Shabnim Ismail roars after taking a wicket
Christopher Lee / © ICC/Getty Images


Fast times with Shabnim Ismail

From playing in the streets with boys to becoming a speed demon feared by batters across the world: here's the South Africa bowler's story

Firdose Moonda  |  

You won't be surprised to hear that Shabnim Ismail's first paid job had something to do with speed. But you are unlikely to guess exactly what it was.

"After I finished school, I started working as a speed-point technician," she says from the South Africa Women's base in Johannesburg, where they are preparing for the World Cup with a series against West Indies.

A what?

"You know, the [credit and debit] card machines that people use to pay for things? That's a speed-point machine" she says. "It was quite fun because I used to drive out and meet different people and go to different areas within Cape Town. I quite enjoyed it."

Ismail was in her late teens and an accomplished cricketer, picked for the national side almost as soon as she finished school, but it was 2007. Women's cricket was considered an amateur sport and she needed to find another way to earn money. For seven years she worked and played international cricket on the side, until a sponsorship from financial services company Momentum allowed Cricket South Africa to contract six women's cricketers in 2014.

"That's when everything changed," she says. "I had to make a decision between working and playing professional cricket and I chose to play cricket for a living."

Looking back, it was an easy decision because it seems as though Ismail was born to bowl.

"A lot of girls used to say, 'Can you just bowl a bit slower and don't bowl bouncers because I am scared I am going to get hit'" Ismail on her speed making batters in the nets nervous

"We used to play cricket in the street and she was the only girl," says South Africa fast bowler Beuran Hendricks, who grew up not far from Ismail's childhood home in the Cape Town suburb of Cravenby.

"She's a competitor. Even then, she just wanted to bowl faster and faster because she didn't want anyone to have one up on her. We would rag her and say, 'You're not that good' and that's when you could see the character in her eyes. She knew she wasn't going to be stood up by guys."

Ismail played sport in the streets with the likes of Hendricks, Vernon Philander, her cousin Yaseen Vallie (a former national Under-19 player, currently playing for Western Province) and many other kids who all grew up in a sporting environment that many in this country and beyond would be unfamiliar with.

Theirs was not the culture of elite school sport but of a community vibe, fostered by passion and resourcefulness. "Cravenby is a very sporting-mad town. We played cricket, soccer and all kinds of sports," Hendricks says.

"We didn't have much but we made a plan. For cricket, if we had an indoor cricket ball, we'd play with that. Or we'd get a tennis ball and tape it. We never played with a hard ball because with a lot of windows around, it could get dangerous. We would play on the road with whatever we could find. We'd get crates and use that to get a field going."

At the 2010 T20 World Cup in West Indies. When she first started playing cricket seriously, Ismail was nicknamed

At the 2010 T20 World Cup in West Indies. When she first started playing cricket seriously, Ismail was nicknamed "the Demon" because of how quick she was Michael Steele / © Getty Images

Ismail's first love was football and she wanted to make a career of it, but her mother and late grandfather coaxed her towards cricket, coaching her and cultivating her love for the game. "They made me read cricket books and made me make my hands hard to catch balls," Ismail says.

"My mom is my role model and she was basically just like me. She played all the sports. She was always with the boys out there, trying to be better than them and having fun. I've got all of her genes inside of me."

Except that Ismail didn't just want to play for fun. She was there to be the best and it didn't sit well with everyone. "You'd always get boys who said, 'I don't like her because she is better than me', but playing with the boys definitely made me stronger.

"I used to get Vernon out a lot and he used to hate that about me but I used to love bowling against him. He used to hit me now and then, and then I'd get him out. When I was batting against him, I was a bit scared because I was just a little girl at that stage.

"But I miss those days of waking up in the morning and just saying, 'Mom, I am going to play with the boys.' You don't even pack a bag, you just grab a bat and ball and off you go."

Occasionally the kids would go to the concrete nets in the area, but it was only at school and through the age-group provincial structures that they had access to better facilities. Ismail was 16 when she was selected for the Western Province women's side, on reputation alone.

"We would rag her and say, 'You're not that good', and that's when you could see she wasn't going to be stood up by guys" Beuran Hendricks, Ismail's childhood friend and South Africa fast bowler

"I never had any trials or anything. My club cricket coach, Mr Fortuin, just told my mom that he wanted me to play," she says. "When I got there, they used to call me 'the Demon', because I was really quick when I was small. Not that I am slow now. I am even quicker."

At first, Ismail didn't know why she was faster than anyone else. "I used to ask my coach, 'Why do I bowl so quickly?" she remembers. But she soon decided it was a secret she didn't necessarily need the answer to. Instead, she decided to try to get faster, combine the pace with subtle skill, and channel her aggression effectively.

"As I got older, I wanted to work on my consistency and all the small things that could make me a better bowler."

That's when she discovered someone whose style was similar to her own, and tried to model her action on his.

"I looked up to Andre Nel as a youngster. I used to love his passion, his aggression, his presence, it's just something about him that really clicked for me," she says. "But when he gets to the crease, he had that wide stance, so as he delivers the ball, his right leg goes out and then his left leg goes out, and that was very difficult for me."

So Ismail, who is 165 centimetres tall compared to Nel's 193, had to ditch trying to emulate his action. She kept his number, 89, which is on the back of her national shirt, and instead tried to channel her inner Dale Steyn.

"I love his bowling action too. We've got the same slower ball, we've got a bouncer and we are quick, so I went with that action," she says. "A lot of girls used to say, 'Can you just bowl a bit slower and don't bowl bouncers because I am scared I am going to get hit.' Up until today, in the South African team, a lot of girls are scared to face me."

Luckily, they don't have to, but other teams certainly have reason to fear Ismail, who is fourth on the all-time ODI wickets chart (164 wickets at 20.69) and third on the T20I one (110 at a strike rate of 18.7). She is well ahead of her South Africa team-mates and puts her success down to good coaching from an earlier age than most female players and experience.

"I met my first bowling coach in 2009." This was former South Africa international Henry Williams. "He taught me to be my own bowling coach and to understand my body and my bowling better. I have the upper hand on other girls because they need bowling coaches to tell them what to do."

Over 15 years, Ismail developed a feel for her own bowling.

"It's about having a rhythm. A lot of coaches will say I am looking good but it's not about looking good. I can look good but if I am not feeling the bowling, I know I will bowl crap." And when she is feeling it, she can almost predict how good she will be.

That's what happened when she picked up the second-best T20I figures by a South African bowler, male or female - 5 for 12 against Pakistan last year.

"The night before, I was sitting with one of the coaches and I said: tomorrow I want at least four wickets," she remembers. "I picked up three upfront and then at the back end, I knew the batters had to have a go, so I'd use my variation. I got the fourth wicket, and it was my last ball. If you look at the replay, you will see I smile before I bowl that last ball because I knew I would get my fifth wicket."

She had similar foresight before the 2020 WBBL final, where she became the first overseas cricketer to be named Player of the Match, after she set Sydney Thunder up for victory.

"The afternoon of the final, the captain [Rachael Haynes] messaged me and asked if I was ready and these were my words to her: 'Skip, don't worry. We got this. We are going to flipping win this.'

"There were a lot of nerves. But in the warm-up, I saw that I was swinging it a lot and I used that swing to take wickets upfront. I got Elyse Villani and then the major wicket, Meg Lanning. That's when I knew we were going to win the tournament. It was the first final I went to and we won. When I speak about this, it gives me goosebumps. No one can understand when you are in the final and you win the final."

Nine months later, Ismail reached a second final, at the Hundred, and won again. She adjusted easily to the format and enjoyed the victory with two of her long-time national team-mates.

"It's basically the same as playing T20 cricket, but just a bit shorter," Ismail says of the Hundred. "I opened with [Marizanne] Kapp and we had Dané [van Niekerk] as our captain. We know her thought process. And the three of us hate losing, so we could rely on each other and work together to win."

What Ismail doesn't have is the same level of success with South Africa despite continued improvements since the professionalisation of the women's team in eight years ago. Although she calls her opening partnership with Kapp, "the best in the world", South Africa haven't won any major trophies although they have come close.

With team-mates Dane van Niekerk and Marizanne Kapp after they won the 2021 Hundred tournament.

With team-mates Dane van Niekerk and Marizanne Kapp after they won the 2021 Hundred tournament. "The three of us hate losing, so we could rely on each other and work together to win," Ismail says © Getty Images

In the last five years, they have reached two successive major tournament semi-finals (the 2017 50-over World Cup and the 2020 T20 World Cup) and lost in heartbreaking fashion both times. After securing automatic qualification to the 2022 World Cup by beating the hosts, New Zealand, in their own backyard and with an experienced group of players, South Africa are now among the favourites to win this one, and Ismail will settle for nothing less.

"If we go to that World Cup having doubts, we are going to lose," she says. "But if we go there with a happy team, we are going to win. We are going to give it our all and I feel like we are going to win this World Cup."

That may sound like the words of a veteran preparing for her last hurrah but for Ismail, it's not. She's been playing for a decade and a half and intends to keep going for "another three to five years". Physically, it doesn't seem like a bridge too far with no major injuries plaguing her, other than a broken finger in 2016 and a knee problem in 2021.

"Hilton [Moreeng, the South African women's national coach] doesn't want me to retire any time soon. I think he only wants me to retire only when I am in the old-age home," she jokes.

"And my body is doing well. What you put into your body, your body will kick back out, and as long as you take care of your body, your body will take care of you. I'm enjoying my cricket. I am peaking at the right stages. I will probably play for another three to five years. I'll be 37 or 38 by then. I eat really well and I am one of the fittest in the team. The longer I play, the better."

Ismail's training regimen has been refined over the years, especially as Cricket South Africa has focused more specifically on the women's game over the last eight years.

"My signature dish is a mutton curry but I can't serve it to any of my team-mates. They can't eat my food because I only cook hot"

"Now, we have a trainer who looks at things that affect female cricketers," she says. "For example, sometimes you will have a lighter training day if you are on your period or a heavier training day just before your period and then when you are on your period, you just do something like a walk or a light jog."

Even the less intense cardio isn't really her thing, "I hate fitness and I hate running," Ismail says, but she does it to keep up with the youngsters.

"It's nice for us to be able to play with the new players and to help them perform, especially because we have so many good young players around," Ismail says. "For example, in the squad now we have our young quick Tumi Sekhukhune. I saw her as a youngster and I really liked her and wanted to work with her. And she always asks me for advice and told me I am her role model. It's nice to have that."

Ismail could not always have been referred to in that way. In 2014 she was among a group of players found to be in breach of their newly acquired contracts for breaking a curfew and abusing alcohol. They were suspended and ordered to attend counselling. She looks back on the incident with contrition.

"When you're young, you do stupid things," she says. "In the end, it made me a stronger person. I learnt my lesson because it ruined my reputation a little. I regret what happened."

Specifically, the allegations of drinking did not sit comfortably for Ismail because she comes from a Muslim background, where alcohol consumption is forbidden. She does not want to go too deeply into the details of what happened that day, except to say that "it was not the whole story that appeared in the media", and that it was a learning curve for her, professionally and personally.

Little but lethal: Ismail is only 5ft 5in, but remains the fastest bowler on the circuit today

Little but lethal: Ismail is only 5ft 5in, but remains the fastest bowler on the circuit today Matt King / © Getty Images

While Ismail doesn't describe herself as particularly religious, she holds aspects of her faith dear. "Wherever I travel, I travel with a Quran or my Ya'seen and as long as I am doing my duas [prayers] in the morning, evening and afternoon, I am happy with that.

"My mother always told me, please my child, just say your kalima [Islamic prayer] before you sleep every night and I do that because for me, it's the right thing."

Similarly, she has strong principles on another issue that has dominated South African cricket headlines for almost two years: antiracism.

Like the men's national team, the women did not initially take a knee but have since followed a CSA-mandated directive to do so. Even before the board reminded the country's players of their segregated past and instructed them to show solidarity in the fight for inclusion, Ismail was taking a knee at the WBBL.

"It's very easy for me. I believe in Black Lives Matter," she says. "Some people don't believe in it because they say it was before their time and we are living a different lifestyle in 2020 or 2021 or 2022. For me, it's very simple to take a knee. I believe in it."

It's not difficult to understand why the antiracist cause would be obvious for Ismail to support. She is a South African of colour, whose childhood straddled the country's transition to democracy, and whose circumstances were described by Hendricks as tough and rough.

Without resorting to stereotypical tropes about life in one of the country's less privileged areas, Hendricks says young people from the place he and Ismail grew up in, "could really go off the rails and go down the wrong path" and that cricket provided them with a way out.

Unlike the national men's side, who come mostly from the elite school's system, the women's team has many players like Ismail, who made it despite circumstances that could have conspired against them. In the last decade, they have had more players of colour than the men's team and there is greater tolerance for different sexual orientations.

"We're a very diverse team and we are fortunate in the way we click," Ismail says. "We feel we can handle all the important issues off the field as long as we are playing good cricket and creating memories."

That is one thing the women's team, and Ismail, have consistently done. In the last four years, as the men's team and the administration has lurched through crises, it's the South Africa women's team that has churned out results and given the cricket community some cheer.

They have won five ODI series in a row since January 2020 and have some of the biggest names in the women's game in their ranks.

Ismail is one of them and she's not just the quickest but the one with the boldest personality. Asked what she does when she isn't chasing speed, she almost shows a softer side. "I love cooking," she says. "My signature dish is a mutton curry but I can't serve it to any of my team-mates. They can't eat my food because I only cook hot. I like hot food - even if I go to Nando's, I will order a quarter chicken and it must be extra hot with extra sauce, otherwise I don't like it."

That's Ismail. Fiery. Always.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent