Feature

Shahbaz Ahmed: 'Prepared and waiting to finish matches on my own'

The RCB allrounder has been setting the pace with both bat and ball this season

Hemant Brar
Hemant Brar
08-May-2022
Shahbaz Ahmed has been assigned the fifth bowler's role at RCB, and he has struck at crucial intervals  •  BCCI

Shahbaz Ahmed has been assigned the fifth bowler's role at RCB, and he has struck at crucial intervals  •  BCCI

Algebra and calculus have troubled Bengal and Royal Challengers Bangalore allrounder Shahbaz Ahmed more than any opposition bowler or batter has.
In 2011, Shahbaz's father enrolled him in a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, but until last year he couldn't get past Mathematics 101, a subject from the first semester. It was only last season, when he was playing in the IPL for RCB, as it happened, that he took the exam for it online and passed. "So you can say I have completed my engineering," Shahbaz says.
Apart from that, he has also been working hard to upgrade his cricketing skills. Here, too, the results have gone largely in his favour.
Bought back by Royal Challengers at the auction in February, Shahbaz made over 25 in each of his first five innings in this year's IPL. That's some consistency for a player who bats mainly at No. 5 and 6. He hasn't been as successful with his left-arm fingerspin but has bowled a couple of handy spells.
Shahbaz's stronger suit is batting but in 2020, his first season with Royal Challengers, he played only two games and faced just one ball. The next year he got a longer run but could score only 59 runs in seven innings at an average of 8.42 and a strike rate of 111.32.
While his returns with the bat were not stellar, he gained valuable insights about his craft. "I realised I was struggling to hit against fast bowlers," Shahbaz says. "Whenever I tried big shots, I was ending up in an open-stance position. Simon Katich [then Royal Challengers head coach] and Mike Hesson [director of cricket at the franchise] sir told me if I can maintain my shape, I can score in any situation. That's something I have tried to address this time."
At RCB, he has also had the opportunity to pick the brains of two of the best hitters in T20 cricket. "Big players such as AB de Villiers sir and Glenn Maxwell sir don't talk much about technique," Shahbaz says. "Whenever I spoke to them, it was about planning, conditions, and how to plan for different conditions. What the good boundary options are against fast bowlers and spinners. Or how to keep the scoreboard moving irrespective of the situation and build a platform from where we can win the match."
All that culminated in one crucial knock after another this season. And his strike rate against pace zoomed from 125.00 last season to 143.01 this time.
In the match against Kolkata Knight Riders, he went in at 62 for 4 and scored 27 off 20 balls to put his team ahead in a chase of 129. Against Rajasthan Royals he entered at the same scoreline. This time RCB were chasing 170. He smashed 45 off 26 balls and along with Dinesh Karthik (44 not out off 23), took the side to a win.
Batting first against Delhi Capitals, Royal Challengers were 75 for 4, which soon became 92 for 5. Shahbaz and Karthik then added 97 in an unbroken sixth-wicket stand, lifting Royal Challengers to a winning total.
"I enjoy batting with DK [Karthik] bhai. He is so cool and calm even in those pressure situations," Shahbaz says. "He just says we have to take the game deep. If I play a rash shot, he would tell me that this is not needed at this stage. Only if I get a loose ball I should try for the boundary. Else, I should take a single, or even if it's a dot ball, it's okay. With him, you don't feel any pressure as he can change the momentum of the game in one over."
Shahbaz mentions the Rajasthan Royals match, where Yuzvendra Chahal and R Ashwin had stifled the batters on a pitch that was taking spin. "I wasn't able to figure out how to take the game deep. Ashwin had an over left, and I was thinking of playing him out as it was easier to score against fast bowlers. Then DK bhai came and attacked Ashwin. In that one over, the game completely changed."
With 82 needed off 42 balls, Karthik hit Ashwin for three fours and a six in a 21-run over. It was another lesson for Shahbaz in his cricketing education.

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When he was struggling with the bat in the 2021 IPL, it was his bowling that kept Shahbaz in the frame at RCB. He picked up seven wickets, including a game-changing 3 for 7 against Sunrisers Hyderabad, at an economy of 6.57.
This year he has been assigned the role of fifth bowler, alongside Maxwell. While he has been a bit expensive at times, he also bowled a spell of 4-0-25-0 against Lucknow Super Giants. Against Gujarat Titans he took the wickets of Shubman Gill and Hardik Pandya to bring his side back into the game, and in his most recent match, against Chennai Super Kings, he broke the opening stand by dismissing an in-form Ruturaj Gaikwad.
Shahbaz credits S Sriram, the Royal Challengers batting and spin-bowling coach, for giving him belief. "When I first came to the IPL, I had doubts if my bowling skills were good enough for this level. But in the last two seasons, I have learnt a lot from S Sriram about how to bowl to each batsman and get them out. He knows my bowling inside out."
The biggest improvement, Shahbaz says, has been in his rhythm, which he had struggled with. Sriram suggested making his run-up faster, which helped with that aspect. It had another benefit as well.
"Earlier, my bowling speed was too slow. If you bowl that slow in the IPL, batters can always attack you. So my biggest worry was how I can increase my speed by 4-5kph. As I worked on my rhythm, my speed also increased.
"Now I aim for 94-95kph for my normal ball, and my slower ball is at around 88-89kph. If I can maintain 95kph, it helps a lot in these conditions. Otherwise, on these flat Mumbai wickets, it is very difficult for spinners."
In T20s, the conventional wisdom is that a left-arm fingerspinner isn't as effective against a left-hand batter. But Shahbaz has been trying to up his game against left-hand batters as well.
"Ever since I started playing, I bowled from around the wicket. It's a good option but now I am bowling over the wicket as well, to left-hand batsmen. Because that gives you a lot of options, and the more options you have, the more you can control the game.
"If you are bowling over the wicket, you can bowl wide outside off. If there is some turn available, then you can turn from outside off. Then the leftie has only one option - to hit down the ground. The leg-side option is no longer available.
"From over the wicket, you can bowl the leg-stump line as well, which is effective this season because most games are being played on side wickets due to limited venues. So one square boundary is generally bigger than the other. That makes it difficult for left-handers to hit on the leg side [if that's the bigger boundary]. This also creates more wicket-taking options."
While Shahbaz is tightening up his bowling, it's batting he enjoys more and wants to make more of an impact with. At the top of his to-do list is to see games to the end with the bat.
"In domestic cricket, I have finished a few close games, so I have that experience. Against KKR, we were chasing 127 [129], and I scored 27 in a tough situation but then I got out. Akash Deep [Bengal and Royal Challengers team-mate] said to me, 'You could have finished this game but you lost your wicket to a bad shot. What happened?' I told him this was my first innings in the IPL where I had batted well. The more experience I get of batting in this position, the more games I can finish for the team.
"Right now, I am mostly playing a supporting role to DK bhai, but there will be a time when I will have to finish games on my own. I am prepared and waiting for that time."

Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo