The weather in Sydney was gloomy. Rain and wet outfield had cut the first day of the third Test of the recent Border-Gavaskar Trophy to 55 overs. Angry clouds intervened twice on the second day as well.
In the first two Tests, Australia’s top score was 200. In the first innings of the third, they were 337/9. Batsmen from number eight to eleven hung around with Steve Smith to add 59 of these runs. Before this Test, Smith aggregated 10 runs in four innings in the series. On that day, he was batting at 130* and looked at home like he always does at the SCG.
With considerable time lost due to rain, Australia already had a total from where they could dictate terms. Smith added the last 21 of his runs in 11 balls, cutting loose and wasting no time to caution. Even Jasprit Bumrah was going for boundaries. After a memorable win in Melbourne to overcome what transpired in Adelaide, the shoulders of the Indian team were dropping again.
It was the fourth ball of the 105th over from Bumrah. Smith wanted to push it on the offside but got an inside edge. Looking to retain the strike, he was off hoping to run a couple. The fielder in the deep was at square leg and two were on the cards. If only the fielder was not Ravindra Jadeja.
Sprinting as if to set a new record on the yo-yo test, Jadeja ran for around 25 yards, aware to cut the angle and ensure that he could pick up and throw in one motion. Never mind the stumps were 35 yards away. Never mind he had only one of those to aim at. Jadeja hit the bull’s eye. There was no other way to get Smith out that day. It was that clichéd moment of inspiration that the Indian players needed to be cheerful again before they came out to bat.
For Jadeja to have an impact in the field is not something new. In March of 2020, New Zealand’s number eight and nine frustrated India with a 51-run stand. It took a stunning one-handed catch by Jadeja, again at the deep square-leg, to dismiss Neil Wagner and keep India afloat. Turning the clock to a few months back, Jadeja took seven catches and affected a run-out in the 2019 World Cup, the most for India. He was part of the XI in only two games.
Fielding sets Jadeja apart from almost every other cricketer at the international level. But to overlook his contribution in the two major aspects of the game will do him a disservice. India’s bench strength has been their pride in recent years. But, even the ever-growing bench fails to throw up a genuine all-rounder of the calibre of Jadeja. In a country where even the illusion of a three-dimensional player can earn a World Cup berth, Jadeja is a rare player who contributes on all aspects across formats and makes a marked difference. His numbers with the ball and in the field were never in doubt. With the bat, they have moved in the right direction over the years.
But the sailing has not been smooth. For a couple of years from 2017 till 2019, he lost his place in the limited-overs side and was second to Ravichandran Ashwin when the situation demanded only one spinner.
“Honestly, those one-and-a-half years were filled with sleepless nights. Through that phase, I remember I would be up till 4-5 am. I would be thinking about what to do, how am I going to bounce back?” Jadeja revealed.
When India toured England in 2018, it was the fifth Test at the Oval, where injuries to Hardik Pandya and Ashwin offered Jadeja a chance. He grabbed it by top-scoring with 86 runs in the first innings and taking seven wickets in the game. In his own words, that Test saved his career from falling into oblivion in all formats.
After his heroics in the semi-final of the World Cup in 2019, Jadeja’s name was back with a permanent marker on the team sheet. The effect was across formats. When India toured West Indies for their first series of the World Test Championship cycle in August 2019, Jadeja pipped Ashwin in the side. By then, there was a consensus that he offered more than Ashwin on docile wickets.
With the deployment of the Dukes ball and greener wickets, West Indies had embarrassed England earlier that year. Jadeja’s inclusion was also to elongate the batting line-up. It worked out well. India were reeling at 189/6 on the morning of the first Test when he walked in. When he walked out – the last wicket to fall – India had a respectable 297 on the board.
The three home series to follow had a familiar script. The sheer domination of the batsmen and Ashwin did not leave much do to for Jadeja. When India toured Australia in late 2020, running Smith out was not his only notable contribution. On paper, Jadeja replaced Virat Kohli in the second Test in Melbourne. On the field, he did much more.
Looking to overtake Australia’s first innings total of 195, India were in the doldrums at 173/5. He added 121 runs with Ajinkya Rahane to help India build a decisive 131-run lead. In the next Test in Sydney, he took four wickets including that of Marnus Labuschagne to break a century stand. While Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari batted out a draw, the image of Jadeja waiting in the dressing room ready to come out if needed despite a fractured left thumb was an iconic moment, adding one more frame in India’s story of resilience.
Going under the radar, Jadeja’s batting average in away Tests in the WTC cycle has been higher than even Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara. Though it is not a fair representation of the latter’s ability given the position they bat in, it is a rational argument exemplifying Jadeja’s improvement. With the ball, the comparison is much more direct. In away Tests in the WTC cycle, Jadeja has taken as many wickets as Ashwin: 15, but at a lower average.
His evolution from a bits and pieces player to a genuine three-dimensional player is comparable to his peers outside the country. In the WTC cycle, only Kyle Jamieson – who has played all his Tests in the cycle at home - has a greater difference between his batting and bowling average than Jadeja.
“Since the day I have started playing, that has been my role [to perform in both departments]. I have always considered myself an all-rounder,” said Jadeja after the Sydney Test when asked if he has changed his approach with the bat. If not for an injured thumb, Jadeja would have played the series against England at home and probably would have received what most thought he deserved: the A+ grade contract.
With just his ability in the field, Jadeja walks into the XI. Rest everything is a bonus. “Taking 3-4 wickets outside the sub-continent is always great but the run-out will remain the moment of the day for me," Jadeja claimed after that Smith run-out. India would hope that the weather remains sunny when it is their turn to bat at the Ageas Bowl. If things get gloomy, they might look at Jadeja to produce something inspirational to brighten things up again.