should be Shabnim Ismail's.
Ismail is currently eighth on the list of ODI wicket-takers. Among pacers, she is the fifth. In T20Is, she is third overall and second among pacers. But it is not just the numbers. Ismail is arguably the fastest bowler going around in the women's game. Add accuracy and consistency to that pace, and it makes for a terrifying combination - almost the 'complete fast bowler'.
She could go wicketless through a series of matches, but when it matters, Ismail, more often than not, is able to rise to the occasion. Just like she did for Sydney Thunder in the final of the Women's Big Bash League. Going into that final, she had taken 12 wickets in 15 matches. On the big day, Ismail rattled Stars' top order and finished with two for 12 in her four overs. It was her spell that set the game up for the Thunder.
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When the series against Pakistan was about to begin, Ismail was among the few players who had been in good form. And it was visible in the very first match. On a pitch where spinners from both the sides thrived, Ismail stood out along with Diana Baig from Pakistan. Both took three wickets and effected a run-out each.
Similarly, in the final ODI, Ismail was in the spotlight again. Defending a relatively low total of 201, she removed Nahida Khan and Omaima Sohail at the top and came back to dismiss Aliya Riaz to seal the match for South Africa. With seven wickets in three ODIs, she was fittingly declared player of the series.
Although she started the T20I series with a two for 20 in the first match, Ismail was a different entity in the second. The hosts were under the pump from ball one. Tazmin Brits played a long innings and took them to a relatively safe total with some help from her skipper Sune Luus.
Yet, halfway through the match, Pakistan still had a chance. South Africa had to kill the chase in the first six overs with the new ball to get ahead of them. Ismail started her spell with four full-length deliveries trying to extract some movement - in the air and off the pitch. Her fifth delivery was a tad shorter in length, directed into Ayesha Zafar. She ended the over with a hit-the-deck back-of-a-length delivery.
With Marizanne Kapp removing Sohail in the next over, Ismail immediately came around the wicket to the left-handed Muneeba Ali. She squared her up with a good-length delivery, that was angled in and moved away off the pitch. It brushed her back-pad and went for a boundary through the gap between the wicket-keeper and first slip.
The next couple of deliveries were a tad fuller and wider, and Ali failed to make contact. Off the fourth, Ismail dragged the length a yard back, banged it into the pitch, and generated extra bounce, which was enough to get Ali to edge it to the keeper. The dismissal was a combination of her pace, tenacity and tactical awareness.
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If that was not enough, she smashed the leg-stump of Nida Dar off the next delivery as the veteran allrounder casually shuffled across the stumps to flick the seamer past fine leg. The last time Dar had been dismissed for a first-ball duck in a T20I was in April 2011.
In her next over - third on the trot - Ismail yet again deployed the short ball strategy against Zafar and followed it up with pitched-up delivery that swung back into the right-hander and hit the top of middle stump. Ismail had ripped through Pakistan's top order, effectively delivering a killer blow. When Ismail finished her first spell, she had the visitors tottering at 20 for 4 - a position from which it was almost impossible to recover.
What a start that was! 🔥🔥
3-0-9-3#SAvPAK @shabnim_ismail pic.twitter.com/HDEcy1BWwS
— Women's CricZone (@WomensCricZone) January 31, 2021
While the other bowlers maintained a steady hold on proceedings, Ismail was throwing herself around in the field saving boundaries. She had to come back for one last time in the final over to defend 22 runs. Throughout the over, Ismail hit the hard lengths and made it difficult for Riaz and Ayesha Naseem. Eventually, she dismissed both the set batters and finished with a career-best five for 12 in her four overs.
Among contemporary pacers, there are not many who are as relentless as Ismail. One could bring up the names of Ellyse Perry, Anya Shrubsole, Megan Schutt, Katherine Brunt or Lea Tahuhu. They are excellent seamers and proven match-winners for any team they represent. But the question is, are they relentless? Maybe not. A few years down the line Baig could fit the bill, but at the moment, there aren't any who could be compared with Ismail in a discussion about relentlessness.
Since her debut, Perry is the only pacer to take more wickets than Ismail in limited-overs cricket, and in T20Is, the South African is second on the list of pacers with the most maiden overs - one behind Brunt. Is that what makes her relentless? Not quite. Ismail stands out because of her unwavering ability to run-in, and trouble the batters with utmost intensity every time she steps on the field. And the consistency with which she has replicated that success over close to 15 years is what makes her special. "When I walk on the pitch I just become a beast," she said after the second T20I. Even when it seems like nothing is happening during a match, Ismail can produce magic out of nowhere.
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She has the innate ability to generate pace off the pitch irrespective of the conditions. As a result, the batters are often found camping on the back-foot, when Ismail is running in. When she pitches it a tad fuller, they are caught in the crease, feet going nowhere, throwing their hands at the ball more out of hope than expectation. On the other hand, when Ismail pulls the length back, she hurries them with her pace - the ball hurtling toward their chest, often met with an awkward swat across the line. It is one of the biggest reasons for her success.
The fascinating thing about the 32-year-old's career is that her pace has never once dropped significantly. She has lived up to her reputation of being a tearaway quick, bowling with the same intensity and pace day-in and day-out no matter where she plays - seam-friendly tracks in Australia, England or South Africa, or the slow and low surfaces of India or the West Indies. Ismail has planted a seed of doubt (and one could go a bit further and add fear too) in every batter who takes guard to face her. It is a quality that no other pacer has managed to exhibit consistently over the last few years.
She may be relatively small but is as intimidating as they come. She is the one you want around when the pressure is on; for Ismail never backs down from a fight. Which is why, when she has the ball in hand, you stop everything you do, take a seat and watch her bowl.
Because Shabnim Ismail is relentless. Shabnim Ismail is unceasingly intense.