'Outsider' to trump card: The rise of Shahbaz Ahmed in Bengal

Shahbaz picked up 30 wickets at an average of just 15 coupled with 427 runs at 38.81 vaulting the Abhimanyu Easwaran-led side into the semifinals.

Shahbaz Ahmed in action against Kerala in the league phase of Ranji Trophy 2019-20.   -  FILE PHOTO/ SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT


Shahbaz Ahmed comes across as someone who is not comfortable with limelight. Though used to the attention now, he is still shy by nature, and would rather walk quietly into his room to just sit and relax.

Ahmed had played just two first-class matches before this season, but has turned out to be Bengal's trump card in Ranji Trophy 2019-20. He picked up 30 wickets at an average of just 15 coupled with 427 runs at 38.81 vaulting the Abhimanyu Easwaran-led side into the semifinal.

"Heroes. Shahbaz is redefining the Hindi language. Instead of saying jaanbaaz (daredevil) cricketer we will say Shahbaz cricketer," Bengal head coach Arun Lal says in jest. "I've not seen such performances for a long time. Who knows where he will end up but he is one for the future."

But there was nothing seamless about Ahmed's early foray into the domestic circuit in Bengal. The 25-year-old, who grew up in Shikrawa village in Nuh district in Haryana, moved to Kolkata in 2015 to play club cricket.

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During his second season in Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB)-organised club cricket, while plying his trade for Tapan Memorial, Ahmed had faced allegations of not possessing proper residential proof. The CAB stepped in and the matter was duly resolved.

Three years since that day, Ahmed has made such rapid strides that it is difficult to imagine the time when he was made to feel like an "outsider" in Bengal. "I can't tell you how amazing it feels to qualify for the semis. Playing a team of Karnataka's calibre in the last four is an exciting challenge. We just want to make it to the final and win the title; that's our final goal," says Ahmed.

As he matures, Bengal can ensure it doesn't go one bowler light without compromising on the batting core. Ahmed's rise has given a team, in transition, a much-needed all-round balance.

His 133-ball 61 in the second innings against Rajasthan in the league phase highlighted the potential he can bring with the bat: in an innings containing four fours and two sixes, he proved his adaptability and maturity which ultimately pushed Bengal over the line with two wickets to spare.

Ahmed knows how the long game is played. "Batting at No. 7 is not easy. I've modelled my game around that position, so it's very rewarding whenever I score runs in the lower-order. The message is simple: play according to the situation and the needs of the team," he says.

Ahmed, who is Bengal's leading wicket-taker this season, also credited the support of Lal and bowling coach Utpal Chatterjee. "(Arun) Lal sir has really helped us in getting a good atmosphere in the dressing room because you need to be comfortable inside the dressing room to do well outside. Everybody in the support staff is trying to do his best to give us the best atmosphere," Ahmed says.

Shahbaz Ahmed celebrates his hat-trick against Hyderabad in Kalyani, West Bengal.   -  FILE PHOTO/ PTI


"And I always try to have a conversation about bowling with Utpal (Chatterjee) da because he's one guy who tells me how to bowl on different wickets and how to attune to facing different batsmen."

It was a slightly overcast and cool afternoon in Kolkata on Friday, with the pitch wearing a green look. About the Eden wicket, which tends to offer a bit for the fast bowlers and the seamers, Ahmed says, "The spinners barely get any purchase off the surface. Plus it's still a little cold here in Kolkata and we've a neutral curator who has prepared the wicket. We will see what kind of surface we get on Saturday and decide the playing XI accordingly."

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