India kick-started their ODI tour of Sri Lanka on the horns of a selection dilemma, keeping in mind the journey to the 2019 World Cup. Yuvraj Singh missed the boat, as did Rishabh Pant, and KL Rahul returned aboard, after a long injury lay-off. Three matches into the five match series, India have already taken an unassailable lead, and some answers have emerged. For example, MS Dhoni showed that in choppy waters, he’s still a masterful helmsman. But the pieces of the jigsaw are still jumbled like a stack of cards, with the rest of the middle order coming a cropper both times in Kandy. Consequently, the focus has shifted to Kedar Jadhav, whose last four innings have fetched just 15 runs.
Jadhav’s case is rather curious. For one, seldom do batsmen break into the Indian team outside the parentheses of youth, given the endless supply of talent. That, he made it at 29, and continues to remain in contention at 32, is testament to the ability we have only seen in flashes. That is perhaps a corollary of the fact that in 28 matches, he has occupied the No 6 slot on 17 occasions. The archetypal problem with batting lower down the order is that contributions often go unnoticed.
Hence, notwithstanding a match-winning hundred against England, and copious cameos that amnesia-stricken cricket fans would have forgotten in a hurry, his future could hinge on his performances higher up the order, as India continue to experiment. That presents a make-or-break opportunity to Jadhav that he has thus far squandered, falling prey to the mysteries of Akila Dananjaya. The perils of batting higher up are that the failures are flagrantly conspicuous.
In addition to a slew of poor scores, his fielding has been of a standard that would have been unacceptable even during WG Grace’s time. No wonder then, he cut a lonely figure down at the third man boundary at the start of the third ODI. Not that it helped his cause, as he let the first ball slip past his diving body into the boundary, like it possessed the properties of water, not leather. It was an inauspicious start to a largely forgetful outing. Both his catching and ground-fielding have made it impossible to hide him anywhere, the scope of which has rapidly diminished in limited overs cricket.
On the other hand, his part-time off-spin has been an inscrutable revelation since the first time he was thrown the ball in an ODI against New Zealand. Seemingly innocuous, he has frustrated oppositions with the lack of bounce, due to his low-arm action, and often coaxed them into benevolently gifting their wickets away. He has got wickets off full-tosses, long-hops and every kind of delivery conceivable, other than a classical off-break.
Often, they have been prized scalps. Like that of Kane Williamson in Mohali, and a well-set Tamim Iqbal in the semi-final of the Champions Trophy that arguably changed the complexion of the match. In that regard, Jadhav might pip anyone breathing down his neck, but with India regularly playing five genuine bowlers, is the cushion of a few useful overs enough to keep him in the side?
Clearly, the problem is of runs, time, and cut-throat competition for a solitary spot.
Waiting in the wings is Manish Pandey, with form following him like an incorrigible stalker. Another versatile batsman, who could be maneuvered in the middle order according to the situation, he is a tempting proposition to draft into the team. Other than him, there’s Shreyas Iyer, Mumbai’s nascent blue eyed boy, blessed with ability so natural that makes trees, rivers and even the rain pale in comparison. Although a classy top-order batsman, Iyer showcased his adaptability during the Indian Premier League, where he played decisive knocks for Delhi Daredevils lower down the order. Iyer’s match-winning 140 in his last List-A game in the final of a tri-nation involving Afghanistan A and South Africa A will be fresh in the minds of the selectors.
Then there’s the curious case of Suresh Raina, who has made as many comebacks as characters in Hindi soap operas. With his three-dimensional skill-set of power-hitting, agile fielding and part-time spin, he remains eternally relevant in India’s ODI scheme of things. This ominous list does not even include India’s Test vice-captain, Ajinkya Rahane, who is part of the ODI squad in Sri Lanka. Dinesh Karthik, who was part of the Champions Trophy squad and the touring party to West Indies is also in the periphery.
The reality is, that regardless of how well Jadhav fares at the top of the order, he will be reinstated as the finisher in the long-run. Should all go to plan, that eventuality suits him best. But for the moment, he needs to be able to adapt to an unfamiliar role in a bid to seal his place. Perhaps he could take refuge in the famous words from the film The Great Debaters, “We do what we have to do in order to do what we want to do.”
But how long does he have before India make an inevitable change in their quest to finalise a core group of players with an eye on the World Cup?