Ravindra Jadeja: Man of the Season

Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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The marksmanship of Ravindra Jadeja, the all-rounder who won the Test series for India

THE STAGE: DHARAMSHALA—arguably the most scenic cricket stadium in the world. The act: the fourth India-Australia Test—perhaps the most exciting series in this country since these two teams met in 2001. The scene: Day Three—evidently the most crucial day of the entire series. The actor: Ravindra Jadeja—possibly the best all-rounder in the game today.

The curtain rises. It’s 9.30 am on the third morning of the Dharamshala Test, and the match (hence the series, tied at one- a-piece) is in the balance. Balanced with the precarious poise of houses in this Himalayan region, clinging miraculously on to cliff edges. India, with an overnight score of 248 for six, is still 52 runs behind Australia’s first innings total of 300, with the last recognised batting pair of Jadeja and Wriddhiman Saha, the wicketkeeper, at the crease. Their partnership, or lack of one, is going to be decisive.

Jadeja takes strike under the breathtaking backdrop of the Dhauladhar range, still bearing blotches of winter snow. And on a fast and bouncy pitch, a pitch that reminds the visitors of home, Australia’s Pat Cummins, the quickest bowler in either team, runs in to bowl the first ball of the day. Twenty seconds later, Cummins is having his brown hair ruffled by his team-mates in a huddle. Jadeja, convicted by the umpire’s raised index finger, is out caught behind.

Only, Jadeja is convinced he hasn’t fluffed his lines, that he hasn’t nicked the ball. So he decides to review the umpire’s eyesight. When the decision is overturned a couple of minutes on, Cummins spits into the wind. The globule shifts sideways in the cold morning draft and splatters by his side. Jadeja, smiling, simply shrugs. All this drama, from the very first ball of Day Three. Instantly, everyone present at the HPCA Stadium has a premonition that the remainder of this day is going to define the outcome of the series. Everyone—the sprinkle of the spectators, the pundits and even the players.

The remainder of the day does indeed go on to not only put the Border-Gavaskar Trophy within grasp of the Indians and the proverbial champagne on ice in their dressing room, the day also crystallises the meaning of Jadeja as a Test cricketer. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves yet.

Soon after Jadeja’s reprieve, the sledging begins. What happens on a cricket field, just as in Vegas, stays on a cricket field. The BCCI, though, doesn’t think so. On its official Twitter account, the Indian cricket board, with a little assistance from broadcasters Star Sports, uploads a video of the close-in Australian fielders chirping at Jadeja by the stump mic. The ever-listening, always-recording, Orwellian microphone. In the video, wicketkeeper Matthew Wade, crouching directly over the mic, says: “How come you don’t get picked (to play) outside India? Why is that? Why don’t you get picked?” Then Steve Smith, captain of Australia, squatting currently at square leg, too makes his presence felt. “You don’t deserve to play anywhere but here,” says Smith. “Because you’re useless.”

Sledging, in cricket, is usually restricted to opinions on mothers and girlfriends. “How’s your wife and my kids?” That kind of stuff. But here, the Australians are packing heat, cutting their insults a little too close to Jadeja’s bone. In a series that has often resembled a bar-brawl, the words fit right in. But Jadeja doesn’t reply. Perhaps because he isn’t fluent in English. Perhaps because this is, after all, the home of the Dalai Lama. Who knows? But Jadeja doesn’t reply, not immediately at least.

In India's longest ever home season of test cricket, Jadeja took 71 wickets, scored 553 runs and constructed six fifty-plus innings, just as many as Virat Kohli in the same period

Instead, how is this for a reply? On a wicket hissing with the ferocity of the Australian players’ tongues, Jadeja composes himself in an hour that begs composure and scores 63 runs. It is the highest score by an Indian in the Test match (incidentally, the three players who follow him end up scoring 0, 7 and 2 respectively). Of more significance, his two-hour-something effort with the bat gives India a slender and crucial 32-run first innings lead.

Four hours later, by the time the mountain has cast its dark shadow on the field, Jadeja has taken three wickets—3/24, the best bowling figures in the innings—to wrap up Australia’s total for 137, leaving his side with a target of just 106 runs to win the series and the match. When those runs are dusted off early on Day Four, Jadeja collects both the Man of the Match and the Man of the Series awards, stuffing those gigantic, cardboard cheques under his armpits to hoist the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

How is this for the final word?

ON A CRICKET field, anywhere on a cricket field, watch Jadeja from close proximity and all you will see is a blur. A blur capped with three parallel brush-strokes of black: his hair, his sunglasses and his beard. As a fielder, he prowls the point region better than anyone in the world. As a bowler, he is the most capable spinner on a turning track in international cricket today. And perhaps no other batsman batting as low as him in the order— number eight—can flip a situation on its head; proven, yet again, in Dharamshala.

In India’s longest ever home season of Test cricket—thirteen five-day games spread across four series and seven successive months, which ended earlier this week—Jadeja saved hundreds of runs, affected numerous run-outs and latched on to 17 catches. Then, he scored 553 runs with the bat—always while batting with the tail—and constructed six fifty-plus innings, just as many as Virat Kohli in the same period.

At the same time, he also took 71 wickets, 10 scalps less than his bowling partner and a man considered the best bowler in the world today, Ravichandran Ashwin. But in the series against Australia, the pair traded spots in the pecking order, with Jadeja finishing with 25 wickets (the most by any bowler in the series), four more than his more skilled ally. All these remarkable traits that he brings to the table on any given day make him indispensable to Kohli’s plan and team. On the field, it also makes his a busybee. A blur.

As a fielder, Jadeja prowls the point region better than anyone else. As a bowler, he is the most capable spinner on a turning track. Perhaps no other batsman batting as low as him in the order can flip situation on its head

Just three years ago, though, the blur had nearly faded away— like an old photograph. Or in his case, a new photograph, captured by a polaroid, flapping in reverse. Following a forgettable Test series in England (going wicketless in the opening Test in Nottingham, claiming all of one wicket in the closing game in Manchester), on the back of a poor showing in New Zealand, Jadeja was axed from the Test side. The Aussie sledges this week weren’t for nothing. They knew their target’s weaknesses well.

Dropped over the next year-and-a-half, a period in which his childhood cricket buddies such as Kohli (his under-19 captain) and Cheteshwar Pujara (his state-mate from Saurashtra) were knifing a niche for themselves in the longest form of the game, Jadeja was back to the labyrinth that is domestic cricket.

In the middle of that mess, his left shoulder snapped, overburdened. A lesser man would’ve blamed fate, or luck, or his lack of purpose and allowed the crises to swallow him whole. But Jadeja is no normal man. He is a Jadeja, a title worn only by warrior kings who once ruled his land, Jamnagar. So Jadeja did what the 18th century Jadejas were great at—wake up late, ride horses and rule over a vast plot of Kathiawadi land. Only difference, and a substantial one, Jadeja’s plot was an eight- acre farmland in the outskirts of Jamnagar. And it wasn’t inherited due to his proximity to the royal tree. His seed had fallen far from those branches.

In 1988, this Jadeja was born to a watchman and a government nurse in a house that had one room—a claustrophobic space tripling up as living room, bedroom and kitchen, all at once. But like all Rajput names, his too was heavy: Ravindrsinh Anirudhsinh Jadeja. In life, this new-born would go on to be called by several names. Ravindra, by the scoreboards. Jaddu, by his friends and team-mates. Rockstar, by his Rajasthan Royals captain Shane Warne. Sir Jadeja, by his Indian captain MS Dhoni. But the one that he began responding to during his time away from the national team was Bapu, a Gujarati term of respect for leaders, one that earned pan-Indian status due to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

For months at a stretch, Jadeja spent time on the saddle-void backs of his two Kathiawadi horses, Ganga and Kesar, during the day, caressed them back to their stable in the evening, and hosted dinners, cooked over an open fire, for his childhood friends at night. Life was good, great even, a far cry from his growing-up years, when his family couldn’t afford to give him a rupee for pick-up cricket games. He felt like a real Jadeja, a real king. But his powers, he soon realised, had no real influence outside of a cricket field.

Jadeja returned to the cricket field for Saurashtra in late 2015, unburdened and without saddle sores. While it was his two triple centuries in one season that earned him his first Test cap in 2012 (Jadeja is the only Indian to have scored three first-class triple centuries), it was merit as a bowler this time round that made the national selectors take another look at him. In three matches, against Tripura, Jharkhand and Hyderabad, his boasted of these figures: 5/45, 6/27, 6/71, 7/55, 6/75, 7/60. Six five-fors in six innings, or a whopping 37 wickets in three matches. How could anyone ignore that?

In his return game as a Test player, against the visiting South Africans in Mohali, Jadeja claimed eight wickets—three in the first innings and five in the second. In that series, he ended up taking 23 wickets. He was back with the promise of a specialist bowler, but it didn’t take long for his success with the ball to have a telling effect on his role as a batsman as well.

In the first home game of India’s long Test season that began last September, in Kanpur against New Zealand, Jadeja scored an unbeaten 42 and an unbeaten 50 in his two innings. The second innings half-century was only his second in Test cricket, and when he got there he had a brand new celebratory routine—a whoosh of his bat in the air like a sword, a nod to him embracing his warrior side during his break. Bats, after all, are also known as blades.

The routine was its most elaborate when he cracked his highest Test score versus England in Mohali at the turn of the year. On getting to his landmark, Jadeja went to painstaking lengths to draw his bat out of his sleeve, like a sword from its sheath, completing the process by returning it under his arm with care. Why does he do it, he was asked at the press conference that day. “Kyun ki main talwaar ground pe nahin le aa sakta, na (Because I cannot bring a sword to the ground),” he replied, winking.

This week, he put that very histrionic on display again, for the sixth and final time this series, a series in which he swept up all the big individual awards. “It’s great to finish a season and be recognised for my batting, my bowling and my fielding. But greater than all that, and greater than even my Man of the Match or Man of the Series trophies, is being called a ‘valuable player’. That’s what I’ve always craved for,” he said. The question, though, he was reminded, was about his celebration. “Oh,” said Jadeja, laughing. “Woh toh hamesha dekhne ko milega (You are always going to see it).”

It was the promise of a man cognizant of his craft and his role in the team. Like an actor in a theatre group who is acutely aware of his role in making the play a hit. The kind of gig where he remains bowed, soaking in the shower of applause until the curtain falls.