That day may not be far off. Shahbaz, 27, is part of Team India’s ODI squad in Zimbabwe as replacement for the injury-racked Washington Sundar. A slow left-arm spinner and effective lower middle-order southpaw, Shahbaz plies his trade for Bengal and RCB. But he comes from the Muslim-majority Nuh in Haryana’s Mewat, named as India’s most backward district by Niti Aayog.
Shahbaz’s selection has prompted collective joy in a region where sporting models are rare. “There is no dearth of talent in Mewat. They need to be found and given a platform. Illiteracy and joblessness are our two main miseries,” says Ramzan Chaudhary, a social activist and chief of the All India Mewati Samaj.
Shahbaz, who has been included in Team India’s ODI squad in Zimbabwe as replacement for Washington Sundar, has impressed everyone with his allround skills and temperament since making his first-class debut in 2018.
He scored 116 and scalped eight wickets in a valiant but futile bid to win the game for his adopted state, Bengal, against Madhya Pradesh in the Ranji Trophy semifinal this year.
As a kid, Shahbaz discovered his obsession for cricket in the two-player matches he played with his father. The boy would bat, his father bowled. “He has been playing cricket since he was four. I had to bowl to him for hours together.
“Eventually, I would get tired, but not him! Just to end the game, I’d bowl a loose ball, which he would hit for a ‘six’. The match had to end because the ball would be lost,” grins 50-yearold Jaan Ahmed, who works as a reader at the sub-divisional magistrate’s court in Nuh.
In a few years, Jaan Ahmed was transferred to Hathin in Palwal district, where Shahbaz found an academy to train and a private school to study. He is a civil engineer from Manav Rachna University in Faridabad.
But cricket remained his passion all along. “After turning 15, he would travel 13km alone by bus daily for coaching. My job did not allow me to travel with him and I did not have the money to send him by auto.
“He also attended many camps of the Haryana Cricket Association but was never selected for Ranji Trophy,” said Jaan Ahmed, who played a few competitive cricket matches himself for the Shikrawa team.
Shahbaz Ahmed (BCCI/IPL Photo)
The batting allrounder eventually moved to Kolkata. In the local league, his exploits for Tapan Memorial Club caught the eye of the ustads.
PTI had reported that in 2016, Sourav Ganguly, who was heading the Cricket Association Bengal, had urged U-23 coach Sourasish Lahiri to consider him for the team. The pivotal moment in his career was his selection by Royal Challengers Bangalore, the IPL franchise then captained by Virat Kohli.
“The first thing he bought from his IPL earnings was a 42-inch TV for his grandfather,” says his uncle Mohammad Farukh, a school headmaster in Nuh. “Before his RCB selection, he shared an accommodation with two other players. Since he wasn’t good at cooking, he told his roommates he would do the dishes. He never disclosed this to us, fearing we might worry and ask him to come back home,” chuckles Farukh.
Mother Abnam, a homemaker, is praying that he gets to play at least one match on the Zimbabwe tour. And she has ordered a new showcase for the medals and trophies she expects him to bring. “I’m so proud,” Abnam says.
Shahbaz Ahmed (BCCI/IPL Photo)
“They might not include him in the XI in the first two matches. But once they win the series, I am hopeful that he will get an opportunity to play in India colours in the last match.” she says.
Before boarding his flight, a CAB note quoted Shahbaz as saying, “Everybody who plays cricket wants to wear the India colours. Being called up for the Indian team is a dream come true. Whenever I have played for Bengal, I have given my all. “The Bengal team believed in me. Given a chance, I hope I can win matches for India with my batting and bowling. I hope the team can bank on me.”