Shahbaz Nadeem, the 296th and latest debutant for India in Test cricket, literally drove his way towards his dream after he received a life-changing piece of news exactly a week ago.
Having finished observing namaz around 2:30 pm at his Kolkata residence last Friday, a quick glance at his phone revealed to Nadeem a series of unread messages and missed calls. The next few hours saw him pack his cricket gear in great haste and dash off straight for Ranchi by road as no flights were available for that day. The reason: his maiden call-up to the Indian Test squad as a cover for the injured Kuldeep Yadav, who was ruled out of the third and final Test against South Africa to be played in Ranchi a day later.
Even though he managed to reach the team hotel around 11 pm that night, it was not until an hour prior to the first day’s play that Nadeem was informed by head coach Ravi Shastri about his selection in the playing XI. Thus, fifteen first-class seasons and 424 first-class wickets later, the thirty-year-old was finally living his dream, and what better place to mark the occasion than his home ground? The game couldn’t have gone any better for the left-arm spinner as he returned with match figures of 17.2-5-40-4 (2-22 in the first innings and 2-18 in the second innings), with his dismissal of Temba Bavuma—his maiden Test wicket—being one of the highlights of the series. India won the game by an innings and 202 runs.
However, despite such a commendable showing on debut on a sporting wicket, Nadeem misses out on a place in the Indian squad for the two-match Test against Bangladesh scheduled for mid-November as the now fit Kuldeep Yadav has been recalled.
Has the exclusion come as a surprise? What aspects of his game has he worked on of late that reflect so conspicuously in his performance over the past three seasons? What did M.S. Dhoni, who visited the Indian dressing room after the conclusion of the third Test, tell him about his performance? Why does Kolkata occupy a special place in his heart?
Parsimonious with his words as he has been with his bowling, Nadeem answered all these questions and many more in a candid chat with cricfit.com correspondent Ritam Basu a day before departing for Ranchi once again, this time to play the Deodhar Trophy for India B.
Q: It has been a week since you made your coveted Test debut and that too on your home turf. Has it sunk in?
Nadeem: (A timid smile.) It was a dream…it seemed like a dream until I stepped on to the field. All my years of hard work whizzed past my eyes in a flash when Virat handed me my cap. It has taken me fifteen years to achieve this dream. I desperately wanted to lap up the opportunity and prove myself.
Q: Have you been more pestered by journalists with interview requests over the past four days than you’ve been in your entire cricket career?
Nadeem: (Guffaws.) I am not at all pestered; rather I am enjoying this sudden spurt of media attention. Jokes aside, having played professional cricket for fifteen years and interacted with so many great players, I have seen how humble and grounded they are, despite all their name and fame. I realise the importance of being humble.
Q: Were you surprised to find your name missing from the Test squad for the Bangladesh series even after performing so well on debut?
Nadeem: It’s okay. The selectors can name only fifteen players at a time. Whenever I will be presented with another opportunity to play for India in the future, I’ll give my best. I’ve understood one thing that if anyone plays well at the domestic level season after season, he’ll be eventually rewarded. Only by playing more can you get better. My only focus for now is on the Deodhar Trophy, where I’ll be playing for India B.
Q: After the end of the Ranchi Test, Ravi Shastri said that Bishan Singh Bedi would’ve been extremely proud of your performance, especially the delivery with which you got Temba Bavuma out in the first innings. Have you received any congratulatory message from Mr Bedi as yet?
Nadeem: I haven’t received any personal message from him, but I know he lauded me on Twitter straight after I dismissed Bavuma. It feels really encouraging to be praised by a legend like him. I have interacted with him and (Erapalli) Prasanna sir a few times in the past.
Q: Last season, you played for Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL. Did you receive any beneficial advice from your SRH bowling coach Muttiah Muralitharan?
Nadeem: Yes, he gave me some useful tips regarding my release point and what should be my thought process on match days. We used to talk more about T20 cricket. He taught us how to stay a step ahead of batsmen, read their minds and bowl accordingly. The experience of being mentored by him during last season’s IPL was very enriching.
Q: You are a left-arm spinner in the classical mould, who prefers to flight the ball rather than bowling with a flat trajectory. Among all left-arm spinners past, who is your idol?
Nadeem: (Instantaneously.) Daniel Vettori! I wanted to be a left-arm spinner only after watching him. Unfortunately, he moved over from Delhi Daredevils to Royal Challengers Bangalore in the same season as I joined Delhi Daredevils, so I couldn’t play alongside him in the same XI. (Laughs.)
Q: Recently, there has been a lot of talk about whether Test matches in India should be held in only five major centres, an idea mooted by the Indian captain owing to the poor spectator turnout during the recently concluded Test series. As a player hailing from a small town like Muzaffarpur, what is your opinion about this?
Nadeem: This comes under the purview of the BCCI. As a player, I would obviously want widespread development and distribution of the game in the country.
Q: Your father stays in Muzaffarpur. Did he come to the JSCA International Stadium to watch you play on any of the four days of the third Test?
Nadeem: No, he couldn’t come to the stadium. He watched the match on TV. He was naturally very excited when he found out that I was making my debut. I would like to thank another person, without whose support I couldn’t have become a professional cricketer—my brother Assad. He himself was a very talented cricketer in his youth, perhaps better than me. Actually, our father had made it very clear at the outset that only one of us could consider choosing cricket as a profession. Assad was the captain of our U-15 team, so I was pretty much sure that I would have to switch tracks. I even stopped playing cricket for a few months. Then, after I cleared the U-15 national trials and broke the news to the family, it was Assad who decided to step aside and let me chase my dream. I wouldn’t have been here if it were not for my brother.
Q: Your picture with M.S. Dhoni inside the Indian dressing room after the end of the Ranchi Test went viral on social media as soon as it was posted. What did he tell you?
Nadeem: I asked Mahi bhai about his assessment of my bowling in the game because he knows me better than anyone else among the senior players in the Indian team. He reassured me that I bowled well and told me to continue bowling the same way I have been doing for the past few seasons because that’s what has gotten me into the Indian team.
Q: As a player who has spent a great deal of time with Dhoni while playing for Jharkhand and known him so closely all these years, how do you view this endless speculation regarding his retirement?
Nadeem: He has been such a great player for India, so he must have an idea about when to call it a day. I think our media friends should not invade into his private space. We are all dwarfs in front of his achievements. I think we should let him be.
Q: Fair enough. On to a different subject now. I believe Kolkata occupies a special place in your heart…
Nadeem: Oh, yes! I have been residing in Kolkata for the past eight to nine years. (Probably the widest grin so far.)
Q: I am sure not many people of Kolkata knew this fact until a few days ago. What are the things you like about the city and how much of an impact has it had on your career?
Nadeem: Kolkata is a beautiful city! There are a lot of Bengalis residing in Jharkhand, so I have never had any difficulty in understanding Bengali, even though I don’t speak it so well. (Laughs.) It’s called ‘The City of Joy’ for the right reasons—people here are very warm and friendly, and I love the city’s culture and especially the food. This year, I wasn’t here in the city during the Durga Puja because I was away playing the Vijay Hazare Trophy. But I have visited a lot of Durga Puja pandals in the past and I love the look of the city during the festive season.
As far as Kolkata’s impact on my career is concerned, I think my decision to come here and play a season of local club cricket for the Town Club at a time when I wasn’t a certainty in the Jharkhand side proved really fruitful. That stint with Town really helped me rediscover my confidence and become a better player because the club cricket system of Kolkata is very competitive. That is the reason why you see many emerging players from other states wanting to play at least one season of C.A.B’s First Division cricket. I played one season of League cricket for Town and in three editions of the P. Sen Trophy. A lot of people also don’t know that I played alongside Mohammed Shami during those years with Town.
Q: Debabrata Das, who runs the Town Club, recently remarked that you could’ve played for India a lot earlier had you left Jharkhand to play for Bengal. Did you mull playing for Bengal at any stage of your career?
Nadeem: When I first came to Kolkata to play club cricket, it was too early for me to think about such a thing. I always wanted to play for my home state, irrespective of the ups and downs I faced along the way. However, as I said before, the system here is better compared to Jharkhand. Hence, I decided to shift to this city. Even today, whenever I find time, I go to the Kalighat ground for practice.
Q: How was the experience of playing alongside Ashwin and Jadeja?
Nadeem: It was worthwhile. Both of them are established Test players and when you play alongside them, you get to observe and be advised on a number of minute points such as wrist position, the lengths to be bowled against particular batsmen, their weak areas et cetera. In fact, our entire bowling department worked in sync in the last series. Spin has traditionally been our forte, but now our fast bowlers, too, are showing tremendous form. None of the pitches used during the series were flat batting tracks, yet we took twenty wickets in each of the three Tests. It’s a fantastic unit to be a part of!
Q: Your performance has improved by leaps and bounds over the past three to four seasons. How much of your success would you attribute to your India A stint?
Nadeem: It (India A stint) has helped me immensely in changing my mindset as a bowler. Generally the India A matches are played on flat tracks or green tops, which are very little conducive to spin bowling. I discussed this thing in detail with Rahul (Dravid) sir while he was the coach of India A. He instilled in me the confidence that if I can pick wickets on such less favourable tracks, I can pick wickets on any surface in any part of the world. He imparted his advice on how to bowl on the first day, how to bowl once the pitch undergoes wear and tear et cetera. These technical inputs have produced the desired results in my game. Now I know how to pick wickets on flat tracks.
Q: Your limited-overs record is also very impressive. However, your economy in the previous two seasons of the IPL has been over 10. Is there scope for you to work on this aspect of your game?
Nadeem: I think I played only eight or nine matches (nine) over the past two seasons of the IPL. Once you start being in and out of the side, your rhythm naturally gets affected. My T20 record otherwise has been quite decent. Up until a few seasons ago, I was pigeonholed as a ‘T20 specialist’. But people started taking notice of my consistency across all three formats after I became the leading wicket-taker in two successive seasons of the Ranji Trophy (51 wickets in 2015-16 and 56 wickets in 2016-17). I want to be an all-format player for the national team.
Q: Now that the deadlock has finally been broken, it being your international debut, where do you want to see yourself in the next three to four years?
Nadeem: My primary target is to become a regular in the Indian team. Once you get selected to play for India, you want to be in the pool of top players for a considerable period of time. So whenever I am picked to play for India again, my target would be to perform in such a way that I cement my position in the squad.