A man remains the same, only his time changes: Ravindra Jadeja.
Around two years ago, two men who were once mainstays of the Indian Test team, Jadeja and Cheteshwar Pujara, were actually fighting to maintain their relevance. Jadeja had, in fact, completely lost his place in the Test side and then found himself out of the ODI team too. Likewise, Pujara's fortunes were endlessly oscillating after a loss of form and stiff competition from Rohit Sharma.
Fast-forward to 2017. Times have changed for the two Saurashtra boys, and how! One is the number one bowler in Tests while the other is the number two batsman in the world.
Pujara and Jadeja's metamorphosis has been fascinating and a lot of credit goes to domestic cricket for their transformation. It was in the 2015/16 Ranji Trophy that Jadeja version 2.0 was unloaded while the 2016 Duleep Trophy unleashed a more confident Pujara.
Jadeja lost his Test place after the 2014 Manchester game in England and it was through his Ranji Trophy performances — where he scalped a staggering 38 wickets from four matches with five six-fors and three half-centuries — that he smashed open the selection door after 14 months in obscurity.
His Manchester ousting instilled a lot of gremlins inside his mind. He needed to get rid of them, somehow. So, there was a complete cricket shut-off from the system for around three months. He spent time with his horses in his farm house and his friends to get refreshed.
The South Africa series was around the corner and fortunately for him, the Ranji season provided a lifeline. He warmed up for it by playing district level matches. And then started off in blistering fashion with 24 wickets in two Ranji matches. There was no way he could be ignored for the South Africa Tests. The momentum continued in the next two matches where he scalped 14 more wickets.
"No doubt, I worked hard at the ground but a lot of things were timed to perfection. The Ranji Trophy started with the SA series being round the corner. So it all fell into place for me," Jadeja said during the 2015-16 South Africa series.
"Sometimes, it so happens that you have to wait for five-six months to prove yourself and get back into the (national) side. So I would say that I was lucky that things fell into place for me at the start of the season itself," Jadeja told BCCI.Tv
"Without a doubt, the domestic season was a blessing in disguise for him. Without those 38 wickets, on what basis India would have picked him? He would have gotten into the team again but it would have taken him long,” Saurashtra coach Sitanshu Kotak tells Firstpost.
Those four Ranji games provided a springboard for revival and Jadeja hasn't looked back since, becoming almost a completely different bowler. He has taken 142 wickets in first-class cricket — the most by any player.
Ravindra Jadeja's First-class record
"There comes a turning point in everybody's life and those four games, where he took 38 wickets for Saurashtra, was his (Jadeja's) turning point," Saurashtra bowling coach Niraj Odedra tells Firstpost.
"After those wickets in Ranji Trophy, he grew stronger mentally and performed a bit of self-analysis. It was about good things but more than that it was about how you can repeat those good things. If he took five wickets, he wanted to do it again. Every time he used to bowl a good ball, he used to think about it going back to the run-up, thinking what have he done right so that he can repeat it again. That made him so, so accurate," Niraj adds.
What also helped Jadeja in his comeback trail were the turning pitches that Saurashtra prepared, with spin being their strength.
"We were planning for the team and the kind of wicket to prepare. I knew that the tracks which we are getting in the Test matches, a similar sort of wickets we needed to produce at Rajkot and win the games for the team,” says Kotak. "We have other spinners also but Jadeja was the main focus because on a turning track, he is probably the best bowler in India. I said to him you will be with the Saurashtra team for a maximum of three to four matches. So give your best and I am sure you will get picked for India. He said, 'we will see Kotak bhai but I have to perform and give my best,'" he adds.
Turning tracks is one thing but the ability to utilise those to good effect is another. Saurashtra copped a lot of criticism for preparing spinning tracks but it was Jadeja's X-factor that set him apart.
"There was a lot of criticism that 'Arey turning wickets pe itni wickets le ke, aadmi team me aa gaya to kya fayda?' (What's the use of getting in national side via scalping wickets on turners?). I said at that time, India too play on turning pitches and take my word, he will be the highest wicket taker," Kotak says.
"Both teams play on the same wicket with three spinners each. Why no one was getting even 10 wickets and Jadeja was getting 38 wickets?" Kotak adds.
"Saurashtra had prepared the spinning tracks which were criticised before but now these are the guys (Pujara and Jadeja) who have given the best performances for the Indian cricket team. The challenging wickets that have been provided have helped them in Tests," Saurashtra captain Jaydev Shah tells Firstpost.
Jadeja was relentless in those Ranji games. He bowled long unbroken spells and the accuracy and control, which had gone missing, were back again. He had rediscovered his mojo.
"He just said, I will bowl from one end throughout, get them all out and we will win. Even when the captain asked whether he needs rest. He said 'No, I don't,'" Kotak says.
"After those Ranji Trophy games, his confidence went up. People started looking him in a different way. He got his image back," Kotak adds.
Similar was the case with Pujara where domestic cricket came to the rescue. From being someone touted as the cornerstone of the Indian batting line-up, once christened the next 'Wall', to fighting for his place in the starting XI, Pujara's career had stalled slightly. The slide started from the 2013/14 New Zealand tour and in the next 30 innings, he averaged a mediocre 30.75.
As the form dwindled, the approach seemed to change. He started going into his shell quite often. He struggled on the 2016 West Indies tour and was even dropped for the Gros Islet Test. The lack of confidence was palpable and insecurity seemed to be lingering inside. But then he went back to familiar territory — the domestic circuit. The Duleep Trophy set up a perfect platform for warming up for the long home season.
Playing for India Blue, he scored 166 against India Green and an unbeaten 256 against India Red. The approach had changed. It was a free-flowing Pujara on display as he scored at strike-rates of 59.28 (166 off 280) and 70.52 (256 off 363). Those two innings proved crucial in revitalising his career. He not only sealed his spot in the national side again but has been on a roll since then, amassing 1259 runs at 66.26 in the 2016-17 season.
"I would agree to the fact that the Duleep Trophy double century was a sort of an innings that I needed before the start of a Test series. Actually the 166 that I scored in my first game of the tournament was the turning point. That innings brought in me the confidence," Pujara told BCCI.Tv last year.
"I did get disappointed but I never let my confidence get down. I knew it was just a matter of time. I am in a positive frame of mind after the Duleep Trophy. Those runs will definitely help me in the upcoming series against New Zealand. I don’t think I need to worry much about my batting now. I just need to stay focussed," he added.
The team management had advised Pujara to change his approach and intent and the Duleep Trophy provided him the stage to embed those changes. From struggling to convert starts, he was back to hitting 'Daddy Hundreds'.
"He was aware that people wanted him to play a bit more aggressively. I haven't spoken to him but I am sure it was at the back of his mind that he wanted to score runs quickly and that reflected in his innings in Duleep Trophy. Obviously it (Duleep Trophy) helped," says Kotak.
"I don't think Pujara went out of the Indian side for too long. But whenever you are a little bit out of form, you need a good innings to get back into the groove. Sometimes if you have important matches like the Duleep Trophy and you score hundreds or the innings he played in 2017 Irani Trophy with Saha to win Rest of India the game, matches like that give you a lot of confidence. I always feel that whenever Test players are not playing for the country, they should always play First-class cricket. It helps hugely. Because someone who is playing a Test, after scoring a double hundred, his frame of mind and confidence is different," Kotak adds.
Pujara is one of the best players of spin bowling and it is playing on challenging tracks over the years that has acted as catalyst in his improvement. Even Jadeja's batting has improved.
Not just Pujara and Jadeja, Wriddhiman Saha also benefitted from domestic cricket as the 2017 Irani Trophy helped him get into the groove after an injury lay-off. A fantastic double hundred (202*), including a marathon 316-run unbeaten stand with Pujara (116*) helped Rest of India chase down 379 against Gujarat.
However, it's not just one-way traffic. It's the importance that both Pujara and Jadeja give to domestic cricket that matters too. It's their respect for the domestic structure that has held them in good stead.
"I'll be honest with you — Jadeja and Pujara — they give so much importance to domestic cricket that whenever they are available, they never say no. All we have to do is let them know this is what the games and dates are, and if they are available and not on national duty, they are ready to play. It's not like the earlier days when people didn't use to give much importance to domestic games," says Niraj.
"Some players take it a bit easy (at the domestic level), get a bit relaxed. But these two, be it any game, they play with the same intensity. I see them diving around. I see them trying their best. Their involvement in the game is just the same as they do for the Indian team. It is unbelievable commitment," Kotak adds.
The Saurashtra team management too has had a role to play in Pujara and Jadeja's reinvigoration. Niraj, Sitanshu used to sit down with Jadeja in the evenings after the match and provide much-needed motivation.
"When Ranji Trophy camp started in Rajkot, I spoke to our coach Sitanshu Kotak on what to do. He also did some planning for me, we interacted a lot as he knows me from my U-14 days. He knows my strengths and which areas I should work on. Rajkot's home advantage also worked," Jadeja said back in 2015.
Sometimes, after being away from the state team for a long time, a player might need time to adjust again. However, he may feel at ease too considering that you are back in your own territory. In the case of Jadeja and Pujara, the coaching staff made them feel comfortable and at home.
"When he was getting those wickets (in Ranji), all I did was just encourage him. Sometimes these experienced players don't need advice, they need encouragement and that's what we did," says Neeraj.
And then they employed unique ways to motivate the duo.
"If you let them play as a normal player and you say ‘ok, you are dropped so try and perform’, then it will be hard to motivate," says Kotak.
"But if you start giving them responsibility as a coach, like I said to Jadeja: this is what you can do, this is what team expects from you and the team looks up to you. And if you perform, you are going to be with us only for a little while. If you make him understand that your three or four games here can change the future of the whole team and a lot of youngsters will get opportunities, then he will have some aim. If you don't have any aim, then it is hard to motivate. My responsibility was to create such an environment," Kotak adds.
After the struggle, Pujara and Jadeja are back to where they belong but as much improved cricketers. And domestic cricket has had a huge role to play in their resurgence. After the 3rd Test in Ranchi, India captain Virat Kohli described Jadeja as outstanding and Pujara as priceless.
Rahul Dravid once said it was domestic cricket that made him the cricketer he was. Pujara and Jadeja can say it has made them the players they once were. And all of India can be grateful for that.
With stat inputs from Sampath Bandarupalli and Umang Pabari