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Ajay Jadeja: The rise and fall of the ever-smiling prince of Indian cricket

Ajay Jadeja: The rise and fall of the ever-smiling prince of Indian cricket

Ajay Jadeja had a delightful, intense approach to his cricket – whether it was in his flamboyant batting down the middle order or his spectacular diving catches in the gully-point region © Getty Images

Born on February 1, 1971, Ajay Jadeja is perhaps one of the most unfortunate characters of Indian cricket. Jaideep Vaidya revisits the life and times of an actual prince who promised to give so much to Team India, but couldn’t do so.

Ajaysinhji Daulatsinhji Jadeja. A name like this evokes an image of a dapper Maharaja of the Indian folklore: dressed to the tee with a magnificent gleaming suit, ruling over a kingdom spreading over acres and acres of land, and playing polo with the British. It’s a name that spells out royalty – a middle name like ‘Daulatsinhji’ making it even more prominent.

Ajay Jadeja was born in a princely family of Saurashtra. He did not rule over a kingdom more so than he did over hearts of Indian cricket fans.

He had an infectious appeal to him; he was always spotted wearing a smile on the cricket field, even when his team was in trouble. He had a delightful, intense approach to his cricket – whether it was in his flamboyant batting down the middle order or his spectacular diving catches in the gully-point region. This writer remembers his eight-year-old self bruising his elbow and denting the floor tiles of his bedroom while simulating one of Jadeja’s dives.

Jadeja was a typical limited-overs player. He played 196 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) in the blue Indian jersey. He scored 5,359 runs at an average of 37.47, coming in to bat in the middle order. Plying his trade for a side that was renowned for its poor fielding standards, Jadeja first showed signs of turning the trend in only his second match.

Australian skipper Allan Border skied a Sachin Tendulkar delivery over mid-off. Jadeja, fielding at long-off, came running in towards the direction of the ball. Any other Indian fielder would probably have not even attempted to go for it, and not many around the Wolloongabba would’ve expected the new guy to take it, but Jadeja flew in and latched on what was one of the finest ever outfield catches. Tony Greig, in the commentary box, didn’t even know how to pronounce the youngster’s name. Over the years, Jadeja ensured that the world knew his name, whatever the reasons may be.

Along with fellow middle-order batsman and outstanding fielder Robin Singh, Jadeja provided the much-needed cushion down the order for India in case the top order failed. Here was a man for the big occasion, nay, the biggest occasion.

After making his mark in the 1992 World Cup, Jadeja announced himself and became a nation-wide hero after his swashbuckling cameo against Pakistan at Bangalore in the quarter-finals of the 1996 edition. The 25-year-old, with some help from Anil Kumble, took India’s score from 236 for six in 46 overs to 279 for eight in 50. Waqar Younis, one of the most feared bowlers in the world at the time, was slaughtered for 40 runs in his last two overs, after the previous eight had yielded just 27.

Jadeja slashed his blade at everything that came his way and hit 45 vital runs from 25 balls, including four fours and two sixes. His knock proved to be the difference between the two sides as Pakistan lost the encounter by 39 runs and were knocked out of the tournament. Greig had by now memorised the youngster’s name well.

“I just was in the zone during that knock,” Jadeja was to tell ESPNcricinfo later. “Everything went according to a perfectly executed script, except that it didn’t go the distance – I got out on the second ball of the last over.

Pakistani wicketkeeper Rashid Latif, who had the best seat in the house, said, “Jadeja’s innings probably ranks as one of the best I have seen in ODIs, up there with Sanath Jayasuriya’s century off us in Singapore that year. But Jadeja’s innings was played under much greater pressure and in very different circumstances.

“Waqar seemed under pressure, probably the first time I have seen him like that during the death overs, and the score just went out of our hands.

“Jadeja usually liked to chat a bit, and we got on well anyway, but that day he didn’t say anything – he just did it.”

Four years later, in England ’99, chasing 283 against Australia, India were tottering at 17 for four. Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and skipper Mohammad Azharuddin, all had been unable to adjust to the lively pitch at the Kennington Oval and a rampaging Glenn McGrath and Damien Fleming. This is where Jadeja and Robin stepped in to stem the leak.

The duo showed the Oval crowd what is a good counterattack against adversity and a quality opposition. The shot selection was fantastic and the running between the wickets left the Aussies scratching their heads. Jadeja was destructive in his favourite cover region, lashing at anything outside off. He lost Robin (75) with the score on 158 and then had the difficult task of carrying the tail with him, but he never lost the smile.

Jadeja waltzed his way to a memorable hundred, one that even Shane Warne – who had been plundered that day – couldn’t help but applaud. But this was no Bangalore, as India were bundled out for 205 with Jadeja remaining not out on 100. It was his sixth ODI century and, as it turned out, his last.

The following year saw the prince of Indian cricket lost his royal image as he got embroiled in one of the biggest match-fixing sagas to hit cricket. The 29-year-old was banned from playing the sport at any level for five years – a period that was good enough to put an end to his career.

Jadeja went all out to protect his image and defend himself, saying that he had done no wrong. Eventually, in 2003, the Delhi High Court overturned the ban due to unavailability of any proof. Jadeja, who was 32 at that point of time, felt that he definitely had some more cricket left in him and immediately made attempts to get back into the national side, but was thwarted by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

Jadeja’s petition seeking permission to play international cricket was dismissed by the Delhi High Court after no one appeared on his behalf for the hearing. However, he was permitted to play domestic cricket and went on to become the captain and coach of the Rajasthan Ranji Trophy side.

He dabbled in Bollywood for a while too, but found that his boyish looks weren’t backed up by any acting talent. Eventually, he made the wise decision of going back to his bread and butter, taking up the job of a cricket pundit for a news channel. His articulateness and incisiveness ensured that he was an instant hit.

That’s where Jadeja is today, at 42. Perhaps one of the most unfortunate characters of Indian cricket – with such a blossoming career grappled away from him. The world will never know if he actually was guilty, but there is no contesting the fact that Ajay Jadeja could have given much more to the sport and Indian cricket.

(JaideepVaidya is a multiple sports buff and a writer at CricketCountry. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog - The Mullygrubber )

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