This time last year, Shahbaz Ahmed was sitting at home in Mewat, Haryana, and wondering when his next opportunity to play would come. India was in lockdown due to Covid-19 and there was uncertainty about whether the IPL would happen. For Ahmed, the timing couldn't have been worse. The original IPL 2020 schedule had the tournament starting a fortnight after the Ranji Trophy 2019-20, which would have meant Ahmed came into the tournament riding the crest of a form wave.
Batting at No.7 for Bengal, Ahmed had made 509 runs at 36.35, most of them scored in back-to-the-wall situations that turned certain defeat into victory. He had also taken 35 wickets at an average of 16.80 in a remarkable effort for his first full season of playing. The batting and bowling were ticking over nicely, and he was primed for a debut IPL season with the Royal Challengers Bangalore. But then the world turned upside down in ways no one would have imagined.
Even then, sitting at home and looking at an uncertain future as most of India's domestic cricketers had to, Ahmed was focussed on the bright side. "I think positive. Whatever will happen, will happen for the good," he had told The Cricket Monthly.
"You do get in the mind that it is my first season, I was performing well, if it had taken place as scheduled it would have been great, I would have carried the momentum from the domestic season and if the IPL had also gone well, I might have got further opportunities through that," he had said. "But in this situation also, I am thinking positive. Whatever cricket happens in the future, if I do well, I'll still get chances."
Ahmed's words turned out to be of the crystal-ball gazing kind, or perhaps he made them come true with the force of his belief in self. And a year later against the Sunrisers Hyderabad - a team that had called him for trials before IPL 2020 which he couldn't attend on account of having a Ranji game in two days - it all came together beautifully.
Thrown the ball late into the game, Ahmed came on to bowl only in the 15th over. His first over was a tight one, the second was game-changing, with the wickets of Jonny Bairstow, Manish Pandey and Abdul Samad. The Sunrisers had begun that over smelling victory in a chase of 150. They ended it cooked to a crisp. Ahmed wouldn't bowl another over but his returns of 3 for 7 in two made the primary difference between victory and defeat for the Royal Challengers. The player of the match may have gone to Glenn Maxwell, but ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats put Ahmed as the best performer of the game.
He had been given the ball late, with Virat Kohli juggling his bowlers around. The pitch was showing some grip, but a marauding David Warner was still at the crease. As soon as the left-handed Warner was out and with two right-handers in the middle, Kohli brought on Ahmed and Yuzvendra Chahal, both bowlers who would turn the ball away from the men at the crease. Both of them kept things tight in two overs, and as the asking rate crept up ever so quietly, Ahmed found himself in the crossfires of a moment that could swing the game either his way, or take it completely away from his side if a couple of hits connected.
Three times the batsmen tried to get that hit away that would make the rest of the chase easier, and all three times Ahmed kept the ball just enough away from a natural hitting arc, making for ugly, mis-timed swipes that were all caught inside the circle.
That Ahmed had made it to the XI spoke of the team's faith in his abilities. The Royal Challengers already had plenty of bowling options so with Devdutt Padikkal returning, the thought of keeping Rajat Patidar in - whom Kohli had called "very exciting" and who is a more pedigreed batsman - might have been a real one. But Ahmed not only kept his place, he was promoted to No.3 too, faith being shown in his batting skills to be the bridge in the top order that would allow the Royal Challengers to have Maxwell and AB de Villiers at four and five.
Fun fact: Ahmed had never batted at No.3 across his first-class, List A and T20 career before this game. In 58 games across formats, the highest he batted at was No.5, and just six times. His highest score in a T20 game at No.5 was 13. Another indication of the Royal Challengers' faith in him was his batting promotion. While he didn't get a big score, he did his job during his brief stay, with 14 off 10 balls, including a shovelled six off namesake Shahbaz Nadeem, and showing intent to score throughout his stay.
Back when he still didn't know when he would get to practice again or be near a cricket ground, he had said "whatever cricket happens in the future, if I do well, I'll still get chances." With this performance, Ahmed has just created his own chances.