Shahbaz Ahmed has seen it all, from not making the Haryana Under-19 team to pursuing engineering, travelling to Kolkata and playing the Ranji Trophy for Bengal despite being labelled a “outsider,” to earning a name for himself in the Indian Premier League.
Following a recommendation from former Bengal cricketer Pramod Chandila, Shahbaz, a third-year civil engineering student, told his father Ahmed Jan in 2015 that he wanted to travel to Kolkata to pursue his cricketing dreams (Chandila is playing for Haryana now). Jan, a clerk in Haryana’s Nuh district’s sub-divisional magistrate’s office, booked a rail ticket for his son on the condition that he finish his engineering degree.
“Koi baap nahi chahega ki uska beta padhai chhor ke cricket khele, ki uska beta padhai chhor ke cricket khele, ki uska beta padhai chhor ke cricket khele, ki No father would want his son to play cricket at the expense of his schooling. Zid thi uski ki wo kuchh bada karega Jan told The Indian Express, “He was determined to accomplish something big).”
“Even his college teachers told him it was a bad decision because he was a good student.” ‘One day you will award me my degree and also felicitate me,’ Shahbaz promised his department chair. And it happened last year.”
Shahbaz arrived in Kolkata with his civil engineering books and a cricketing kit and joined the first division Tapan Memorial Club. Shahbaz’s road has not been easy; after his debut game, the then-21-year-old was banned and labelled a ‘outsider.’
Shahbaz was only allowed to play again when the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) conducted an investigation and awarded him permission. Six years later, he is one of Bengal’s most important players in all formats, and he is proving his worth in the IPL as well.
Manoj Tiwary, the Bengal skipper at the time, observed Shahbaz playing in one of the league matches and asked for his stats ahead of the 2018-19 domestic season. Manoj presented the figures to the selectors the next day during the Ranji Trophy team selection. Although there were misgivings about Shahbaz because he was not from Bengal, Tiwary was resolute and eventually got his way.
“We needed a bowler who could bat at No. 7 or No. 8,” said the coach. Shahbaz was ideal for the part, and his numbers proved it. CAB president Sourav Ganguly was also present at the meeting. “I recall telling him that this person is going to win all of our games by himself,” Tiwary told The Indian Express.
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“Any cricketer who is not born in Bengal will confront this challenge,” Tiwary, now West Bengal’s Minister of State for Youth Affairs and Sports, remarked of Shahbaz’s ‘outsider’ label. With time, the label of outsider will go away. Consider Mohammed Shami, who was also an outsider.”
If Tiwary was the one who took Shahbaz under his wing, Bengal coach Arun Lal was the one who moulded him into a difficult nut. Lal, like Shahbaz, had no Bengali ancestors. He was previously an outsider, but as a player in the 1980s, he was a renaissance man for Bengal cricket, bringing a winning mindset to the team.
In 2019-20, Shahbaz achieved his breakthrough season, scoring 509 runs with the bat and 35 wickets with his left-arm spin. Bengal’s progress to the finals was aided by him. Bengal was scheduled to play Punjab in Patiala in February 2020. Both teams needed an outright win, hence it was a virtual pre-quarterfinal. On a dustbowl, Bengal won with Shahbaz taking 11 wickets.
However, on Day 2 of the game, Lal was irritated by the way Shahbaz was dismissed in Bengal’s second innings, when he played a wild hoick, prompting a rebuke from the coach in the dressing room. However, Lal thinks highly of Shahbaz and believes he is India material. “I was taken aback when he wasn’t selected for India A. “Tell me how many cricketers in the Ranji Trophy score 500 runs or take 35 wickets,” Lal enquires.