Shibs ups her pace after off-field low

Speed is not a choice for Shabnim Ismail. With a dainty figure that stands at 1.65m — short for a fast bowler — her run-ups can’t afford to be slow.

“I just turned 30 and people are saying ‘Ja, you’re going to lose your speed’ and I always tell them I would never believe that,” she says. “It’s a mental thing and I’m a strong believer in mental toughness. I feel that’s something on my side. I always wanted to be a fast bowler. Now I am and it’s about maintaining it.”

Pace is clearly a matter of pride for her. In high school she would regularly dominate the 100m and 200m races and naturally adapted her ability to her cricket game. Now, she boasts of being the fastest woman bowler in the world.

Regularly delivering 123km/h balls and having clocked 128km/h in 2016, it’s hard to disagree with her. Still, her bursts come as a surprise to many.

“I love fielding on the boundary,” she says. “Batters think I’m slow and try and steal a run, but then I’m there for the run-out.”

Ismail participated in the less glamorous aspects of being a professional cricketer this Wednesday. Arriving at the Wanderers Stadium before 8am, suitably in an orange Ford Focus ST, she had to spend much of the morning taking “lifestyle” photos with the rest of the Proteas Women side.

It’s the calm before the cricket. Ismail has just endured the biggest off-field challenge of her career — her father had a heart attack — but she has little time to dwell on it as she targets a clutch period.

This year has delivered much for the left-hander.

Affable with a mischievous sense of humour, she reminisces about her recent trials and successes, first out of the Gallery Suite at Wanderers and then as she messes about for photos in the batting nets across from the stadium.

She gleefully recalls India’s visit to this same location in January when she took a T20 career-best 5/30. For her vicious releases, it was a beautiful crease for her to deliver all kinds of havoc; less than a month later Faf du Plessis would fail to convince Virat Kohli and the umpires to abandon their game.

Equally impressive performances in the following months would temporarily boost her to number two in the world.

She dropped down to six this week after she had to miss the team’s recent tour to West Indies.

It was a crucial moment for Ismail. She felt compelled to be by her father’s side after he survived a heart attack. Cricket is her life but for the first time there was a bigger cause to step back and trust that the game could still move on without her. She took her problem to Cricket SA and was able to convince them to see her perspective.

“It was difficult to speak to them because I’m a key bowler and they need me,” she says. “We lost some games and I’m not saying it’s because of me, but now we have to go play in the World Cup qualifiers in January and February [because of a drop in ranking]. If I was there I could have made a difference.”

In the same period, three other family members would die, including her aunt, with whom she had been close.

As much as Ismail is grateful that she made the decision to remain at home during this time, her attention is now fully focused on preparing for the International Cricket Council Women’s World T20 next month.

Given the Proteas Women’s rise in South Africa’s collective consciousness in recent years, the pressure is at an all-time high to achieve a positive result.

“It’s going to be tough, but I love the pressure situation,” Ismail says with a grin. “I’m chuffed and excited to get back on the park again. It’s been a month off and it’s been hectic.

“It’s just for us to go there and take it. We want to go there, play good cricket and win it.”

As the undisputed opening bowler for years now, Ismail doesn’t have a choice but to embrace the stress, whether it emanates from personal difficulty or a country’s expectations. If she can achieve her top speeds and the surface is just right, there’s no reason to think the Proteas can’t bring the trophy home.

“I love it when the captain throws the ball to me and says ‘Shibs, we need something here.’ People don’t like that kind of pressure, but I do.”

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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