Shahbaz Nadeem doesn't remember the number of times he's played for India A. What he remembers, though, is being disheartened every time his name hasn't been announced after a national selection meet. He doesn't go down the diplomatic 'not-thinking-of-selection' route and lets his disappointment be heard, albeit politely.
Initially branded as a one-dimensional bowler only useful in the limited-overs format, he set out to prove he wasn't a one-trick pony. When he picked bucketful of wickets in the Ranji Trophy, he was told he had to learn to take wickets 'away from home'. Last year, across neutral venues he did just that, finishing the 2016-17 Ranji season as the tournament's highest wicket-taker. His tally of 56 wickets made him only the second bowler in the tournament's history to top 50 wickets in a season twice.
In the aftermath of a path-breaking season where Jharkhand secured a maiden semi-final berth in the Ranji Trophy, Nadeem hoped to be picked in India's limited-overs squad for the England series. But a warm-up game for India A is all he got. Eight months on, he's at peace with having to count every opportunity - be it for Jharkhand, India A or a Board President's XI - as a blessing and continue to present his case.
It was this 'mindset' - something he often refers to - that helped him finish the unofficial Tests in South Africa in August as the highest wicket-taker for India A. It was only obvious that a place in the 14-man squad was guaranteed, barring injuries, for the two four-day fixtures against the visiting New Zealand A. It took him little over one session, where he triggered an alarming slide - the visitors slipped from 72 without loss to 81 for 6 - to prove his worth again. In picking four of those wickets in a fascinating exhibition of guile, Nadeem ensured India A finished the day firmly on top on a surface that was less menacing than the scorecard would suggest.
While there was a hint of turn, it was slow turn. So, much of Nadeem's first spell was spent in trying to find his formula. Jeet Raval and George Worker - both reprieved early - were on solid ground largely against the fast bowlers. Ten overs into the game, India A's premier spinner was summoned. For the next 30 minutes, he held up pressure in an opening spell that read 5-2-10-0. Once, he had Raval playing back to a full ball. Then he had him attempt a sweep to a ball that drifted away, with the impact saving Raval. He sensed an opportunity.
It helped that Mohammed Siraj continued to pile on the pressure from the other end. Nadeem had his first wicket when Worker jabbed at a delivery that spun back in, to fly off a thick inside edge to short leg. Eighty minutes of defiance and a 72-run opening stand had been broken. In the next over, he had Henry Nicholls err in judgment to an arm-ball. By playing back to a full ball, he ran the risk of being out lbw. In trying to protect his pad, he played down the wrong line.
In the first session, Raval's false advance was just one of three occasions where the batsmen used their feet against spin. The other two resulted in a leading edge that was dropped by Karn Sharma off his own bowling and a check-drive to cover. This diffidence allowed both spinners to settle into their lengths. In trying to get them to step out, Nadeem continued to toss the ball up but held his lengths back. But the batsmen were happy to play from their shed. Because both spinners were accurate, sweeping from this length came with the added risk of being an lbw candidates. This fascinating subplot, however, was interrupted by the lunch break.
In a clearly-devised move after the break, Nadeem decided to leave cover open and get the batsmen driving. Mid-off was moved to long-off, perhaps deliberately, to get the batsman to step out. This lured Tom Blundell to do just that. What he didn't account for was the spin. By the time he tried to simply daft one, the ball had spun past the face of the bat to crash into the stumps.
Nadeem could have had Todd Astle stumped - a wicket that would've again resulted in the batsman falling into his trap - as he tried to drive with the spin, only for Rishabh Pant to fluff a straightforward stumping chance. But a flatter and fuller delivery next ball, which Astle tried to cut, resulted in an under-edge that had Pant redeem himself with a superb catch.
The exhilarating passage on either side of lunch earned him the honour of leading the team off, with yet another page in his 'mindset' chapter clearly written.