"That was the best match I have ever played for Bengal so far."
Shahbaz Ahmed smiles as he jogs back to a memorable game from earlier this Ranji Trophy season. In their opening match against Baroda, Bengal were shot out for 88 in the first innings and were later set a daunting 349.
A loss would have most certainly thrown a dagger on their qualification chances, given there were only three group games. Shahbaz walked in at 176 for 5. He had rookie Abishek Porel, straight out of the Under-19s, for company.
The pair added 108 in just over 22 overs on the final day as Bengal scripted a historic win. It was their highest-ever first-class chase, and the sixth best in Ranji history. Shahbaz ended with 71 priceless runs; Porel made a half-century.
On Thursday, Shahbaz added another milestone in his nascent first-class career, when he hit a backs-to-the-wall century, his first in Ranji Trophy, to keep Bengal alive. His 167-run stand with fellow centurion Manoj Tiwary helped rescue the team from a precarious 54 for 5.
"IPL is all about hard-hitting and shot-making; in Ranji, you have to play an entirely different game," Shahbaz says of the switch, in a chat prior to the semi-final. "One major change for me is having to play a lot later in red-ball cricket, since the red ball swings a lot more than the white one. Another requirement [of the longer format] is to keep leaving a lot of the balls, both of which I have been trying to do in net sessions which I have had."
Shahbaz was always a competent batter, but perception was that he was a left-arm spinner who could bat. So, while many outside the fringes expressed surprise at his spunky batting contributions for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL, his team-mates and coaches knew it was Shahbaz excelling at his primary skill.
Within two days of finishing his IPL stint, he landed in Bengaluru for the Ranji knockouts. And in his first red-ball outing in three months, Shahbaz made 78 as Bengal declared after piling up 773 for 7 against Jharkhand. He has followed that up now with a maiden first-class century.
One of the hallmarks of his knock was the situational awareness. He curbed the drives and pulls early on, seemingly intent on leaving deliveries to ensure he didn't give the Madhya Pradesh pacers an opportunity to break in. Having done so knowing fully well he was the last-recognised batter with Tiwary brought out his maturity. His partnership with Tiwary was poetic in a way because the former Bengal captain was among the first to push for Shahbaz's inclusion in the team four years earlier. Tiwary was impressed with Shahbaz's consistency in domestic cricket but faced opposition when he was told they can't field an "outsider."
Like his senior Bengal team-mate Mohammed Shami, Shahbaz isn't a local. He grew up in Mewat, Haryana, and only came to Kolkata in 2013. Having started with club cricket, Shahbaz directly made it to the domestic level, completely bypassing the age-group circuit.
"My friend Pramod Chandila, who played for Bengal at the time, was the one who brought me to play club cricket in Kolkata," Shahbaz recalls. "I consistently kept playing there, though I had never really come thinking that I wanted to play for Bengal in domestic cricket. I just wanted to play since club cricket in Kolkata is the best you would get anywhere in India."
It's during a club tournament that Tiwary first noticed Shahbaz. "I always wanted a spinner who can bat, because to win the Ranji Trophy you have to have a spinner who can bat as well," Tiwary says. "So, I was looking for one. During the team selection they used to have that proper data of who was scoring runs and picking wickets in club cricket. Shahbaz was one of them who was always picking up more than 50-odd wickets and scoring 1200-1500 runs. I always wanted him to be in the side.
"Whatever norms the CAB has of outstation players coming and playing club cricket, as far as my knowledge goes, he fulfilled that criterion to be selected in the senior team. So, there was no question about 'he is playing as an outsider' or whatever it is. But yes, there were lot of questions raised. And results are there to be seen now. He's justified his selection over a period."
Shahbaz couldn't be more thankful to Tiwary's support from back in the day. In 2018-19, he managed just two games but had a breakout season in 2019-20, which coincided with Bengal's march to the Ranji Trophy final.
"When I had just about started playing in Kolkata, it was Manoj Tiwary who spotted me first, and I ended up making my debut [for Bengal] under him," Shahbaz says. "It is tough for someone to directly get a chance at the highest level in domestic cricket if he hasn't played U-19 or any other [age-group] cricket, but he gave me a chance to play for Bengal directly from club cricket.
"What stands out about Manoj bhai is the way he dominates spinners. When you look at him while batting, he gives you the impression that he always has a lot of options against spin. And the way he looks at a match situation is also very helpful. He is a long-term thinker too. At the same time, he also breaks it up into sessions."
These traits were evident when they carried on keeping Madhya Pradesh at bay in the ongoing Ranji Trophy semi-final in Alur.
Another person instrumental in Shahbaz's success has been Arun Lal, the current head coach. Lal's coaching philosophy borders on being frank and to say things as it is. Shahbaz has embraced this openly and admits this has helped him become a better thinker of the game.
"I was dropped after playing my first two [first-class] matches for Bengal. At the time, I had a very wide-open stance while taking strike," he recalls. "So, Arun Lal sir said that scoring runs with that [technique] would be very difficult because of the pitches in domestic cricket in India. And so, after getting dropped, the first thing he asked me was to change the stance. So ever since I have done that, I have started getting the results with the bat - especially in Ranji."
For all the adulation and success of the IPL, Shahbaz hopes he can win the Ranji Trophy for Lal now. "He is a very positive person who keeps motivating us by saying that we can even play for India soon," Shahbaz says. "We get a lot of good vibes from him, and that boosts our confidence too."
He isn't even looking beyond the Ranji Trophy. "At this moment, I need to improve a lot," he says when asked of his India aspirations. "It is only then that I can hope for a chance in the national team. I need to keep maintaining my form and keep winning matches for my side - especially with the bat. I must keep performing consistently to get that chance."
"I want to be a good finisher for my team," he keeps on repeating, "and so I look up to Stokes, since he has won the World Cup, and single-handedly won the Headingley Test for England. His body language stands out for me. So, I just want to finish games off for Bengal and in the IPL, just like he does it for England."