From not making it to the Haryana Under-19 team, pursuing engineering, moving to Kolkata and playing Ranji Trophy for Bengal despite being labelled an ‘outsider’, to making a mark in the Indian Premier League, Shahbaz Ahmed has seen it all.
In 2015, Shahbaz, a third-year civil engineering student, told his father Ahmed Jan that he wanted to move to Kolkata to pursue his cricketing dreams after a suggestion from Pramod Chandila, a former Bengal cricketer (Chandila is playing for Haryana now). Jan, a clerk in the sub-divisional magistrate’s office in Haryana’s Nuh district, booked a train ticket for his son on the condition that he will complete his engineering degree.
“Koi baap nahi chahega ki uska beta padhai chhor ke cricket khele. Zid thi uski ki wo kuchh bada karega (No father would want his son to play cricket at the cost of education. He was determined to do something big),” Jan told The Indian Express.
“Even his college professors told him that it was a mistake because he was a good student. Shahbaz told his head of department that ‘one day you will give me my degree and also felicitate me.’ And last year it happened.”
Best of Express Premium
With his civil engineering books and a cricketing kit, Shahbaz reached Kolkata and joined Tapan Memorial Club in the first division. It has not been an easy journey for Shahbaz as after playing his first game, the then-21-year-old was banned and labeled an ‘outsider’.
It was only after Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) conducted an investigation and gave him the go-ahead that Shahbaz could play again. Six years down the line, he is now one of the key players of the Bengal team in all formats and showing his mettle in the IPL as well.
Ahead of the 2018-19 domestic season, the then Bengal skipper Manoj Tiwary saw Shahbaz playing in one of the league matches and asked for his stats. Next day, during the Ranji Trophy team selection, Manoj put out the numbers in front of the selectors. There were reservations about Shahbaz because he was not originally from Bengal, but Tiwary was adamant and finally had his way.
“We needed a bowler who could bat at No. 7 or 8. Shahbaz was perfect for the role, and his numbers were there to see. Sourav Ganguly was CAB president, and he was there in the meeting too. I vividly remember telling him that this guy will win us matches single-handedly,” Tiwary told The Indian Express.
As far as Shahbaz’s ‘outsider’ tag is concerned, Tiwary, now West Bengal’s Minister of State for Youth Affairs and Sports, said: “Any cricketer, if he or she is not born in Bengal, will face this problem. The outsider tag will go away slowly with performances. Look at Mohammed Shami; he was an outsider too.”
In Tiwary aka ‘Manni bhaiyya’, Shahbaz had an elder brother in the dressing room. It was under him that he made his first-class debut.
Coach in his corner
If Tiwary took Shahbaz under his wings, it was Bengal coach Arun Lal who made him a tough nut. Like Shahbaz, Lal didn’t have his roots in Bengal. He was an outsider once, but was also the renaissance man of Bengal cricket who brought a winning mentality to the team as a player in the 1980s.
Shahbaz’s breakthrough season came in 2019-20, the all-rounder scoring 509 runs with the bat and bagging 35 wickets with his left-arm spin. He was instrumental in Bengal reaching the finals. In February 2020, Bengal was playing Punjab in Patiala. It was a virtual pre-quarterfinal as both teams needed an outright victory. Bengal prevailed on a dustbowl with Shahbaz taking 11 wickets.
But on Day 2 of the game, Lal was miffed with the way Shahbaz got out in Bengal’s second innings, playing a wild hoick, prompting a mouthful from the coach in the dressing room. But Lal rates Shahbaz very highly, and as per him, he is India material. “I was surprised when he was not picked for India A. Tell me how many cricketers in Ranji Trophy score 500-plus runs and take 35 wickets,” asks Lal.
In the recent IPL season, Shahbaz became one of the mainstays for Royal Challengers Bangalore. He scored 219 runs and bagged four wickets in 16 games, but what the numbers won’t show is the immense faith the management showed in the all-rounder. Against Rajasthan Royals, Shahbaz smashed a 26-ball 45; it was his 67-run stand for the sixth wicket with Dinesh Karthik, which won the match for the team.
In the current Ranji season, Shahbaz has scored 221 runs and bagged eight wickets in the group stage. In the first game against Baroda, Bengal were bowled out for a paltry 88. Subsequently, they needed 350 runs to win in the fourth innings and were reeling at 176 for 5 on Day four.
Shahbaz stepped up. He first put together a 66-run stand with Tiwary (37), and then added an unbeaten 108-run partnership with debutant Abhishek Porel (53 not out) as Bengal won by four wickets. In the second game against Hyderabad, Shahbaz’s 40 and 51 with the bat and four wickets with the ball helped Bengal win by 62 runs.
“I am not surprised with his performance. He is always very cool under pressure, loves challenges, and has a great understanding of the game. He is a thinking cricketer, very rare among the current lot. He is too good to be batting at No. 7 or 8,” said Lal.
But the Bengal coach believes Shahbaz adds great value batting at that number. “He has this amazing ability to bat with the tail; no one else in our team has that skill. I am so dependent on him because he is a guaranteed performer. In this year’s Ranji Trophy, he was the player of the match in two games out of three we played,” the 66-year-old said. “Shahbaz is an exceptional story, and this is just the beginning of a stellar career.”
More to come
As far as his IPL stint goes, both Tiwary and Lal feel Shahbaz can contribute more with the ball for his franchise. (RCB skipper) Faf (du Plessis) should have used him more. His bowling is suited to T20s. Maybe, it is because of the dew that he was not getting more overs but I think it is an under-utilisation of the resource. Hopefully, we will see him bowling more in the next season,” said Tiwary.
Meanwhile, at his village Sikrawa in Haryana’s Mewat district, Jan wants his son to play for his country and keep a level head. “Allah ne chaha toh desh ke liye bhi khelega. Humne kab socha tha ki Haryana se mauke nahi milenge toh Bengal jayega, fir IPL. Bas achcha khelta rahe aur success ko dimag pe na chadhne de. (By God’s grace, he will play for India one day as well. We never imagined that he would play for Bengal and then in the IPL. Hopefully success will not get into his head),” the proud father signed off.