The long room situated just above the players’ pavilion at the PCA stadium in Mohali. It was the end of the second day’s play of the four-Test series against South Africa. The visitors had been bowled out for 184 and the man of the hour walked in.
Ravindra Jadeja took 3-55 on his comeback to the Indian Test team. He had missed the Sri Lanka series in August owing to poor form previously. But on this day, he slid back into bowling attack as if he had never been absent. The first question obviously was about his time away from the international stage.
“There were a lot of negative thoughts in my head, and I needed to get rid of them. So, for three months, I didn't even think of cricket. I just went horse riding and concentrated on my personal life. I took my mind off cricket,” Jadeja said that evening.
Now, imagine him on a horse. In the fields, just like he said, riding about without a care in the world. Horse riding is an art in itself, nurturing the animal while extracting more than optimal performance from the beast. It is a fine balance, a tough one, and unknown to most people today. The bottom-line here is that whether as a hobby or a project, it comes naturally to Jadeja.
On the cricket field, it is akin to his bowling in helpful Indian conditions, or his fielding that left many Australians in awe recently. At times when it feels he is just an ordinary player, there comes a ripper from nowhere. Moving away from the line just a tad, either collecting the off-stump or the outside edge. Or even a throw from within the 30-yard circle, disturbing the bails and finding the batsmen out of their crease. These are two of his biggest traits. Inside the boundary rope is where he belongs.
“Jadeja isn’t one to whine or complain. At the start of the season, he knew that he hadn’t performed to the required level and he didn’t mop around when he was dropped from the national side. All he knew was that he needed to perform again,” said Saurashtra coach Shitanshu Kotak.
“There is this immense self-belief about him, it is perhaps his strongest quality. He had lost that a bit in the last season but he remains a confidence player, and always will be. He knows he is the most lethal where there is even a minuscule aid from the wicket,” he added.
In that respect, this past home season has played right up his alley. Starting from the Ranji Trophy to the South Africa series, it made for a wholesome wicket-tally for Jadeja on trigger-happy spinning wickets. His return to the Test side wasn’t really a surprise, with Harbhajan Singh ill suited to Virat Kohli’s five-bowler theory in Sri Lanka. Total 23 wickets in those four matches against the Proteas meant that he was a shoe-in for the squad to Australia as well.
Never mind the ODI series’ loss Down Under, in the last six weeks Jadeja has again proven to be the ideal partner for R Ashwin in the shorter format as well. This rings out especially true in T20s.
As skipper MS Dhoni pointed out during the 3-0 win against Australia, the ‘difference in fielding rules in the two formats allows the spinners to play a more attacking role’. It thus highlights the role Jadeja plays in the team’s bowling set-up currently.
Then, as an extension, if it is considered that India will also be playing a lot of Test cricket at home in the coming year, the No.7 spot is all sewn up for him. Herein lies the singular problem. Jadeja has been built up to be that player all this while, and yet he hasn’t justified his batting potential.
A day before the fourth ODI in Canberra, team director Ravi Shastri sat in the conference room in the pavilion, facing the media in the pre-match ritual. From among the din came a simple question; when will India find an all-rounder who can perform in all conditions?
“Ravindra Jadeja showed in the South Africa Test series that he has matured a lot. He played some crucial innings in that series, and so I can’t imagine why he cannot play overseas,” said Shastri.
“But you have to get the opportunity first. Every time he has gone out to bat, it has been in the death overs because we have batted so well at the top. If and when there is a situation that we are 6-7 wickets down, and there is an opportunity to chase, then it will be his test. And I am sure he will be up for it,” he added.
It cannot be denied that there is a volatility about Jadeja’s batting. There have been some mercurial knocks, the counter-attacking half-century at Lord’s in 2014 perhaps the best of the lot. Useful as his scoring may be in short bursts across formats, it cannot be denied that more is needed.
What are the odds then that Shastri’s said opportunity presented itself the very next day?
After rollicking hundreds from Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli, India looked set to chase down Australia’s 349. But a turn of events saw both of them, plus Dhoni back in the hut, with the equation at 71 needed off 65 balls with 6 wickets remaining.
Yes, Ajinkya Rahane was injured and couldn’t really bat well enough. It heaped more pressure on Jadeja to harness the inexperienced lower-middle order and take his side home. He could have spoken with Gurkeerat Mann and Rishi Dhawan, or the other batsmen to follow, to play some sensible cricket. Instead, we saw a regular fall of wickets with bats just thrown around as India lost. At the other end, Jadeja finished unbeaten on 24.
Earlier in the series, Dhoni had spoken about how ‘some batsmen stay unbeaten at the end, giving the belief that they are chasing down the score’. Jadeja’s innings was a true reflection of that.
Afterwards, the skipper agreed that he had been let down by one of his favoured player’s inability to get the job done.
“It is not only about your own batting. He is one of the more experienced among the lower order batsmen, so you have to communicate. You have to tell the players batting with you what the bowler may be doing at that time and what the batsmen should be looking at,” Dhoni had said.
It can be ascertained with certainty that the skipper – and the team management – did raise this issue in the dressing room afterwards. For that is how growth, both at a team and individual level, can be achieved. At this juncture though, the obvious question to ask is about the true reflection of Jadeja’s ability with the bat.
It lies somewhere in the intersection of aforementioned comments made by Shastri and Dhoni. The team management puts immense trust in him. It was the hallmark of that time period India spent traveling away to South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia. Therein, he was given the lead spinner role ahead of Ashwin, one that saw his eventual downfall from the side.
Now back again into the national fold, and shining again, Jadeja has rediscovered his true purpose in the playing XI.
Only, his return isn’t totally complete just yet, for this is a cricketer who boasts of three first-class triple-hundreds. Thereafter, there is a huge gap – Test average at 21.50, and a shocking strike-rate of mid-eighties in both ODIs and T20Is. This one final step up will be key to unlocking his potential. Can he make that push?