Monday, 21 April, 2008

The selectors were right, in hindsight

That hoarding went up when Ajay Jadeja was not picked in the test squad touring South Africa in 1996-97. Back then, he was my favourite cricketer, the man who came in at the death during the one-dayers and played nerveless, wristy strokes with the batting equivalent of a lazy drawl.

His stance was one-of-a-kind. Most batsmen tap their bats as the bowlers run in. Jadeja, chewing gum as he crouched low, did this with exaggerated motions of loose wrist and elbow, the bat going up and over his shoulder and back down again repeatedly.

Initially, he’d play with soft hands, dropping the ball square on either side of the wicket and turning the strike over, or, if he hit to a sweeper, walk between wickets, chatting with opponents as he did so.

He had the gift of timing, displayed in on-the-up drives through the covers with a diagonal bat-swing, and glides to the leg-side off his toes, as he sauntered across the crease. He often went the other way, giving himself room to slice the ball behind point.

What made him a delight to watch, however, was his six-hitting. He lofted with neither the power and authority of Tendulkar, or the whippy wrists of Azhar or the full, regal follow-through of Ganguly. He seemed merely to chip the ball, having skipped down the track to get to the pitch, and the cameras hurried to follow its parabolic arc. He hit sixes off spinners and fast bowlers, down the ground, over midwicket, and even behind point off full-length deliveries, with insouciant ease.

While facing genuine pace and swing bowlers in tests, with slips backing them up, his jauntiness seemed to disappear, to be replaced by loose, indecisive play. He played just 15 tests, scattered intermittently among his 196 ODIs.

Amul’s opinion of India’s selectors was shared by a 9-year-old boy in 1996. That boy modelled his street/terrace/backyard cricket stance on Ajay Jadeja, chewed a lot of Big Fun bubble gum, and collected the cricket cards, with pictures in front and – usually, ODI – statistics in the back, which came free with the gum.

Jadeja progressed from being a bronze card in early 1996 to a gold card in late 1999. The year after that he was banned due to his alleged nexus with bookies.

I don’t know if Big Fun bubble-gum is still available, or the cards that came with it. The gum was excessively sugary, and the cards full of inappropriate splashes of garish colour; a lot like limited-overs cricket.

I now truly enjoy only test cricket, and find the shorter versions repetitive and tiresome. However, I have to acknowledge that a one-day specialist making his debut, running 20 yards from mid-off and diving full-length to dismiss Allan Border at the 1992 World Cup, kick-started my love for the game.