"Wo kehte hai na 'umeed pe duniya kayam hai' (They say the world lives on hope). To ishi tarah hope hai, umeed hai ki aane waale tours me mauka mile. (So there is hope that I will get a chance in the upcoming tours)"
Shahbaaz Nadeem's calmness and positivity reflect in his soft tone. Hope is a word that he uses time and again through our chat. And it's a word that has been a vital part of his day-to-day dictionary.
He hopes he will get a call-up to the national side in the long home season coming up. He hopes more chances will come his way now that the World Cup is over. He hopes luck will finally shine one day. It's this hope that keeps him going.
"I haven't even thought of it. I haven't given attention to it," he says when asked him whether he has hopes of getting selected for the upcoming South Africa series. "But now that you have asked, yes there is hope, whenever you perform as a cricketer, you always do it with hope. If you have given up hope then it will affect your cricket and the performance will go down."
The hope emanates from the fact that he's just finished as the joint highest wicket-taker on his first-ever tour to the West Indies, with the India A side. The hope emanates from the fact that he's been consistently gobbling wickets for his state side Jharkhand and 'A' sides since the last four years. The hope emanates from the fact that he knows that he's not just knocking on the selectors' door, but literally banging on it.
In the recently concluded West Indies A tour, Nadeem scalped three five-fors, including a ten-for in the unofficial Tests and finished as the joint-highest wicket-taker with 15 wickets from two matches at an average of 16.
He analysed the conditions and adapted with his flight and pace variations according to wickets which were the keys to his success.
"There was little bounce on the pitch in the first match at North Sound, so my strategy was to flight the ball as much as possible and make them play, attack on the stumps rather than bowl outside off," Nadeem explains.
"In the next match, the third and final one at Tarouba, the bounce was a bit low, it was a flat wicket so whatever the advantage was, it was by bowling on the stumps. So the plan was to not vary the flight but attack via stump to stump line. Because they were also looking to chase down the total so the strategy was to keep it accurate and entice the batsman into making a mistake."
This was Nadeem's first tour to the Caribbean and another learning curve too with the wind factor coming into play.
"If you are bowling against the wind and if you give more flight, the ball dips and drifts more. It was new for me," he says. "And if you are bowling with the wind, the ball generally travels more towards the batsman so you have to shorten the length a bit because the wind will assist it and take it further."
He's adapted to different surfaces at home and succeeded so it wasn't a surprise that he thrived in West Indies as well.
In the last four seasons (since 2015-16), Nadeem has scalped the most wickets in the Ranji Trophy — 144 at 23.8. He has had four five-wicket and four ten-wicket hauls, joint second-most in the tournament. In this period, he was also the leading wicket-taker in consecutive seasons with 51 wickets in the 2015-16 season and 56 in 2016-17, and in doing so, he became just the second player after Hyderabad spinner Kanwaljit Singh to take fifty-plus wickets twice in the Ranji Trophy. Last season was his personal best in List A cricket where he finished with his best average and strike rate — 16.14 and 24.66 with an economy rate of 3.92 and two five-wicket hauls and in the process, broke the record of best figures in a List A game — 8/10 against Rajasthan in Chennai.
Nadeem did receive his maiden call-up last year, in the home T20I series against West Indies in November but didn't get a game and then he was forgotten.
"Whenever a player gets a national call-up he obviously feels good. I also felt good. Although I didn't get a chance which is a different thing because the team combination was such. But I didn't get disappointed that I won't get a chance because I knew I am bowling well and anywhere I am getting a chance, I am performing whether it be India A or any other matches I am playing."
But then he admits that there was a tinge of disappointment.
"Koi bhi cricketer ke dimaag me aata hai, thoda sa aaya tha but theek hai koi nai (It did (disappointment) come into my mind but then it's okay), you have to come back stronger and just keep performing," Nadeem says.
"I don't have any regrets that I wasn't selected again. I knew that with the World Cup coming up, the players who were on the radar were playing in the team. As a cricketer, you realise that giving a youngster a chance at that time is not fair enough for the players who are going to play for the World Cup. So I understood that. But now the World Cup is over so I am more positive now, that since it's over, new players will get a chance. So I am more positive. I am performing as well so I have a hope that I will get my chances."
So what more does he need to do to earn that call-up again?
"The only thing is I have to perform consistently, because it is the only thing that will help you at a higher level and provide you the opportunity to get selected. My focus is to perform consistently and wait for my chance. I have been doing that in the past three years."
The consistency has come from the basic mantra he follows. "Whenever I play a match and come back from the ground, my wickets column should have at least 3-4 wickets."
Nadeem's hope has turned into disappointment and despair often but it doesn't frustrate him as he understands that there is cut-throat competition for places in the side.
"Right now I am not getting frustrated," he says. "But when you keep performing you do expect. However, you also have to see as a cricketer that the place for which you are fighting for, that should be vacant as well. Our spinners have been doing quite well. So as a cricketer you have to understand that as well. If it's not vacant, just keep doing what you are and when god gives you the opportunity, you go out and perform."
Nadeem knows that he is standing on the periphery, which he has been for quite some time now. He is standing at the door, knocking and then banging, and the one thing he feels he needs to do to knock down that door is luck.
"When you are performing well for many years, your hope shoots up, 'Yes, I am at the door.' So when you start realising it, then you start working harder to break open that door. It's the same thing with me. I know that I am at the door, I have to work harder and perform more so that I can break that door and go inside and be with the team.
"In order to play for your country, one thing is your performance and another thing is luck. The luck factor is a big thing in cricket. I am performing well by the grace of God but just waiting for my luck to shine. The performances I am churning out are enough for playing for the country but for the position for which I am fighting in the team that place should also be vacant. As a cricketer, you have to realise that as well. I have a realisation of it and I am just waiting for my luck (to come good). If that position gets vacant or if I am getting an opportunity, any, in the side games or a small tour, then I will give my hundred percent."
The selectors have been in touch with Nadeem and providing him feedback.
"I have a talk with them when I go on tours. They give me feedback. There is a selector who travels while we are on tours or play in India. So the talks happen. I keep getting positive feedback from them.
"You can gauge from their talks that I will be the first preference when a place gets vacant, the way they keep saying that 'you keep performing, don't worry, you will get your chances'.
One aspect that might be hampering the Jharkhand spinner's cause is his batting. Teams and franchises nowadays seem to prefer spinners who can bat a bit as well. The likes of Ravindra Jadeja, Krunal Pandya, Ravichandran Ashwin, Washington Sundar all can bat. Nadeem feels that it's the case in T20s and not the longer formats like ODIs and Tests where the teams do prefer the specialists.
"In the shortest format, the teams want the bowlers to bowl four overs and bat a little bit as well. But when it comes to ODIs and Tests, there has to be one aspect in which you have to be professional (specialist players). According to me, you have to be good in the one aspect."
However, Nadeem is aware that not being multi-dimensional is affecting his chances in T20s and has started working on his batting.
"I am working hard on my batting as well. If you want to play for the country, you have to do everything that is essential."
Not just the batting. With increased competition, Nadeem is constantly trying to reinvent himself, which has sort of become mandatory these days in the bid to survive. He is working on a different kind of arm ball.
"I used to bowl it (the arm ball). Generally, bowlers have one or two methods of bowling the arm ball, but I have found out a new way to deliver it. The ball travels just like the orthodox left-arm spin with seam position towards the slips seeming as if it is going to turn away but it comes back in with the arm. I have tried it in one or two matches and got wickets as well.
"There are times when it happens that the ball comes back in by itself. It is different from actually bowling it and being in control of it. When it comes back in you don't know when it will come back in but when you bowl it with control, and you know when the ball is going to come back in, it becomes more dangerous. So I am trying to make it happen when I want and not by itself."
Nadeem is 30 now, and you are always running out of time in cricket. There are stories of players who had the talent and performance but never got that elusive national call. It can be tough at times to stop the negative thoughts creeping in. These are the times when you need a constant source of motivation to keep yourself pushing.
Nadeem's motivation is fulfilling his brother's dream which was cut short amidst myriad sacrifices growing up.
"When I started playing cricket, I and my brother used to play together. Even he was a good player, he was better than me actually. At that time, there was no IPL and all, it was a risky proposition to take cricket up as a profession. One of us had to sacrifice so my brother left cricket.
"Since then, it continuously motivates me that I have to just play and play, for myself, brother, mom, dad, and wife because they are the ones who get more worried than me when I am not performing or happier than me when I am playing well."
However, the primary catalyst of motivation is the dream of wearing that India cap.
"I want to wear that Indian cap, no matter what format. And not just once, I want to play consistently.
"There are a lot of players who have played once, I also came into the team once, it's another thing that I didn't get to play. People don't remember them. You remember the likes of Sachin, Virat, Dhoni because they have done so much for the country. I also want to stay in the team aur utna nahi to kam se kam itna kar lu ke log yaad rakhe. (I hope I do enough so that people end up remember me)."
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