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Cricket news - There or thereabouts: The Shahbaz Nadeem story
Nadeem made his Test debut in front of his home crowd in Ranchi.
"How do you kill a dream?"
It's this innocence of the question that stands out, right at the start of our conversation. Shahbaz Nadeem is responding to if he ever wanted to pull the curtains down on a long-awaited dream of playing for India. This is a man who has consistently punched above what his state team, Jharkhand, has been able to in domestic cricket. And yet he was there, and not quite, all at the same time.
The stars had somehow not yet aligned to his dreams, or prayers.
It eventually did when Nadeem was on his knees, reading the Namaaz. A flurry of phone calls confirmed of his maiden Test call-up. How better can someone's efforts be rewarded, or prayers be answered, than the Test debut happening among his own, at his home ground in Ranchi. But, as his life has been, the testing times returned even before the joys could sink in. Within a week, Nadeem had been called up, given a Test cap, praised for his classical action and then, omitted from the squad for the next series. However, Nadeem's not unsettled, at least on the face of it.
"For India, aaj khilao, kal khilao, ya char saal baad khilao,I will still be here. It's just that I am stubborn.Ab toh aur bhi." (For India, you play me today, tomorrow, or even after four years, I will still be here. It's just that I am stubborn. Even more now).
Very early in his life, Nadeem knew his cricketing career was a gamble by his father - a deputy superintendent of police. Javed Mahmood wanted one of his sons to focus on studies. So, Nadeem gave up his career to allow his brother, a top-order batsman and an offspinner who was leading age-group Bihar teams by then, to take up the sport.
However, the desperation to get back in the game didn't allow Nadeem to stay away. "I had quit playing cricket. I was focussing on my studies. Then I just requested my dad to allow me to play Under-15. It was just for a month after my exams. When I went to play in Under-15, I picked 16 wickets in two games. I was asked to come for trials in Bangalore. I was selected for India and then my brother gave up his dream," he says.
When Javed introduced his sons to Imtiaz Hussain in Dhanbad, Nadeem, just 10 at that point, wanted to be a pacer. It was on his coach's insistence, he picked up left-arm spin. Little did he know, around the same time in Jamnagar his biggest competitor - Ravindra Jadeja - was being moulded into a left-arm spinner from a pacer by his coach Mahendrasinh Chauhan.
"It's the action," stresses Imtiaz. "It was very natural and looked like something that could have been developed on. The thing that struck me was that he had the perfect alignment even when he was a kid. The high-arm action, the hand coming around right next to the ear and the alignment of the legs - it just showed he had the talent."
As Nadeem developed, his coach had found the perfect student. "He was a very quiet kid. He was never notorious and was very disciplined. I never liked them (Nadeem and his brother) playing tennis-ball cricket. I felt that hampered him. I actually went to the extent of telling them that I won't coach if they continue tennis-ball cricket," he says.
The first-class breakthrough came very early for Nadeem. At 15, he was playing Ranji Trophy for Jharkhand against Kerala. Mahendra Singh Dhoni was the 'keeper in the game which ended in a draw and Jharkhand missed the first-innings lead by just five runs. "Because of my mistake, we lost the first-innings lead by five runs. I was the last man out and fell trying to play a cover drive. I was caught behind off the bowling of Tinu Yohannan," Nadeem admits.
Two years later, a call-up to the India Under-19 team followed for the World Cup. He played just one game - against Scotland - where he picked 1 for 18 from his seven overs. Things moved gradually but not swiftly as the next six years in first-class cricket, till the 2011-12 season, resulted in 92 wickets at 34.33. He did just enough to be part of the side but there were moments of brilliance as well. In the 2010-11 Vijay Hazare final, Nadeem's 4-1-6-4 helped Jharkhand seal their maiden title win.
Nadeem, however, was just warming up for a late dash. In 2012-13 Ranji Trophy, he picked 42 wickets at an average of less than 26 and climbed to the fourth spot in the wicket-takers list. His performance helped the side leap out of the Plate group. The 2015-16 season saw him end with 51 wickets at an average of 19.62. And then 56 more wickets followed the next season as he became only the second bowler to bag more than 50 wickets in consecutive seasons of Ranji Trophy.
"When I started first-class cricket, I was just 15. When you are young, you don't understand how you are taking wickets. You are bowling well and you start getting wickets," he says. "I've learnt that ability to earn wickets. There are days when you bowl really well and you still don't get wickets. It's an art that you have to learn. You have read the batsman and you have to find his vulnerabilities. In the last four years, I've learnt the art of reading the batsman. I think I've improved in reading them and I am much quicker at it now.
"The bowling stays the same. A lot of people have helped me but I don't accept the advice immediately. When I don't get wickets, I'll turn to them. Till the time I am getting wickets, I'll stick to what I have. Everyone can't be perfect. I can't be perfect. I can't have the perfect action. You look at Bishan Singh Bedi sir. He had a classic action. I can't be perfect like him. However, I can be Shahbaz Nadeem and I can be good at it."
Nadeem kept hammering the door with his performances. In Chepauk in 2018, he ended with the best List A figures in Indian cricket when he bagged 8 for 10 against Rajasthan. And while the wickets kept coming in, the frustration too kept creeping up. "I admit. I used to get too desperate. It just came from inside that I have to break open the door. Can you fault me for that?" he asks. "And then it struck me that I was hurting myself and people close to me. Selectiontoh aa jayega (selection will happen).
"But I've realised that you have to be patient. You have to keep coming hard. The desperation has reduced and I am more at peace now. Six months ago, I was very desperate. I wanted to know about everything. About what's going wrong. I wanted to know what else I can do."
Jadeja becoming a left-arm spinner wasn't the only direct competition. The outburst of wrist spinners in the country and the team management's fixation with it, posed a new threat. But Nadeem, for the man he is, isn't too perturbed by it. He though does take a deep breath, twitches the muscles on his temple and says, he doesn't know if he's threatened by this new ilk.
"Har saal naya nayaconceptaata haiinternational cricketme and wohdomesticme bhi aa jata. (Every year there are new concepts in international cricket and that comes down to domestic cricket as well). I have been doing really well and I am a finger spinner. Wrist spinners have an advantage of variations and gorey batsmen ke liye wohdifficulthota hai unkopickkarna (It's difficult for overseas batsmen to pick wristspinners).
"If a finger spinner hits the right areas, he'll also get wickets."
Amidst all the cacophony of wrist spin, came Nadeem's maiden international call up when he was summoned for India's T20I leg against the West Indies at home in 2018. He didn't get a game there but that served as a validation for him that he could co-exist.
While Nadeem was making rapid strides in domestic cricket, another man from Ranchi was leading India to newer pedestals across all formats. Nadeem's relationship with Dhoni goes a long way. It was Dhoni who kept to a 15-year old-Nadeem in his first first-class game, but since, their paths have been radically different. So when Nadeem was becoming a stronger force by the day, it was obvious for people to think that he will get noticed given his statemate was at the helm of affairs as India captain. However, the shy Nadeem was quick to dismiss having any such conversation with Dhoni bhai, ever, forget asking for a favour.
"I know him since I was 14. I know his nature and I just shy away from talking about all this from him. I never talked to Mahi bhai about my selection. I'll be honest with you, I don't like talking about it. I just talk to him about my bowling. I talk to him about situations. And he's very open about that."
On the fourth day when India had swept the three-Test series clean, Nadeem was spotted talking to Mahi bhai in the dressing room. Later, he would reveal that he asked him if he had watched him bowl. In fact, the former captain was happy with how he had bowled, he would later add. And that's how the equation remains, even after all these years.
It was only fitting that Nadeem picked up the last two wickets of the Ranchi Test to complete India's historic series win over South Africa. A lot of time has gone by to this date since the 15-year-old Nadeem first played for Jharkhand. He admits during the interview that he hardly had time to reminisce the struggles, the old times, the fruition of a long-awaited dream, once he set out for his debut Test, by road from Kolkata.
"As soon as I got on my way, there were so many calls that I couldn't even think properly what had happened. I didn't realise when the journey got over."
Now though, Nadeem has had some time for himself to think how the emotionally charged the week was. There would be slight regret that his family won't watch him on TV - a dream among many others he had had since taking to the sport. But now that he's tasted how international cricket feels like, he'd grow more determined to wear that India cap again. Like he once told his family, "They keep asking me when I'll stop playing. I tell them I'll stop playing after 40 and till then I'll try to play for India."
From Sunday, Nadeem will enter another Ranji Trophy season with just one thing in mind. "Aaj khilao, kal khilao, ya char saal baad khilao, I will still be here."
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