Shahbaz Ahmed is Bengal’s most valuable player at the moment. Over the past two seasons, whenever Bengal have found themselves in a spot of bother in the Ranji Trophy, the 27-year-old all-rounder has done a rescue act, thereby earning the moniker of the “crisis man” of his state team.
Shahbaz had a breakthrough 2019-20 season where his all-round exploits (509 runs and 35 wickets) propelled Bengal to the Ranji final after a 13-year hiatus. More than his stats, what brought him into the limelight was his impact and ability to revel in pressure situations time and again.
Staying true to his reputation, Shahbaz delivered yet another match-winning effort in Bengal’s latest Ranji Trophy Elite Group B outing against Hyderabad at Cuttack’s Barabati Stadium.
After scoring 40-plus runs in both innings, including a gritty 51 in the second, he picked up three wickets [3/41] in the fourth innings to derail the opposition batting line-up.
It was preceded by his 71* in the fourth innings of the first match against Baroda, where he stitched an unbroken 108-run partnership with debutant Abhishek Porel [53*] to orchestrate a thrilling four-wicket victory.
The Indian Premier League (IPL), on the other hand, has given Shahbaz a platform to prove his credentials in white-ball cricket. His wily left-arm spin has gained the trust of former India and Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) captain Virat Kohli, so much so that the latter entrusted him with the 17th over in a crunch match against Sunrisers Hyderabad last season.
As usual, Shahbaz didn’t disappoint. He ran through SRH’s middle order by dismissing Jonny Bairstow, Manish Pandey and Abdul Samad in that over, turning the tide in RCB’s favor. Impressed with his temperament, RCB bought him back at the mega auction last month for ₹2.40 crore – eight times his base price.
However, Shahbaz’s journey to fame was fraught with several challenges. The Haryana-born cricketer had to grapple with the “outsider” tag when he first came to Kolkata around eight years ago. Refusing to get bogged down by the incident, he immersed himself completely in the sport and churned out valuable performances for the Tapan Memorial in C.A.B’s first-division league. His perseverance bore fruit when he received his maiden Bengal call-up in 2018 and he hasn’t looked back since.
An aggressive left-handed batter with a knack for breaking partnerships with the ball, Shahbaz is an excellent fielder too. Blessed with these three-dimensional skills, he now aspires to emulate Ravindra Jadeja for both Bengal and RCB before making a leap towards the Indian team.
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda ahead of Bengal’s third and final Ranji group fixture against Chandigarh starting on Thursday, the engineer-turned-cricketer spoke about his cricket journey so far and his evolution as a finisher. He also dwelt on his experience of playing under Virat Kohli’s leadership and how it has brought out the best in him. Here are the excerpts:
Q: You hail from Haryana’s Mewat, a district which didn’t have any cricket infrastructure during your formative years. How challenging was it to come up through that system and what were the risks involved?
Shahbaz: I’ve always enjoyed playing cricket more than anything else. So, even when I was in my engineering college, I missed many classes to play cricket. One day, the college authorities called up my father and informed him about my bunking habit (laughs). Instead of shouting at me, my father called me and asked me about my choice. I told him that I wanted to pursue cricket professionally. Hence, after completing my formal education, I came to Kolkata to play club cricket. I never had any doubt in my mind that I would become a professional cricketer.
Q: Why did you decide to move to Kolkata?
Shahbaz: When I was younger, I used to play a lot of matches with and against professional players in Delhi NCR, so I saw the process [of playing professional cricket] closely. Gradually, I imbibed that culture and moved to West Bengal around eight years back for better opportunities.
I had no prior intention of playing for Bengal. I just came to Kolkata to play local club cricket, which is famous all over the country. It was my friend Pramod Chandila [former Bengal player who now plays for Haryana] who first brought me to Kolkata. I was signed by a club named Tapan Memorial, for whom I continue to play to date. I’ve received many offers from the big clubs in Kolkata like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Bhawanipore, but I don’t want to leave Tapan Memorial. They have looked after me for so many years, contributing to my growth. After doing well in C.A.B’s [Cricket Association of Bengal] first-division league for three years, I earned my maiden Bengal call-up in 2018.
Q: You were labeled an “outsider” and had to face many difficulties when you first came to Kolkata. How did you deal with that phase?
Shahbaz: These things are part and parcel of life. When I started playing in the C.A.B. first-division, many clubs opposed my participation by claiming that I was an "outsider." But it’s all in the past now and everyone has moved on. Thankfully, the C.A.B. conducted an investigation and gave me the green light to continue playing in the first-division league. To be honest, I was completely focused on my game at that stage, so these things didn’t bother me much. I have received a lot of love and warmth during my stay in Kolkata.
Q: Do you consider yourself a batting all-rounder or a bowling all-rounder?
Shahbaz: I’ve primarily been a batter since my childhood. I took up spin bowling seriously much later.
Q: When and why did you start bowling spin?
Shahbaz: I used to bowl part-time spin in my formative years. At the time, I had neither any variations nor any control over my bowling. My bowling improved drastically once I came to Kolkata and started playing local three-day cricket. I started picking up the intricacies of spin bowling and worked very hard to hone my skills when I first got selected for Bengal’s Ranji Trophy team. I understood what the team management wanted from me, so I started grooming myself as an all-rounder. I’ve also gained massively from my stint with Royal Challengers Bangalore so far. The dynamics of T20 cricket are entirely different from first-class cricket. I think that experience has really helped me become smarter as a spinner.
Q: Did you idolize any particular spinner whilst growing up?
Shahbaz: I didn’t have any role-model while growing up. However, I love the way Ravindra Jadeja has been performing for the Indian team over the past few years. I aspire to be an all-rounder like him for my state and also for my IPL franchise.
Q: Did you get an opportunity to interact with Ravindra Jadeja during the past two seasons of the IPL?
Shahbaz: I’ve not spoken to him, but I ardently follow him [smiles].
Q: How has your bowling benefited from your interactions with legendary Bengal left-arm spinner Utpal Chatterjee, who was part of the team’s coach staff until recently?
Shahbaz: I’ve learnt a lot from Utpal da. When I first came into the team, my basics were not so good. Utpal da has helped me improve on my basics because half of your problems can be solved if you get your basics right.
Q: Since you’re batting so well, do you want to get promoted up the order in the Bengal team?
Shahbaz: I don’t have any personal preference. If the team management thinks that I can be a match-winner batting in the lower-middle order, I’m happy to play that role. I’ll do whatever is necessary to win Bengal more matches in the coming days.
Q: Has your consistency in domestic cricket drawn any feedback from Debasish Mohanty, the current East Zone representative on the national selection committee?
Shahbaz: No, I don’t think there is any chance of my selection [in the Indian team] at the moment because the Ranji Trophy has just started and it will be followed by the IPL. I might hear something from him if I have an outstanding season personally and we get close to the Ranji title as a team.
Q: Let’s talk about your IPL experience now. How much has Shahbaz Ahmed evolved since joining Royal Challengers Bangalore a couple of years back?
Shahbaz: Oh, I’ve improved a lot! The IPL has changed my mindset because in this tournament you learn to thrive under pressure. If we stay as determined as Virat Kohli or AB de Villiers, we can do much better in domestic cricket. Both Virat bhai and AB are great finishers. I feel that quality is slowly rubbing off on me too. I want to play for RCB for many more years to come and become a much improved version of myself.
Q: Virat Kohli is known to be a bowler’s captain. How has the experience of playing under his leadership been at RCB?
Shahbaz: I’ve enjoyed my time playing under his captaincy. You’re absolutely right in saying that he’s a bowler’s captain. He supports bowlers massively, especially youngsters like me. Whenever I get an opportunity to play for RCB, I try to deliver my best for the team. He has a lot of trust in my abilities. You would remember that he gave me the crucial 17th over against the Sunrisers Hyderabad [in the first leg in India] last season. I managed to take three wickets in that over because of which I got the "Game Changer" award. The fact that he shows so much faith in youngsters like me proves how great a captain he is.
Q: Does Virat keep track of your match-winning performances in the Ranji Trophy? Do you receive congratulatory messages from him when you do well?
Shahbaz: He keeps track of the performances of every player who plays for RCB and shares his feedback at times.
Q: You’ll miss him as captain this season, won’t you?
Shahbaz: Yes, for sure. We still don’t know who our new captain is going to be, but Virat bhai’s experience will surely help the team. Hopefully, we’ll continue to perform the way we did in the last two seasons and go a step further to win the IPL trophy this time.
Q: In the last two seasons, you shared the RCB dressing room with Yuzvendra Chahal, who also hails from Haryana. What have you learned from him on the technical front? Also, how excited are you to bowl alongside Wanindu Hasaranga this season?
Shahbaz: Chahal bhai is currently India’s best leg-spinner. He was the one who handed me my RCB cap. What he has achieved for RCB is incredible. He mentored me in a lot of ways in the past two seasons. Whenever we used to set plans for a batter, be it before or during a match, he would guide me regarding the areas that I needed to bowl on. He’s a great strategist. I’ll personally miss him this season, but I wish him all the best for his new journey [with Rajasthan Royals].
[On Hasaranaga] I’m really looking forward to playing alongside him this season. He was with us last season as well, but didn’t get enough playing time. He has been performing quite well on the international circuit and I hope to learn new things from him.
Q: What is your target for the remainder of the season?
Shahbaz: I don’t have any specific numbers in mind, but I obviously want to help Bengal and RCB win trophies. The Ranji season has become shorter due to COVID-19, so all the matches are kind of knockouts for us. I only want to perform to the best of my abilities. If you help the team get close to trophies, you’ll surely get noticed. I’m not thinking too far ahead right now.
Q. Do you think Shahbaz Ahmed can be a good replacement for Ravindra Jadeja in Team India in the long run?
44 votes so far