The New Zealand team that beat India in the finals of the ICC KnockOut Trophy (as the Champions Trophy was called back then) in Nairobi in 2000 weren't a team of superstars. In fact, they were underdogs entering the tournament, but performed admirably well as a unit to snatch the title from under India's nose. Three men that figured in the finals of that tournament would probably not have made it into most teams at the time — Chris Harris, Scott Syris and Craig McMillan.
They were the sort of cricketers New Zealand had in plenty. The 'utility player' or 'bits-and-pieces cricketer' was a concept that New Zealand revolutionised in the Martin Crowe-era way back in 1992. But today, cricket is all about the Superman-esque players who excel in one department or the other. There are very few bits-and-pieces cricketers in top-tier cricketing nations. However, India have managed to discover one of their own in Kedar Jadhav. A wicket-keeper in the domestic circuit, Jadhav was first handed the ball by MS Dhoni in an ODI against the Kiwis in Dharamsala last year. Jadhav responded with the wickets of Jimmy Neesham and Mitchell Santner, finishing with figures of 3-0-6-2.
He picked up a further four scalps in the same series, including a career best 3/29 at Mohali. Jadhav wasn't used with the ball right through the ongoing Australian ODI series, but Kohli turned to him at Bengaluru to create a breakthrough with David Warner and Aaron Finch going hammer and tongs. He not only broke the 231-run stand with a slingy, skiddy delivery that got rid of Warner, but also put a leash on the burgeoning run rate. At the end of the Australian innings, Jadhav's economy stood at 5.4, the best among India’s bowlers in the game.
"When you play for India, you have to contribute in every possible way you can. In the IPL, I did it by keeping wickets. Here, I am doing it with my bowling. I have been working on my bowling in domestic cricket too," Jadhav had said some months ago.
This isn't a one-off feat for the seemingly innocuous Royal Challengers Bangalore cricketer. This year, Jadhav has picked up nine wickets in ODIs, equalling Ravichandran Ashwin and one more than Ravindra Jadeja, but at a much better average and strike rate than the Test spinners. Every time he has come on to bowl, Jadhav has managed to make his presence felt, despite bowling not being among his primary skills.
In a chase of 335, Jadhav came into bat after the Bengaluru crowd witnessed their adopted hero, Virat Kohli, chop one onto the stumps to leave India at 147/3. He played second-fiddle to a rampaging Hardik Pandya, and was content to nudge the ball around for ones and twos.
When the Aussies reduced the boundary rate, Jadhav mixed some deft touches with brute power to smash some fours and race to 28 off 23 balls. The RCB player has a unique technique. He manages to stay back and play the ball late while also disturbing the bowlers' rhythm with the odd dancing-down-the-track shot. The latter attribute was on full display in the 34th over, when he stepped out to Marcus Stoinis and hoisted him over the long-off fence for a maximum. Jadhav watched in dismay as the potentially match-winning partnership, rapidly gaining momentum in the recent overs, was cut short by Pandya's reckless pull off Adam Zampa.
It was back to square one for the Indian lower middle-order batsman. Alongside Manish Pandey, Jadhav stitched together another useful partnership but soon after the rain break, Kane Richardson managed to bamboozle him with a wily leg-cutter, uprooting his stumps for a well-made 67.
The scorecard would show Jadhav’s strike rate as 97.1 after walking in at No 5 in a chase of 335, but it wouldn't reveal the kind of match situations he overcame to produce this knock. His 67 came in 69 balls with seven fours and a six but this effort will go down as a wasted opportunity for Jadhav to seal his spot in India's middle order.
In reality, 2017 has been a fine year for Jadhav. But such has the performance of Team India been that any deviation from the line of excellence is considered a grave offence. How else would Jadhav's 526 runs in the year, at an average of 43.83 and strike rate of 113.85 invite criticism? He is India's fifth highest run-scorer this year despite being largely confined to the fifth and sixth slots in the batting order, behind some of the best modern-day batsmen in ODI cricket.
If he was an Australian, Jadhav would be among the first names on the team sheet. India have such a large number of options that every single failure by a player is scrutinised and unnecessarily criticised. The current lineup is one of superstars and Jadhav is definitely not one. But like the Kiwis of Nairobi in 2000 showed, you don't always need superstars to win you games. The bits-and-pieces cricketer can do it too, chipping in with valuable contributions every now and then.
He may not ooze class or audacity, but Jadhav has what it takes to be a Suresh Raina-type. A handy off-spinner and a more than gritty finisher, the Maharashtrian is one to persist with.
"I always play every game as my last game. Whenever you represent your country, you have to give more than 100 percent. I'll try and do that in whatever games I get, whenever I bat or bowl," Jadhav had stated in an interview some time ago. That is the sort of passion and composure a captain needs from his players. There is a reason the Indian team management has stuck by Jadhav in spite of the very many arrows directed at him by fans and critics. He may not score a hundred or take a five-wicket haul very often, but what he does, and does well, is chip in with worthy little cameos in one department or the other. And that is an invaluable contribution to bring to the table.