Strange things happen in sport. And one person who is no stranger to strange things is Wasim Jaffer. The veteran player is going through one of the best phases in his cricketing career. At 41, he's achieved what he couldn't in Mumbai, a Ranji-Irani double, "Who would have expected that this would happen to me at the age of 41," he says. "Strange things have been happening to me". Jaffer scored 1,000-plus runs in 2018-19, becoming the first player in history to achieve that milestone on two separate seasons and a year ago, he had amassed the highest-ever Irani trophy score in an innings. Certain qualities go on to become synonymous with some players. Simplicity and hunger for runs have got Jaffer going on and on.
That simplicity shines through his persona. It's a balmy Monday evening in Mumbai, Jaffer, clad in jeans and a smart t-shirt, carrying a bag pack, arrives bang on time for our interview at the Khar Gymkhana. He enquires whether I had any difficulties finding the destination before ordering two strong coffees as we sit down to have a long chat, one that revolves around Vidarbha's success, his motivation to go on and on, a wide range of issues in domestic cricket and much more.
Excerpts from the interview:
1000 plus runs for the second time, at 41 do you think it's the most satisfying season for you personally as a batsman?
In the last five years, I would say yes, since I have moved to Vidarbha. My first season, 2015-16, was a pretty average one. I didn't play at all in the next due to injury. The next season (last year) was pretty decent but not outstanding. The fag end of it was good because of the Ranji and Irani finals. But this year it's the best I have played in the last five seasons. And it just boils down to my commitment and motivation to play. That I still want to train, bat and score runs irrespective of where I am playing. Last year was a testing season for me because if Pandit wouldn't have come here and we wouldn't have won the Ranji or Irani, then something else might have happened. But because of the way we played and beat top teams and I played decently, it made me even more motivated to do well, look forward to this season because we wanted to defend the title. I knew long back that I won't be playing for India. I understood that and took that in my stride. And I still enjoy playing cricket, batting, scoring runs and am still happy that I can contribute. It's surprising, winning Ranji and Irani never happened to me in Mumbai and who would have expected that this would happen to me at the age of 41. So strange things happen. But as long as you keep your mind open and keep trying hard, stay honest to your job and get priorities right, strange things happen. And strange things have been happening to me.
How has your approach and mindset changed in these years?
I don't think my approach has changed. But with experience, I've become smarter. I get that freedom probably because I am a senior player. I don't need to practice as much compared to the younger guys.
Back to back Ranji and Irani titles, what's been the key to success for Vidarbha?
First of all, we had a very balanced team. The batting, fast bowling and spin bowling were pretty decent. We had the team that you require to play well on most surfaces. We had a very strong spin and pace attack. The batting was formidable and most importantly, it clicked most of the times.
At the start of the season we discussed that since we were the champions, there were chances that teams didn't take us seriously last year, but this year they will come prepared and won't take us lightly. So we were well prepared. Last year we didn't have many tough games and were winning very handsomely. Gurbani was on a roll and everyone else was chipping in, but this year I felt we showed a lot of character, especially after conceding the first innings lead in the first two games. We had only five points from the first three games and were nowhere near the qualifying race.
And from there on, the way we picked up and qualified; topping the group from 18 teams amidst some great sides was commendable and a milestone in itself. The team stayed together, it was the case last time also and that's the quality of Chandrakant Pandit. He keeps the team together and never lets anyone go into his comfort zone. He keeps pushing them to bring out their best. Even if they have done well, he still pushes them. On each occasion, someone or the other put their hand up and performed at a crucial stage. Vidarbha doesn't rely on one or two players. There are certain players who chip in all the time and that is the quality of a good side.
Vidarbha have been doing well at all levels, U-16, U-19, U-23, and the senior team. What's the reason?
It's the vision of the administration. Mr Shashank Manohar put up the academy way back in 2009 and he is getting the results now. It's my personal opinion that once the administration has a view of improving cricket and cricket becomes a priority in their eyes, that is the time when the teams do well. I have seen that with Mumbai also but unfortunately that is not happening now. At Vidarbha, the people have the vision and they work for cricket and not themselves. Cricket and cricketers are their priority and that is why they are reaping the rewards. Not just at the top level but the U-14, they played the final, U-19 won the Vinoo Mankad Trophy, U-23 reached the semis of CK Nayudu Trophy. They are giving importance to cricket and hence reaping the rewards.
How's the base structure there?
The base is very good. The club cricket they play there is competitive. I wouldn't say it's as competitive as Mumbai's, but still, they play week in week out. That is what I feel Mumbai cricketers are missing out on sometimes. The Mumbai cricketers don't play that much, the knockout stages don't allow them to do that. I personally feel that Mumbai cricket needs to be restructured. At the very least, they need to think about how the players playing A division cricket need to play every Saturday, Sunday. And that's when you will see a lot more talent coming through. Now-a-days, any good youngster who is playing for a weaker team might only play one game as his team has lost and he doesn't get another game for next three-four weeks.
So somewhere, Mumbai cricket is losing out on those talents. Mumbai cricket needs to restructure the tournaments and club cricket they play. And cricket needs to become a priority in the eyes of the administration. Because if the top management works well, automatically that reflects onto the players and cricket. The district players that come through in Vidarbha are very talented. You have seen in Ranji, there are so many good cricketers coming through from small places like Amravati, Akola and are doing well. They get the academy to stay, use the facilities which they don't get at their respective places.
What are the other factors affecting Mumbai cricket?
Them losing Chandrakant Pandit has become the biggest gain for Vidarbha. If the administration had cricket in their mind, they wouldn't have ever let Pandit go because they played two finals under him, won one and lost one. So on the basis of pure performance, you would never let a coach like that go. But because probably cricket or cricketers are not their priority at the moment or the administration has something else in their mind. Why would you let a guy go who's taken you to two finals and made you win a championship? Vidarbha is very lucky to have a guy like him who's turned the fortunes around. Restructuring club and company cricket in Mumbai is something we need to look at. Probably Kanga League, do we still need a Kanga League? On paper it starts in July but when do we play it in July and August? We only at the end of September, so we lose out so many games. So why not think about it and run with the current time? The performance of Mumbai is showing in every team — U-16, U-19, U-23 — which is something very serious they need to look at. The administration people who take important decisions, they need to really sit back and take the right decisions in favour of cricket and cricketers.
What do the other smaller teams need to do to achieve success like Vidarbha? What model should they follow?
First of all, I personally feel that the majority of the states in India need a coach like Chandrakant Pandit. They need a strict guy who can impart discipline into them and get them out of their comfort zone. Sometimes I feel players take their places for granted. Sometimes the harsh truth needs to be told, and that doesn't happen. In a smaller state, if you get a hundred in a season, you can carry on to play the full season and probably the next one also. But in reality, to win a trophy or be successful, that is not enough. And that sometimes needs to be told.
For the last two years, I have worked very closely with him. Even though I had played under him even before, I never came that close. But right now, I can see the commitment that he has, the changes that he's brought. Similar kind of players played before, but we never had the same results.
Any other step they need to take?
They need to come out of their comfort zones. The harsh truth needs to be told to them. What you do is not good enough and sometimes that doesn't happen. Small success in IPL or white-ball cricket and they are happy. That is not good enough. Every batsman needs to challenge himself to score 800-900 runs, train and practice like that. Every bowler needs to challenge themselves to take 40-plus wickets and train like that. We are successful because a lot of the players are pushing themselves which they never did. And that is why we are getting results.
Is there space for all Ranji games to be five-day affairs?
I don't think so. Probably we have to look at restructuring the Duleep Trophy. If it can go back to zonal setup then it makes sense. If I am playing for West Zone, when I was playing for Mumbai, I would take that as my team. And if I am playing for India Blue, for instance, it doesn't matter. So that commitment is not there if I am playing for India Blue or others like that. If BCCI can get it back to old structure, even if it's a knockout tournament, it's fine. If the West Zone players perform in Ranji and get selected, that makes a very strong West Zone team. Players like Pujara, Rahane, Jadhav, Unadkat, Yusuf Pathan, make a very strong team and similarly from other zones also. It will make for very healthy competition. Now-a-days, nobody knows who played for India Blue or India Green.
Also, in this packed calendar, it is very hard to get five-day games. We finished the Ranji and had to play Irani in space of four days. We didn't even celebrate the Ranji win too much, to be honest, which we would have loved to. But because it's the IPL and World Cup this year, I can understand. If (five days) happen, we can see a lot more teams winning games but practically speaking, I don't think that is going to happen.
Do you still think that first innings lead is the way to go because it doesn't prepare the youngsters mentally for international cricket?
Honestly, teams do look for outright wins, don't get me wrong. Because I remember, in the first three games, we had just five points and if we kept winning the first innings games, we knew we were not going to reach anywhere. And then suddenly, we had two outright wins, against Chattisgarh and Railways. And we were in the top five. So every team knows that if they have to qualify, they need to have three to four outright wins out of eight games. And teams do go for outright wins, but sometimes they are hampered because of the pitches. Nowadays, neutral curators have come in and they don't let the home teams play around with the wickets and that is a good thing. In four days, if two good teams are playing, they are not going to get out twice. So that is why teams get hampered of not getting an outright win.
So you don't think there is a need to change anything with regards to that rule?
If Duleep Trophy can go into Zonal structure, it's a good step. Having a four-five day gap in Ranji Trophy is a good suggestion. Now a days eight-nine teams have come so it's got tighter and is more hard work for BCCI to conduct games. Probably Irani Trophy can be conducted at the end of the season or start of the season. Have four-day format at the start, then have the one-day format and then T20, that makes a lot of sense.
Vidarbha had around 11-12 homegrown players. How important is developing homegrown talent?
Very important. You can see Akshay Karnewar what he did in Irani Trophy and Ranji Trophy. Aditya Sarwate, Akshay Wakhare. Majority of the players who have performed apart from myself and Ganesh Satish are all homegrown players. You can make out they have the talent but somewhere down the line, they lacked a lot of confidence and self belief. But with the help of Chandrakant Pandit, myself and Ganesh Satish, that confidence and belief are instilled into them. Now they believe they can beat the best of the best. That belief is very important. That is the change that has come into Vidarbha. They are the ones who are going to perform. I or Chandrakant Pandit or Ganesh Satish are not going to be there forever. The core is the homegrown players.
How do you develop the homegrown players?
They have got the setup. The infrastructure is there. They have got good coaches involved and the academy running. It's the best possible facilities they can provide and the players are using it to the best they can.
In the last decade, there have been five different champions. What's the reason for this paradigm shift?
Most of the teams have improved, to be honest. When I started playing Ranji Trophy, Vidarbha, Gujarat, Saurashtra, Assam, Goa, Jammu and Kashmir were not considered competition at all; they were like pushovers. But these teams have become a force to reckon with. They have beaten the best. Vidarbha won two Ranji and Irani Trophies, Gujarat won the Vijay Hazare and Ranji. Assam has qualified to semi-final once. So most of the teams have got better that's why I feel winning a Ranji Trophy is a lot more hard work these days than compared to before.
Youngsters now-a-days think that IPL is the fastest route to the Indian team, where does it leave the importance of domestic cricket?
Nowadays if you want to play for India you need to have T20 skills; there is no doubt about it. If you don't play the T20 well, you are not going to play a lot of cricket. You are probably going to sit at home for six months which is very unfortunate, but that's how the game is going to run now. If you've scored 1,000 runs in Ranji but don't get an IPL contract, people are not going to recognise you because you are not going to get that stage to perform. A lot of players were lucky because they got that stage, like Prithvi Shaw, Shubman Gill and the others who have got selected. Khaleel Ahmed for instance, they had got that stage because they performed against the best of the players in the IPL in front of 30-40,000 people. I feel the first-class players need that stage. Players like Faiz Fazal, Gurbani, they didn't get selected at all for the IPL in spite of performing so well and are very unfortunate. The challenges for today's cricketer is to adapt to all three formats. If you don't have that skill, I don't think you are going to play a lot of cricket.
But then, won't youngsters give less importance to domestic cricket and more importance to IPL?
You can't fault them. That is how the selection has been happening. If somebody gets a stage like IPL, why won't he consider that as an important tournament? How many people come and watch the league games in Ranji Trophy? And how many people watch the IPL? There is a big difference. If you have three-four match-winning performances in the IPL... Look at Mayank Markande, who knew him before last year's IPL? He is in the Indian team now. You can't blame a player for that. They get so much attention out of IPL, so why not. But they can't leave out first-class cricket, they need to improve that skill also. However, the major skill they need to improve is T20. They can always adapt, like David Warner. He was basically a T20 player, but he's developed himself into a Test player and scoring in every format now. Today's generation has the challenge of having all these three skills.
Maybe it's a loss for domestic cricket then?
I won't say it's a loss. I am not saying that the players don't take domestic cricket lightly. But they give priority to the IPL. And I don't think it's wrong, to be honest. But when they play first-class cricket, they still need to think about scoring 1,000 runs, winning Ranji Trophy and picking up 40-50 wickets. Getting an IPL contract is fine, nothing wrong with that. But you need to have all three skills of three formats. And that is the challenge for today's cricketers.
Somewhere in your mind, you feel you missed out on more years of IPL?
I played first the first two-three seasons and got a couple of decent scores also. But the tag of Test cricket probably stayed with me. I was playing Test cricket at that time. Probably that's why. This is something which is happening to Pujara I feel. He is not getting an IPL contract. Because for players like us, there is only limited space for us to play. We can only bat at the top of the order. We can't bat at 4,5,6 because of the way we play. The way we bat or the way we play Test cricket has stuck with us. But now-a-days, that can't happen. The cricketers need to adapt, no matter where they play.
In this T20 era, do you think that the old school batting still finds a place in first-class cricket?
It will find in four-day cricket but definitely not in one-day or T20 cricket. Now-a-days, you can't get stuck. Even in Test cricket I feel, you need to take the game forward. People don't want to see dull draws. We have seen how (Kusal) Perera won the match for his team. If you want to bring people to Test cricket, you need to have results. And that has been happening. Us (India) winning in Australia and the kind of series we had in England has brought a lot of crowd to Test cricket. Even in Test cricket, you need to play a lot more positively now a days. You can't bat like how I started. You can't score 230-240 runs in a day. That is the challenge and a lot of people are doing that. The batsmen don't get stuck. If you set the field here, they have the skill to score on the other side and vice-versa. You can see a lot of reverse sweeps in Test cricket also and that's the change we are witnessing.
We've seen teams like Mumbai struggle, partly because of constant chop-and-change in captain, coaches and backroom staff. How important is stability with regards to the support staff?
The coaches need to be given time and freedom also. Once you select a coach, you need to give him at least two years. Sameer Dighe went in one year, Vinayak Samant has got the job for only a year. So I don't think that is the right way to go. You need to give them two years at least so that he can work with the players and impart his ideas which can help him understand what is right and wrong. One year is far too less time. When a tournament starts, there is anyway not enough time to practice. It's only the off season where he can use his ideas and work with the players.
We saw the Pandya-Rahul saga. Kumble has suggested educating the cricketers off the field. Do you think a similar step should be taken by state associations so that the youngsters get education early?
It can be done. It's not a bad idea. Somebody needs to take an initiative. It's not a bad idea at all, to educate them on how to speak to the media and how to behave in general. Because sometimes I have seen the youngsters when they get out, they misbehave, throw their bat around. And that is something which you need to educate them on. That's a good step if somebody takes it. The younger the better. If they get those ethics at the start of their career, then it's even better.
In the past, we have seen youngsters drift away. How important is it to handle rare talent carefully?
It's very, very important. Nowadays we see a lot of youngsters, especially in Mumbai, are being looked after by their parents or brother who are always with them. And that is why they have survived. If you leave them on their own, that talent will be wasted. Pujara is being looked after by his father from a young age, Sarfaraz Khan and Prithvi Shaw had their fathers looking after them. In that crucial age, 12-18 years, you need the right guidance. You need to be told what is right and wrong because you don't know these at that age and invariably, you end up going to the wrong path that excites you, the glamour side of it. I don't think a state coach or someone can keep a constant eye on him, in India, it's always the parent who looks after it. And I hope that continues so that the talent doesn't get wasted.
Apart from the parents, anyone else can help?
I think it's going to be very tough for a coach, someone who is running an academy to keep an eye on just one kid. It's only the parent or someone from the family who is going to stay with him 24-by-7 and can guide him. A coach can look at him for five-six hours in a day. But rest of the time, which is a crucial one, he can easily go astray. A guy in the family needs to dedicate that much time to the youngster but it's not easy. You need a strong financial background for someone to give you so much time.
Do you think there is a need of more of these player-cum-mentors in domestic cricket?
It has been happening for a while. Chandrakant Pandit has played for MP (Madhya Pradesh) before, Sandeep Patil and Lalchand Rajput have played before, Irfan Pathan has played for J&K. It's up to the players as well, are they intelligent enough to get that knowledge (out of them) or they are scared to go and speak. It's up to them to grasp as much as they can. When Rajasthan won Hrishikesh Kanitkar and Aakash Chopra were there. So it's not something new.
Are you of the opinion too that DRS should be introduced in domestic cricket?
It's very hard to use it in the league phase. I don't think it's going to happen. But I feel that at least in the live games, they can bring it in and probably in the knockout stages because those are the crucial games and you don't want the game to drift away because of such decisions.
We still see sparse crowds at Ranji matches. How can we bring more people into the stands?
Taking the game to the smaller cities. The Test centers are probably not bound to have too much crowd. But taking them to the smaller cities is the way to go provided they have the right facilities. I remember, when we played the Ranji final in Mysore, we had about 10-15,000 people watching that final.