In the age of the specialist, the generalist becomes elevated to the status of rare genius.
Indian cricket has never lacked for specialist batsmen or bowlers, but since Kapil Dev and his heroics with both bat and ball, the search for an allrounder has usually hit blanks — so much so that it was seen as a curse to be compared to the great former captain. Irfan Pathan gave a lot of promise and fizzled out, and Ajit Agarkar teased with a few good performances — none even a shadow of Dev's class.
R Ashwin, even with those fine performances in the Test series against New Zealand and West Indies will always remain -- in his own words too -- a bowler who can bat.
But now, from the dusty lands of Saurashtra and the slippery rungs of India's domestic cricket ladder, there seems to have emerged a saviour.
You wouldn't fault Ravindra Jadeja for believing that Super Eight stages in ICC tournaments have been unlucky for him. At the World T20 in 2009, his laboured 35-ball 25-run innings was blamed for defeat against England. At the World T20 in 2010 (again in the Super Eights), he went for six sixes in just two overs. For a 22-year-old, these experiences must have been shattering. But as we would learn some time later, he would bounce back in a dramatic way. Not just in Twenty20 cricket, but in Tests and ODIs too.
Jadeja's T20 expertise needed no proof with performances in the Indian Premier League (IPL), but a hat-trick of triple centuries later, he was thrown into the deep end — it was time for Test cricket, and India needed to save their blushes at home to England. Jadeja dismissed Kevin Pietersen twice and even though India lost the series miserably, he kept his place for the Australia series and starred in the 4-0 whitewash (24 wickets at 17.45) of the Kangaroos — demolishing a team which continues to look lost and baffled.
Jadeja has shown an ability to bowl with unnerving accuracy and a knack to take full advantage of the conditions. As he says it himself, "I like to keep things simple and wait for batsmen to make mistakes." He gives his captain an option to control the game. He's a filler and a trigger too — a multitude of options — vital to a team game where individual battles determine the outcomes. Some may say things just happen for him, but that doesn't mean you deny him credit for making them happen.
However, he scored just 85 runs in six innings in his first full Test series — something that he needs to come to terms with. Once that happens, and there is all the evidence that it will, given that he has 3263 runs at an average of 50.98 in domestic cricket, India will have the most desired weapon in their arsenal — a world class all-format spin allrounder.
Shane Battier, the glue guy for Miami Heat (NBA), may not score points or be noted for his rebounds — but his simple presence in the team is a huge factor. Ryan Giggs, Manchester United's marathon man, may not score anymore goals or make assists, but him being on the pitch can still unnerve defenders.
It's not just about numbers in all sports. But in cricket, numbers — numbers are what make you great.
Jadeja has already played 67 ODIs, amassing 1075 runs and 77 wickets (batting avg 31.61, bowling avg 31.93). By the time World Cup 2015 hurtles towards us, he'll be a veteran of the squad. In 100 T20 matches (internationals and IPL), he has 1273 runs and 51 wickets (batting avg 20.86, bowling avg 31.29). If one was simply to go by numbers, young and jolly Jadeja is on course to be a great. That's not overrating him — it's the simple logic of statistics one cannot argue against.
And here's where his rarity is striking.
Qualitatively, Vinoo Mankad is considered as the greatest spin allrounder India has ever produced. In 44 Tests, he made 2109 runs and took 162 wickets. Ravi Shastri, the jack of all trades, made 3830 runs and took 151 wickets in 80 Tests and sets an impressive benchmark for a statistical comparison. The rest of the pack — which include Polly Umrigar, Chandu Borde, Dattu Phadkar, Bapoo Nadkarni and Salim Durani will be left in the wake if Jadeja's career continues unhampered.
Even in the recent past — Sunil Joshi, Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar have fairly good records but were all picked to do one task. It was either bowling or batting. Jadeja enjoys royalty in this case. He is picked for everything, on the merit of not just what he can do with the ball, but his ability to score quick runs and field like a real knight (54 catches in all competitions).
Let's widen the field to the world stage, and still, very few names crop up — Richie Benaud, Carl Hooper, Danniel Vettori... it's not a list for which you'd burn a candle overnight.
"You think I know him well, but even I'm finding out over a period of time." - M S Dhoni
Despite his detractors, MS Dhoni is not a fool. As India eased towards the semifinals of the ICC Champions Trophy, there was one name resounding through the rafters, one name which matters most in the team and one name which, according to the Indian skipper, "Provides balance to the side." So far in the tournament, he has taken seven wickets (2/31, 5/36) and scored 47* (29b) against South Africa.
And behind Jadeja's exposure to world cricket, and his successes too, is Dhoni's hand. He has promoted Jadeja and put faith in him — and it hasn't backfired yet.
What is most exciting about Jadeja's meteoric rise is that age is on his side and he's fit as a fiddle. If you decide to make him your favourite player, rest assured that he will continue to be in the side for a considerable time. He'll keep you gripped to the game when his team is bowling and he'll keep you hooked when his team is batting — and for a game which is suffering from a fixing and betting racket that isn't going to stop anytime soon — its twists and turns subjected to jokes of "it's all fixed" and its excitement quotient dying — he's the perfect diversion.
And the best part is that he still doesn't exude the aura of a genius - because maybe he isn't trying to be like one. Maybe he doesn't even know.
In Test Cricket
In ODI cricket
Note: Dattu Phadkar also bowled medium-fast on a few occasions
Statistics courtesy Rajneesh Gupta