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Australia v India

Ravindra Jadeja can do no wrong

by Rohit Sankar 5 minute read

A half-century at the MCG and a four-wicket haul and a stellar run-out of Steve Smith at Sydney has put the focus back on India’s ‘genuine’ all-rounder, writes Rohit Sankar.

If Test cricket could borrow the X-factor Player rule from the Big Bash League, Ravindra Jadeja would almost always be one of India’s two substitutes. India like him, but they don’t fully trust him. They rave about him every time he pulls off a stunning run out, plays a good cameo or takes out the main batsman from the opposition side, yet when the next away tour begins, he rarely finds a place in the starting XI.

Since his debut, Jadeja has played in the first match of an away tour in conditions where India are likely to play a lone spinner (read, South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia, the notorious SENA nations) just twice: at Auckland and Nottingham, with both instances coming in 2014.

On the second of those two occasions, former New Zealand captain Martin Crowe was brutal on India’s decision to field Jadeja over Ashwin, calling the former an “ordinary” spinner.

“Normally, spin would be India’s sure thing. No longer is that case if Ravindra Jadeja is deemed your best spinner. It smacks of something extremely odd. Jadeja can bat, often flamboyantly and recklessly, and as a leftie at No.7 he can do some damage. But his left-arm spin is nothing short of ordinary. At best he is a third-choice spinner in Indian conditions, where three are often needed,” Crowe wrote on ESPNCricinfo.

It wasn’t the first, or the last time the Indian all-rounder would be criticised for his place in the side. With Ravichandran Ashwin, an aesthetically pleasing spinner who satisfied the thirst of the Test purists, available to India, Jadeja was always a sidekick when they went on one of their difficult away tours.

Between 2015 and the Melbourne Test in 2018 against Australia, Jadeja played as the lone spinner, home or away, just once – in the fifth Test in England in 2018, a dead rubber. When he played as the frontline spinner in Melbourne the last time India came to Australia, Ashwin was still recovering and with the series still in line, India did not want to risk a relatively newbie in Kuldeep Yadav.

Jadeja was the most economical of India’s bowlers on a flat MCG wicket, bowling 25 overs for just 45 runs while picking two wickets. In the second innings, he sent back three of the top seven to finish with five wickets as India won emphatically. It felt like a quietly important statement of his strengths. And yet as Sydney came, he was immediately handed a support spinner in Kuldeep who went on to steal the headlines, and the coach’s admiration, with a five-wicket haul. Ravi Shastri hailed Kuldeep as India’s “first-choice spinner” in overseas Tests at the end of the Test.

Since then, quite a bit has changed. Jadeja’s limited-overs form has shot up, his batting has lived up to his Ranji Trophy numbers and his electric fielding has remained intact. What the Indian all-rounder also perhaps recognised after Sydney 2018/19 was that he would possibly never be India’s No.1 spinner away from home in Tests.

Realising this, he improved the different dimensions the likes of Ashwin and Kuldeep can’t offer in the same way: his batting and fielding. Competing with them on their terms was futile, but he could always push for a place in the side as a genuine all-rounder who could bat in the top seven.

The difference it has made is marked. Instead of being a genuine frontline bowling option, Jadeja embraced the bits and pieces tag he was cruelly given, not just in Tests, but across formats. He became a bowler who bats in the top seven and gives India flexibility. Suddenly, Jadeja wasn’t competing with just Ashwin. He was also competing with the extra pacer and the No.6 batsman.

At the MCG for the Boxing Day Test, he essentially stepped in for Virat Kohli into the starting XI. A valiant half-century and a century partnership with Ajinkya Rahane put India in the driving seat in the Test match. He bowled less than 20 overs in the entire Test, but picked up crucial breakthroughs throughout.

At the SCG, he bowled just three overs on day one. On day two, with Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne running away with the game and the Indians preparing for a long haul in the field, Jadeja stepped in to break the partnership with the wicket of Labuschagne. A clever change in pace and length accounted for an aggressive Matthew Wade a bit later. He went on to claim two more wickets — of two of Australia’s most resolute tail-enders, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon — to finish with a four-wicket haul. He didn’t get a fifth wicket, but still finished off the innings. In a way, it was fitting. Running in from the deep to pull off a direct hit to run Steve Smith out, he demonstrated his all-round qualities once more. Jadeja is much more than just his bowling, and even if he’s not taking five-fors, he’s vital to India’s cause.

After the MCG win, Ravi Shastri had reserved special mention for Jadeja, talking up his all-round strength.

“He is a genuine all-rounder,” Shastri said of Jadeja. “That is why he bats where he is. He can bat at 6, he can bat at 5 if need be on a given occasion. But he is a genuine, genuine all-rounder.”

That he used the word ‘genuine’ three times in two sentences could perhaps be seen as an indication of how Jadeja has snugly fit into a role Test spinners aren’t used to filling, especially in countries that dish out green or flat tops. Since 2018, he even has the second best strike-rate for any spinner on away tours.

But that’s the thing. He can no longer be seen as a just a spinner. He is an all-rounder, one who India can, and should, bank upon on away tours consistently.

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