If you ask Ravindra Jadeja to deconstruct one of his wickets, he will dismiss the question with a dismissive smile and a response on the lines "mujhe utna yaad nahin hai bhai". Remind him of a record and he will exclaim: "Sach mein!". By his own admission, Jadeja doesn’t keep count of his five-fors. It was surprising then that he kept a count of his ODI wilderness - from July 6, 2017 to 21 September 2018. After celebrating his comeback with a four-wicket haul against Bangladesh in Dubai last year, he said: "For 442 days, I didn’t play any white-ball cricket, so I will always remember this comeback. There hadn't been much gap to the previous comebacks. So I will remember this like my first match in ODIs."
Comebacks are nothing new for Jadeja, but this one was clearly sweeter, because he was almost flushed into oblivion. Forget the emergence of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, what would have hurt him deeper was the recalling of Axar Patel, once considered a cheaper counterfeit of him. In fact, it was Patel’s injury that necessitated his comeback. "I hadn’t given up my comeback bid and I was always prepared, but I was a little surprised when the call came," he said.
Fatherhood and horse-tending did alleviate his hurt, but he was clearly restless at the lack of game time. This was also around the time India had begun their string of overseas tours, where Ravichandran Ashwin was preferred over him. Subsequently, he played only one of India’s eight Test matches in South Africa and England.
But in fairness, his ODI trade had taken a beating - ironic for someone who was pigeonholed as a short-form specialist, before he became a regular Test player. The year he was omitted, he averaged a paltry 60.12, the year before he hit rock bottom, buying wickets at 85.66 runs apiece. There were signs as early as 2016, in which he bargained his wicket at a shade under 50. He was bleeding runs as well - he was clouted for 67 runs in eight overs in the Champions Trophy final.
Criticisms, invariably, swirled around. There was talk that Jadeja had suffered the equivalent of short-form amnesia in his quest for Test-match perfection. Such scuttlebutt didn’t perturb him. "I just worked on improving my bowling and motivating himself," he’d said after his comeback match.
Typically, the left-arm spinner didn’t delve into the specifics of what he was working on during the break - just kept bowling at the nets and tidying up a few bad habits that had crept into his bowling, to believe him - but two aspects stand out. His pace and line.
Jadeja was always brisk, but subsequent to his Test renaissance, he dropped a few yards so that he would get more loop and dip, tools that sharpened his Test-match menace. But somehow, he struggled reverting to his usual pace in the ODIs, and when he did, he lost control over his length. Consequently, he bowled an unhealthy amount of full-tosses, strange for someone who was known for his precision.
The dots balls dried up and boundaries swelled. The lack of pace also meant that his patented leg-stump skidder was easy picking for competent batsmen, who would just wait and paddle it fine. And he overcompensated it by erring too wide outside the off-stump.
Since his comeback, Jadeja has managed to find his ideal ODI pace and has blended it with stifling accuracy, mostly flat and just outside the off-stump against the right-handers. He does occasionally decelerate, but that’s just to keep the batsman guessing.
His bowling graph in the Hyderabad ODI offers a case study of his reworked art. As many as 42 deliveries were bowled between 90 and 99.4 kph, while maintaining an average of 91.3 kph. The slowest he bowled was around 82kmph, which is usually the pace of the skidder or flipper for most spinners.
Also noticeable was his control over line and length, his old characteristics. A cluster of deliveries landed on a spinner’s good-length area on the off-stump or the fourth. The widest he bowled was one delivery perhaps on the fifth stump, but not short enough to cut. The furthest he slid down the leg was on middle-and-leg. All of the 17 deliveries to the left-hander landed just outside or a couple of centimetres. All the same, he hasn’t gone completely flat, but the tossed-up deliveries have become rarer.
Such claustrophobia-inducing bowling makes him incredibly difficult to get away. Jadeja bowled 33 dot balls, a tremendous feat for a spinner plying in the middle overs, and was struck for just two boundaries, both risk-fraught. He didn’t get a wicket, but 33 runs in 10 overs literally strangulated Australia’s ambitions of a 250-plus total.
Since his comeback, he has picked only 16 wickets in 12 games, but managed those with an economy rate 4.62, easily the best among the Indian bowlers in this span. This could serve as his passport for the World Cup as well, though it’s dependent of several factors. Like how many spinners the selectors and management would want (Chahal and Kuldeep have already locked the spots), or if they would consider him as a bowling all-rounder. Or, as Ravi Shastri had recently said, "a couple of spots will depend on whether it’s a 15 or 16 member squad".
That he’s the best fielder in the country would add weightage. But it’s thriftiness that they would weigh the most, and it’s one of missing links of the team. No doubt, the rest like Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Yadav and Chahal have mastery over their craft and are much more of a wicket-taking threat than Jadeja, but none of them can bargain the stinginess of Jadeja. Moreover, the re-calibrated Jadeja is even deadlier, for the batsman knows he has more to his craft that his ODI bearings.
Jadeja says he’s not worried about making the World Cup, but he would acknowledge that the doors to the World Cup, which once seemed shut during the 442-day wilderness, have opened a crack.