Temperament. Patience. Resolve. Silky wrist work. Wasim Jaffer has it all. For years, he dominated the Indian domestic circuit with Mumbai and won the Ranji Trophy title eight times. Having achieved it all at the domestic circuit, Jaffer, in 2015, decided to leave Mumbai, a team he played for almost two decades. His decision came at a juncture when a number of young Mumbai batsmen were coming through the ranks. With the hope of playing for India behind him, Jaffer didn't want to be in the way of a youngster and joined Vidarbha as a professional.
With Jaffer's vast experience, coupled with the emergence of several talented cricketers, Vidarbha have had a prolific Ranji Trophy season and topped Group D, which featured teams like Bengal and Punjab. His role is not restricted to batting, though he amassed 358 runs at an healthy average of 59.67. He was a mentor to many a youngster, who possess the skills but lacked the exposure required at the highest level.
Firstpost caught up with Jaffer after Vidarbha's final match of the group stage against Himachal Pradesh to talk about Vidarbha's brilliant season, the inconsistency of Mumbai, the changed format of Ranji Trophy and his future plans.
39 and still going strong. What keeps you motivated?
I think the love for the game more than anything. That is the only thing I know if I speak about myself and I don't want to let it go very easily. I know I can become a coach or maybe (do) commentary or whatever (possible) in other capacities. (Although) I don't think it will give me as much joy as playing, so I want to keep it going as long as I can. Obviously, fitness is very vital for that, and I am trying my best. I missed out last season because of injures so I worked really hard on my fitness, got it back and started playing. And it's an odd feeling to even think of retiring from the game. And I think coming and playing for Vidarbha this season has given me a lot of happiness because we are playing very well. The team is playing well and I am feeling really happy about it. More than me, to see the players do well and to see us beating good teams makes me enjoy the game more.
If it continues like this, you never know. I know I don't have (a) long (career) left. Not many more seasons. But at the moment and this season, I have really enjoyed playing cricket and obviously qualifying by being top of the Group (in Ranji Trophy) with teams like Bengal and Punjab and all these teams in that group. But the fact that we still managed to beat those teams and come out on top is a really good feeling. To see youngsters play really well — and I am trying to help them as much as I can — that gives me real happiness. I want to keep going as long as I enjoy, my fitness and form are there. So, I am not thinking too far ahead, to be honest.
Vidarbha have qualified for the quarter-final and have topped Group D. They may now face defending champions Gujarat or Kerala (it was not confirmed at the time of this interview), so how confident do you think this team is going into that clash?
I think any team which qualifies for the knockouts is a good team, so there is not much difference. Obviously, Gujarat being the champions, they have played really well. So have Kerala. Hopefully we continue the form in which we are playing and not succumb to the pressure in the knockout stages. We have played a couple of times in the knockouts and lost. So we, and I personally, want to turn it around. Being from Mumbai, obviously, I have been part of so many titles. So I will give whatever inputs I can to turn the things around. Let’s hope good things will happen.
You are playing as a professional currently so obviously your role is not reserved to batting, it's beyond that. So how has that experience been?
I am really enjoying it. When I played my first season, it wasn't great even though we played in the quarter-finals that season. We played quarter-final in the one-dayers (Vijay Hazare Trophy) as well. But personally I didn't have a very good season and I missed a lot of first-class games last year because of the injury. (But) Now with me being fitter, it has given me a lot of joy to come into the same system and see the youngsters do well. Especially Sanjay (Ramaswamy), who has scored more than 600 runs. Faiz (Fazal) has done fantastically. Even Aditya Sarwate, to name a few. They have all been very good cricketers. And if me playing here, sharing my experience or giving whatever knowledge I have helps them improve, that gives me a lot of happiness. They are performing at first-class level and hopefully go on to achieve a lot more things. Because my role isn't just that of a batsman, I would like them to become better cricketers and play for India A and then go on to play for India.
How different is it to play as a professional instead of just being a player?
I was doing that role in Mumbai as well to be honest. Just because I have come here (as a professional) it doesn't mean that I have started to do these things now. When I was a senior at Mumbai, I was helping youngsters. But Mumbai cricketers generally have a lot of exposure, they have got a lot of people to talk to because Mumbai has produced so many cricketers. So there are a lot of good coaches who have played for Mumbai or India. There is a lot of quality in Mumbai.
But here, it is quite limited. So when someone (senior) like me comes, I am sure the boys look forward to the experience as they can learn. Also, personally, I feel that the youngsters here are very talented and they kind of need that exposure. Not just me, Chandrakant Pandit as coach and Ganesh Satish, who was part of the Ranji winning team at Karnataka, are also here. Not to mention, Umesh (Yadav), who has played for India, and Faiz, who has been around are here too. Vidarbha players need this kind of exposure, because they don't lack quality.
Probably, the self-belief and exposure (can be improved) and things can change. There are a few cricketers who have played in the Indian Premier League from Vidarbha like Akshay Karnewar, Jitesh Sharma, Apoorv Wankhede and Faiz. Umesh obviously is an exception. When these guys get picked by IPL teams, you just know they have the quality. But it's about refining that by providing exposure. The sky is the limit for them after that.
As you said Mumbai players, or rather cricketers from big centres, get a lot of exposure. So where do you think teams which are growing, like Vidarbha or Assam, can improve? What are the areas they can work on?
I think they need to have the vision. Vidarbha, for sure, have the vision because they have an academy here, before that they had the residential academy where players were staying 24/7 and also practicing. That's the vision which most of the associations need. Not having it is sad. Administrators need to have the vision and must spend some money to bring out the quality. You won't get that if you invest only a small amount of money. Spending substantial money is important. Growth doesn't happen overnight. Vidarbha have done that before, that's why they see the results coming. The U-19 team have three players who played for Asia Cup teams in their age group, which is exceptional.
A lot of big teams haven't had players making it to the India U-19 team in those numbers. That shows the youngsters who are coming through. It is looking good for the Vidarbha Cricket Association. I am sure with us around, the quality of the game will go up. The same mentality has to be applied for the other teams, because it makes me sad to see teams like Assam and Goa finishing with two, four, six points after playing six games. That is not good for Indian cricket. They need the exposure and the infrastructure. If they want to compete with the big teams, improving infrastructure is a must.
Do you miss playing for Mumbai?
(Smiles) Obviously. I have played 19 seasons for Mumbai so you miss that competitiveness. You need to stay around your city and play, so you miss that part of it. But I have had my time under the sun in Mumbai. But I had reached that stage in my career when a lot of youngsters were coming through and I obviously didn't have the chance to go and play for India at that point. So I thought it was probably the right time to move on and take up a new challenge.
I didn't want to be in the way of any youngster. Especially the youngsters (who were coming through) such as Akhil Herwadkar. You don't need to be in their way because they need the exposure more than me, so that's why I moved out. Now, there is no point going back to Mumbai. I learnt everything playing for Mumbai. Playing around many great players was an honour.
Mumbai haven't been as dominant as they used to be. They had to win their last match to qualify for the quarter-final. Do you think the fear of playing Mumbai is decreasing?
The team is in transition a little bit because all the senior players have kind of moved on. The youngsters who are coming in need to rebuild that aura and show it with their performances. You are saying that because Mumbai just managed to qualify in the last game. But take a look at the last two seasons, they won once and were beaten in the final last year. So you can't say that they are on the decline.
Not decline, but has the perception of how the opposition look at Mumbai changed?
In general, in cricket the quality of the game has improved so much. Look at Kerala or Gujarat. When I was growing up, Gujarat were one of the weakest teams and nobody used to talk about Kerala. But now both those teams have become so much better.
Take Vidarbha as well. They weren't considered too strong but because of the academies, the NCAs and obviously the infrastructure that these guys have put up; all the small teams have emerged in such numbers that the competition is high. So, it is bound to happen. But Mumbai have been producing players like Shreyas Iyer. He has played for (India in) T20Is. Siddhesh Lad is scoring runs. Akhil has played for India A. Shardul Thakur has been around. So they have got the quality in them. And generally when the big stage comes, they put up their hands up and perform. If you take the last two seasons into consideration, you can't say that they are one of the weak teams.
The number of triple centuries have increased this season. What do you think has changed?
I think the batsmanship has risen to a different level and T20 is obviously the reason for that. A lot of players are playing more shots. The fear of hitting the ball in the air is not as much as it used to be. So when the batsmen, on their day, start hitting and connecting, you see scores like 350 or 400 in a day which was like a miracle. It never happened in my time. 260-270 was considered a very good score on Day one. But now teams go past 400 as well. The first day of Ranji Trophy (this season), Himachal Pradesh scored 450 on the first day when Prashant Chopra got 300. So the batsmanship has changed. The players are more aggressive and play in the air. Youngsters have a different approach nowadays and you can't blame them. Teams are getting more results, they are scoring a lot more runs and the game is changing with time. So that's why we are seeing a lot of (individual) big scores.
So, it is all about mindset...
I feel so. I mean, in general people don't have patience in life. So how do you expect the batsmen to have it? When players like Pujara show patience they don't get picked for the IPL. So that is one of the reasons. In today's era, it is vital to adapt to all three formats, otherwise you won't exist. You will only end up playing four-day cricket. So guys are playing more shots to adapt to all the formats. For the earlier generation, this challenge wasn't there. They were playing one-dayers, where 250 was considered a good score, and they used to play three-day or four-day cricket. But now, even 350 is being chased down easily which people probably never thought about in my time. Those kind of challenges were unheard of in my generation. But adapting to all three formats is a must now if you want to survive. That is why they are scoring more and the strike rate has increased a lot more.
The Ranji Trophy format changed this year. As a result of this, the number of matches have reduced, which kind of puts more pressure on youngsters. A few failures or bad form could be the end of the season for them. So was this a good change or a bad one?
I think it is a loss of only one or two games. So it is not a massive loss. But more the merrier from the players' point of view. But the rest is a question for the people who make those decisions. I feel the competition needs to stay very strong. But what I liked about the last year's format was that the good teams were playing against each other and there was a lot of good competition. Along with that, there was a fear of being relegated. I feel that fear has diminished a little bit.
Every team, especially the weaker ones, knows that they are not going to get relegated. That is why some teams didn't have a professional, because they don't want to spend that money. They know that even if they finish in the bottom half, they are not going to get relegated. So I feel the people who make these decisions have to understand that the fear has to stay. The teams who are playing in the elite group must fear of relegation, and the teams who are doing well in the plate group must have the motivation to get promoted into the elite group. The teams who finish at the bottom in the plate group should be penalised.
Teams like Assam have finished with two points, and that is a very poor show. They should be questioned or probably fined. I am unsure what the best way is but that is how you are going to make Indian cricket better. Last year, teams were hiring professionals and getting services out of them because there was fear and as a result the youngsters were growing and learning. That didn't happen this year because teams were aware that relegation is not there so they might as well play their own players, who may or may not be good. That is my only concern.
How have you managed to maintain the longevity in your career?
I don't know, I never thought about it to be honest. You know (I just had) the passion to play. I played for India, got dropped and the fire within me to come back in the Indian side always propelled me to perform well. I came back in the Indian side, did well then got dropped and picked again.
So I just kept on going, I never thought I could play 20 years. I don't know how long I can or will play. I just want to enjoy. But this season has given me a lot of happiness because I have come from a team where winning was everything. I was lucky enough to be a part of eight Ranji Trophy wins and that culture has grown within me. I want to win no matter what and I want to inculcate that in these guys. I want to teach them how to win. You are not going to win everything but at least you can have that culture. So obviously when I go into a team and see them losing all the time probably that passion will die down. That's why the passion has reignited this year because we are winning and playing so well. That is how I played my cricket in Mumbai and that is why I could probably go on for so long.
I know you have not decided, but whenever Wasim Jaffer decides to hang up his boots, what will be his next step?
I don't know. I never think on those lines to be honest. I could go into coaching, I have a job with Indian Oil and could be working in the office or doing commentary. I have never thought about such things. Destiny plays its part and takes you where you are meant to be. I believe in that. If I am destined to coach, I will coach. If not, I can work in the office... I don't know, it is very scary. But you never know. I will be happy if I stay in touch with cricket in whatever capacity.