Shabnim Ismail delivers every ball with a single bloody-mindedness.
“My job is to take wickets for my team, and that’s all that matters,” she says.
As such she charges to the crease like a Viking berserker. She gathers with wicked intent and unleashes thunderbolts.
It’s worked for so far. She’s the most prolific wicket-taker for South Africa in one-day International and T20 cricket with 189 and 112 scalps in the respective formats. She’s second and third on the ICC’s bowler rankings and is a regular feature on the global franchise circuit.
For the first time in her life, however, she’ll have to temper her internal flame as she prepares to lead South Africa’s attack in the one-off Test match against England in Taunton.
“It’s definitely something I’m conscious of,” she explains. “But it will be difficult. My natural instinct is to run in and bowl as quick as I can every ball.
“I look to bowl bouncers and yorkers. I do try and set the batter up but I genuinely want to take a wicket with every ball. That’s fine in white-ball cricket because I can bowl short spells. I’ll need to adapt for this Test.”
Ismail, who has spoken of her desire to break the 80mph barrier in women’s cricket, has Test experience – albeit in just one match.
In 2007, six months after making her international debut as an 18-year-old, she took three wickets, including one with her very first ball, in a 159-run win over the Netherlands in Rotterdam. This was a contest between amateurs.
Cricket South Africa awarded full-time contracts to six women players, Ismail among them, for the first time in 2013. And having missed out on South Africa’s last Test in 2014 in India with a broken finger, Ismail has unfinished business in this format.
“I don’t think the first one [against the Netherlands] counts,” she says. “I was still a baby then. And I was so frustrated to miss the game in India, even though we lost badly [by an innings and 34 runs].
“I want to prove that I’m a great. All the greats step up with the red ball in Test matches and I’m desperate to show what I can do. I know my game. I know what I can do. I want to go out there and do it.”
She’ll be 34 in October. And though she says, “I’m fitter than I’ve ever been,” her workload is something that needs to be managed in order to keep her effective into her second, third, and possibly fourth spells.
“She is someone that will run in and bowl with 100% intensity every time,” says Dillon du Preez, the Proteas bowling coach.
“The plan would be for her to identify the areas in the match when to bowl at 100% and for how long. Some days bowlers will be bowling around three to five spells and it would be risky to bowl 15 to 18 overs at 100%. It all depends on the game situation and conditions.”
Ismail references Dale Steyn as an example to follow, citing his 439 Test wickets across 93 matches.
They’re similar bowlers – on the shorter side for a menacing quick but lithe with whiplash actions. Like Steyn, Ismail swings the ball and is able to take it away from the right-hander with the occasional in-ducker.
“I can’t wait to get that red Dukes ball in my hand,” Ismail says, her voice rising with excitement at the prospect.
“I’ll swing it around corners. They say that the Dukes is the best ball in the world to bowl with if you’re a swing bowler. We’ll stack the slips with lots of catchers and be attacking straight away. That’s my style. But I know I have to be patient. I’m confident I’ll get it right.”
A lack of preparation is a concern. Ismail was rested during the three-day warm-up game against England A this past week and missed out on the inter-squad red-ball matches in May as she took part in the Fairbreak Invitational T20 tournament in Dubai.
There is no red-ball competition for women in South Africa. And if recent comments from the ICC’s chairperson, Greg Barclay, are anything to go by, this may be Ismail’s last chance to showcase her talents across a multi-day match.
“Whatever happens in the future is for the future,” she says. “We can’t go into this Test worrying about the future of women’s Test cricket. All I can do is run in as hard as I can to take wickets and that’s what I plan to do.”
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