If a slot in the XI isn’t empty, then you just wait for your chance – Shahbaz Nadeem

Cricket

The ball is dangled up, above the batsman’s eyeline. He leaves his crease, almost involuntarily, to try and reach it. He ends up getting nowhere near it.

The ball does two devious things. It drifts in first, and that causes the batsman to open up, again almost involuntarily. Then it spins far more than the batsman expects, and he’s left groping for it as it rips past his outside edge.

T Bavuma st Saha b Nadeem 32.

It’s a classic left-arm spinner’s dismissal, and it’s quite a way to get your first wicket in Test cricket. For Shahbaz Nadeem, it also happened to be his 425th in first-class cricket.

Nadeem has been playing first-class cricket since December 2004. Every other member of this India XI made their first-class debut after him. It’s quite a story: he began playing for Jharkhand at 15, and was nearly twice as old when he made his Test debut.

He has learned plenty in the intervening years. He began as a purveyor of flat and quickish left-arm spin, and gradually evolved into the kind of bowler he’s now become.

“When I began, I was really young, and our team was mostly built around fast bowling,” he said at the end of the third day’s play. “We didn’t really have spinners. Basically, we would mostly play on green wickets, and when I used to bowl fast on green wickets the ball used to skid onto the bat quickly.

“So I realised that if I have to play on green wickets, I’ll have to start flighting the ball, and I’ll have to change my bowling so that I can get whatever little purchase I can off the pitch, which I won’t get with a flatter trajectory. The changes began there, after 2-3 years, and I began learning flight variations in order to get wickets even on those pitches. You can say that it helped me to not get helpful wickets at that early stage.”

It was an interesting exercise to watch Nadeem bowl in tandem with Ravindra Jadeja, who is among the quickest spinners in world cricket.

It isn’t that Jadeja doesn’t vary his pace or trajectory. There was an over, for instance, where he bowled two flighted deliveries wide of off stump that Temba Bavuma drove towards the two fielders in the covers. Jadeja followed this with a quicker, flatter one on a similar length that gave Bavuma no time to get forward to. It ripped off the pitch with extra bounce and beat the outside edge by a big margin.

Nadeem’s variations are a little subtler, and there is a bit of Rangana Herath about him, in the sense that he looks to create different angles by varying his release points and wrist positions, while still trying to get most of his deliveries to end up within the line of the stumps.

That wicket-to-wicket line kept the right-hand batsmen on a tight leash: in the first innings, they faced 42 balls from him but only managed two scoring shots. Before he was stumped off that hypnotically flighted ball, Bavuma had faced seven balls from Nadem and scored no runs.

There is obvious quality in Nadeem’s bowling, but he’s still only fourth-choice among India’s Test spinners, behind Jadeja, R Ashwin and Kuldeep Yadav, whose troublesome shoulder paved the way for his inclusion here in Ranchi. Nadeem is realistic about where he stands, but he knows he’ll be in and around the squad if he maintains his levels of performance.

“This was the motivation, the chance I got here,” Nadeem said. “The motivation came from knowing that I might get a chance if something happened to someone. Whichever spinners we have, they’re all doing well. As a cricketer, you have to realise that the slot you’re fighting for, it has to be empty in the first place. If it isn’t empty, you just wait for your chance.”

The wait has lasted many years, some of which have brought bucketloads of first-class wickets. There were 51 Ranji Trophy wickets in the 2015-16 season, and 56 the season after that. To many watching from outside, it can seem like a difficult wait, but first-class cricketers enjoy first-class cricket for its own sake too. Even when he’s away playing for, say, India A, Nadeem says Jharkhand, his first-class team, always remains on his mind.

“We enjoy [playing first-class cricket] a lot,” Nadeem said. “Playing for Jharkhand is a motivation too, because whoever my team-mates are at Jharkhand, I’ve known them for a long time, some of them for close to 15 years. I’ve played with some of them since childhood, at junior level, so it’s always fun when I play for Jharkhand, and it’s a different sort of feeling.

“Wherever I might be playing, if there’s a Jharkhand match, my heart says I need to go play that match too, because apart from the match, there’s friendships and laughter as well.”

If he keeps bowling the way he did on Monday, Nadeem might have to make room in his life for an entirely new set of friendships.

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