Ravindra Jadeja’s six-wicket haul in the first innings at Durban should silence all the critics who had questioned his selection over Ravichandran Ashwin. Arunabha Sengupta says that his relentless accuracy is boosted by his incredible fitness and that should make him the preferred spinner in foreign conditions, even if he does not come good with the bat.
After all, Ashwin has just got to 100 wickets in Test cricket, and he had got there at an incredible rate. Besides, he had also made a couple of hundreds in fluent, elegant style, showing a range of strokes and finesse fit for a top order batsman.
On the other hand, Jadeja,the man chosen to replace him, has never quite been taken seriously by the critic-space. For some reason, he got off the wrong foot at the very start of his career, as far as universal approval is concerned. The ‘Sir Ravindra Jadeja’ jokes at his disposal have gradually taken on a life of their own. Since then, perception of reality seems to have been adjusted to keep up with the buffoon like image promoted by millions of status updates and pseudo-witty tweets.
With time, his One Day International (ODI) exploits have turned him from a useful cricketer to extraordinary, his limited opportunities in Test matches have been grabbed eagerly with both hands. However, the recognition has been grudging. The excellent bowling feats have often been ignored and the enormous contrast between his First-Class batting figures, including three triple hundreds and his rather poor Test record, so far has always been harped upon.
Coming into Durban, Jadeja did not disappoint the legions of naysayers when he fell for a duck in the first innings. However, with the ball in hand, it was a completely different story. As a spinner, he was there to contain the batsmen and take wickets. And he did both with considerable aplomb.
In retrospect of his six wickets for 138 runs from 58.2 overs at Durban, it must be said now that the team management was spot on in the selection. Especially if we contrast the excellent numbers to Ashwin’s wicket-less spells in the great Test at Johannesburg. True, the pitch at Durban was different, but we must remember that this was just the third time that an Indian spinner has got five or more wickets in an innings in South Africa. Yes, the previous two gentlemen have been none other than Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh.
The decision of the selectors was well thought-out. A simple way to compare the merits of the two spinners is to look at their numbers in matches that they have played together. In the five Tests that has seen Ashwin and Jadeja bowl in tandem, the former has taken 32 wickets and the latter 27. However, while Ashwin has an average of 23.37 and an economy rate of 2.46, Jadeja’s respective figures are 19.85 and 2.03.
It just underlines that Jadeja can be more relentlessly accurate. That is exactly what is required when a spinner moves away from the subcontinental dust-bowls and tosses them up on the unhelpful surfaces of arduous foreign lands.
Ashwin has a lot more variations and can be considered to be the more attacking of the two. However, the hallmark of Jadeja’s bowling is line and length. There is a stingy meanness about his left-arm spin associated with the area from which he hails – the same part of Gujarat that has also produced Dilip Doshi, Vinoo Mankad and Bapu Nadkarni.
On pitches of countries not hospitable to spin, it is accuracy rather than experimentation that needs to be the priority for a spinner.
In the halcyon days of Indian spin bowling in the 1960s and 1970s, the celebrated tweaking trio turned a handful of matches India’s way – and no, they were no more than a handful. Apart from three, Erapalli Prasanna engineered triumphs against weakish New Zealand sides, there had been just the Srinivas Venkataraghavan spell in the historic Port of Spain in 1971, followed by a couple of BS Chandrasekhar moments of magic at The Oval in 1971 and at Melbourne in 1977.
Since then, very few Indian spinners have run through an opposition innings outside the subcontinent. Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble did so at Kingston in the famous victory against West Indies in 2006, but that was on an unusually underprepared track against a very ordinary opposition. Most often, the ploy of the tweaker has been to choke one end, bowl at the batsmen with metronomic accuracy, while the seamers operate from the other side. Jadeja excels at this.
Following this very policy, Kumble got six for 53 from 44 overs at Johannesburg in 1992-93. His later successes in Australia, at Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney in 2003-04, were all marathon bowling efforts stretching through the long innings, pegging away at one end, while faster men ran in from the other.
Similarly, Harbhajan picked up seven for 120 at Cape Town during the last tour. He also had similar long spells in The Oval and Basseterre. The only occasion that one can perhaps say that he skittled out the opposition outside the subcontinent was at Hamilton in 2010.
It has always been accuracy that has reigned when bowling on foreign surfaces unsuited for slow bowling. And that is the one department in which Jadeja scores way over Ashwin.
Not only can he bowl a nagging stump-to-stump line, he can do so all day. His exceptional fitness ensures that he does not tire easily – he is as energetic bowling his 50th over as he is when sending down the first. Here too, Jadeja enjoys a distinct advantage over Ashwin who is not really the fittest Indian cricketer on the ground.
And of course there is the little thing that the South African top-order – as is the case with most – is full of right handed batsmen. Jadeja’s tweakers, turning away from them, poses few more difficulties than Ashwin’s incoming deliveries.
It is true that Jadeja’s batting has not really taken off at the Test level. But one expects that with time and experience, it will flower as well. Three triple centuries speak volumes about the adhesive quality of his batting when the situation demands and that can be an added asset for India. Along with that, his electric fielding often sets the field alight and powers up the spirit of the entire team.
It will not be a surprise, if Jadeja indeed becomes the spinner of choice for India on difficult tours in lands of hard wickets, of pace, bounce, movement and little turn. He has the potential to become extremely valuable on such voyages, a vital cog on whom can hinge the balance of the entire team.
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(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
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