By Tushar Bhaduri
Jasprit Bumrah’s long injury-forced absence has been a big reason of angst among fans and establishment in Indian cricket, with the distinct possibility of the star pacer being out of action till the World Cup later this year, or even beyond. Virat Kohli’s long century drought almost became a national concern till he made a few over the last few months. Hardik Pandya’s impressive performances with the ball in recent times, along with the x-factor he brings with the bat, make him crucial to the team’s fortunes in white-ball cricket. These are some of the key personnel in a busy year in which India has two chances of winning a major ICC trophy after a decade – the World Test Championship and the 50-over World Cup.
But there is a pressing case to be made for Ravindra Jadeja being the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the Indian team, across conditions and formats, so much so that one would find it difficult to believe that he returned to the game reasonably recently, during the Test series against Australia, after a knee injury. His exploits as a left-arm spinner, especially at home, now come as no surprise as one almost got the feeling that he had never been away. And his contributions with the bat, almost always when the team is in strife, put him in the bracket of genuine all-rounders, among the best in the world. Of late, he has been sent as high as number 5, especially when the team has lost early wickets. A batting average of almost 36 with three hundreds and 18 fifties in 64 Tests, and a bowling average of a little over 24 with 264 wickets, compares favourably with some of the best all-rounders of past generations. The figures over the last two-three years are likely to be even more impressive. His electrifying fielding is another string to his bow.
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As far as the 50-over format is concerned, it is fair to assume that if it hadn’t been for Jadeja, India would have suffered a 0-3 debacle in the recent series against the Aussies. In the series opener in Mumbai, if taking the wickets of the on-song Mitchell Marsh and dangerous Glenn Maxwell wasn’t enough, the left-hander came in with India reeling at 83/5 in pursuit of 189 and put on an unbeaten century partnership with KL Rahul to take the team home.
Even in Wednesday’s series decider in Chennai, it was only when Jadeja was the eighth man out in the 46th over, with 45 left to get, that India’s hopes were finally extinguished.
A banker for the team
In fact, so predictable are his contributions with bat and ball, and so reliable has he become, that he is almost taken for granted. There is hardly any game in recent times when he has let the team down.
Jadeja is clearly no longer a ‘bits and pieces’ cricketer. In an international career spanning a decade and a half, he is a cricketer evoking contrasting emotions. When he burst onto the scene, none other than Shane Warne, his first Indian Premier League captain, called him a “rockstar”.
But his initiation into international cricket was far from smooth, with Jadeja being labelled as the fall guy for India’s ouster from two T20 World Cups. His triple centuries in domestic cricket were attributed to pedestrian bowling attacks and docile pitches. His big haul of wickets were explained away by his ability to capitalise on helpful, crumbling pitches, as if that is not a skill in itself.
Through much of his career, Jadeja has bowled in tandem with Ravichandran Ashwin, considered a more artistic and imaginative spinner, while the left-arm spinner is a more prosaic operator, or so they say.
That would be short-changing the man from Jamnagar. He is constantly evolving and improving as a cricketer. His strengths as a bowler are his stamina and fitness, which make him a relentless proposition for any batsman, regardless of conditions. If the pitch is not conducive for him to run through an opposition, he can be relied upon to keep an end tight and hold the game for his side. With the bat, he often gets tough runs, against top sides, forging vital partnerships and changing the complexion of matches.
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The doubters only seem to fuel his desire to prove them wrong. At a time when all the talk is of players specialising in one or, at best, two formats, Jadeja can rightfully walk into any team, irrespective of the length of the game.
The World Test Championship final will be held in England, where Jadeja has a Test hundred in 11 games. The conditions may not be too spin-conducive, but he can be relied upon to do a job, especially with the team missing Bumrah and most of the specialist batsmen being short of recent runs. And including him for the 50-over World Cup would be a no-brainer.
There may be more eye-catching players in the Indian team full of superstars, but hardly anyone is more reliable than the sword-wielding left-hander from Saurashtra. His importance is often realised in his absence.