Varun Shetty in Kolkata


Bengal had needed 127 to win with five wickets in hand against Rajasthan when Shahbaz Ahmed joined Anustup Majumdar, the last specialist batsman and a man who debuted 16 years ago. Fifteen runs and a couple of overs later, Ahmed, in only his ninth first-class match, suddenly had the task of keeping Bengal’s Ranji campaign alive by getting 112 runs in the company of allrounder Arnab Nandi and the tail.

To draw a parallel, he had to pull off a Ben Stokes-type turnaround with the lower order. That is precisely the kind of miracle Ahmed dreams of pulling off on a regular basis.

“VVS Laxman, who is our batting mentor [at Bengal’s off-season camp, Vision 2020], told me that he wanted me to play the role for Bengal that Ravindra Jadeja plays for India,” Ahmed said. “That’s an honour for me that he thinks like that of me. As for me, I want to be like Ben Stokes for the team – trustworthy enough to win the match for the team in all types of situations.”

Ahmed, a left-handed batsman himself, eliminated risks over the next 42.3 overs as he put up 29 for the seventh wicket with Nandi, and then 50 with fast bowler Akash Deep for the eighth. Seamer and No. 10 batsman Mukesh Kumar then hung around for 20 balls before Ahmed sealed the win with a six.

Over the next two weeks, a team with a recent history of crashing out precisely when the stakes get high, has produced three come-from-behind performances in do-or-die circumstances, with Ahmed at the forefront every time. A win against Karnataka in the semi-final will give them their first shot at the Ranji title since 2006-07.

Against Punjab, Bengal were bowled out for 138. With his left-arm spin, Ahmed took a seven-for in the first innings, and four in the second as Punjab were bowled out chasing 190. The 11-wicket haul took Bengal into the quarter-finals where, once again, Ahmed was at the fore of a big comeback against Odisha, making two fifties; the one in the first innings came after Bengal had fallen to 46 for 5 in the first session of the match.

“He’s the heart of our team right now,” said Arun Lal, coach-cum-mentor of Bengal. “He’s the core of our team. He’s single-handedly won us four games. The crux of the matter is when you’re 46 for 5, he goes and gets 80-odd runs, has a 150-run partnership. When it’s a turning track he gets runs. He didn’t get us runs in Punjab, but he got us 11 wickets. If you look at him batting, he doesn’t look very impressive, but he is full of heart, full of belief, and he adapts really well. If you tell him something, he tries to rectify it very quickly. He’s very keen, very fit. His energy – if he’s standing at third man and the captain wants him to bowl, he comes in running.”

There are easy cosmetic comparisons that can be made with both Stokes and Jadeja. But the wiry 25-year-old, in only his second season as a senior-level cricketer, has hardly had a straightforward path into what is now a dream patch. He was born in Mewat, a district in Haryana, which in 2018 was reportedly the “most backward district” based on indicators like health, education, and basic infrastructure (Data: Niti Aayog report).

“From there, I moved to Palwal district in Haryana for my first academy. Then I played for Gurgaon district for a few years before the chances ran out. That is when I moved here, to Kolkata,” Ahmed said. That move happened in 2015, to play for Tapan Memorial Club in the first division.

“I had a friend here, Pramod Chandila, who played for Bengal. He brought me here. I think the best club cricket in India is here, so that’s what I came to play. I did well there and that’s how I’ve ended up in the Bengal team.”

Over the last five years, Ahmed has come into his own in the system and is dealing with a difficult role – the allrounder at No. 7 – with adroitness. One of the many challenges in this journey has been that it was not a role he was used to at club level, and he was in and out of the team last season and was trying to come to terms with it, both on the batting and bowling fronts. Specifically, he and Lal had worked on an open batting stance that was making him vulnerable to deliveries leaving him

“The year before, he got a couple of chances and failed, and I fired the hell out of him because he made the same mistake in the second game,” Lal said. “He had a bit of a problem with incoming balls and some coach had advised him to stand with an open stance. He did that and got runs at club level, so he brought it to Ranji cricket. And simple offspin outside off stump, he edged it twice to slip because his foot wouldn’t reach the ball. He was so square on. I told him, you try and rectify one problem and you create more. Two hundred years of cricket wisdom has suggested that you stand in one fashion.”

Ahmed was stoic through most of the conversation with this reporter, but let out a smile when that discussion with Lal was brought up. After being dropped from the Ranji squad, he took the suggestions and put them to use in club cricket, before returning for what had already been a big season much before the Ranji Trophy even began.

His performance in the limited-overs legs of the domestic season was noticed by Royal Challengers Bangalore, who picked him up at the IPL auction for INR 20 lakh in December 2019. From time to time, their head coach Mike Hesson has been in touch with Ahmed to congratulate him on his performances. It is almost difficult to believe the path he is one right now, Ahmed says.

“I had been confident that I would play in the IPL and am confident that I will someday play for India. But I had no clue all this would come so fast,” he said.

“Since the IPL selection, whenever there have been live matches telecast, they have kept tabs on it. They think of how I could contribute or what sort of combinations I could fit into. They haven’t seen too much of me and there won’t be that much time for preparation when the IPL begins [on March 29]. So they’ve been talking to me. I feel proud that I’m in RCB and will get to share the dressing room with Virat bhai and AB de Villiers. It’s a big deal.”

Ahmed understands that it has only been one good season yet, after last year’s season where he was grappling with his own inexperience. But what could possibly be left to see from someone who has produced big performances under pressure with both bat and ball, and has even taken a hat-trick?

“Hundreds. I’ve been doing well but I haven’t been able to get them. I trust that I will start making hundreds and people will enjoy that as well. I’ve made hundreds consistently at club cricket and that’s why CAB gave me this chance. So I want to bring that to the team.”

Ahmed will play perhaps the biggest game of his career, the semi-final against domestic giants Karnataka on Saturday. On a hard, green Eden Gardens pitch, it will be a tough proposition to begin a century-making habit. But there isn’t anyone in Bengal who would begrudge the man who has played pretty much the starring role – Stokes or Jadeja – in arguably their best season over the last ten years. Not least because he says that whatever happens, good or bad, he has made up his mind that all his cricket will be for Bengal.

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