FOR Indian vice-captain Ajay Jadeja, matches in Delhi are something he dreads. His friends bug him for passes, his neighbours beseech him for passes and Jadeja has to slink in and out of his own home to avoid added requests. Says he: "They have a very inflated idea about the number of passes we can organise." Also, it so happens that he himself is at 300-runs plus, an unvanquished champion in four essays to the crease, principal candidate for the man of the one-day series award and the final is in the town of his residence.
The spotlight has suddenly turned to Jadeja for turning his position in the batting order into a performance hologram. No. 6 is not a fun position to be in, but Jadeja's turned it into martyrdom. From being an essentially peripheral figure in national cricketing mythology, he's mastered the tactical dynamics of the spot to enter a kind of stronghold of glory. Says former spinner Maninder Singh: "His talent's been vindicated. The 30s and 40s that he got at crucial times were never really appreciated even though their value was immense. At least, now he has some hundreds."
Jadeja's isn't a nebulous voice with indistinct appeal. The owner has the essential social skill to pass self-revelation as a currency for friendship. His utterances are intelligent. They have none of the banal tones of Indian captains and players in general—the 'we will work together and win' kinds. It has rap. Sample one: "Batting at six in an Indian team is like going to the pitch with a loaded gun. It either aims at the competition or it swings around towards your head."
Just back from a miniscus knee surgery in the US to treat the muscle tear, Jadeja had had only 10 days of jogging prior to the start of the one-dayer at Kochi. Says he: "There was pressure in the sense that the Indian public doesn't understand injuries. They assume a kind of lethality. That it's fatal etc. Also, though no cricketer commented on my Dhaka form, some journalists did. One, before the tour, said I should be captain and after the tour questioned why I was in the team. So it was a kind of comeback."
In a way the third. His first one was in 1993, when out of the squad for almost an year, he came back in the team when Navjot Singh Sidhu injured himself during the Hero Cup. The second was in 1995 against the West Indies, when he made it into the 11 because of Baroda batsman Atul Bedade declaring himself unfit on the morning of a one-day match. Says Jadeja: "It had been a late night for me. And in the morning I was playing for India." First some cloak of background on this 'playing for India' theme. The first time Jadeja felt he would do so was in 1983 when he made it to the under-15 team. "I had this sense I'd make it in time for the 1992 World Cup. But I ended up making my debut in 1990 at Sharjah."
In fact, he was in London in 1983 during the time of India's World Cup triumph. Says his father, three-time Congress MP Daulet Sinhji Jadeja: "In 1983 I went on a 18-country Latin American tour via London. Ajay insisted on coming with me and getting dropped off at London. He wanted to play cricket in the schools there. I told him, 'which school will take you for three months'. But he wouldn't listen. When I returned after three months, he told me he had averaged nearly three matches a week playing for different teams. Of course, what helped was that there are 60 Jadeja families staying in London."
This scent of opportunity was something that marked him out as a youngster. In 1979, when he was eight years old and living in Jamnagar, he managed to sneak into a juniors team going for a match to Bombay without telling his parents. Later, in Delhi, his talent was given direction by the likes of coach Gurucharan Singh and Kapil Dev. In fact, the ace Indian allrounder has had more of a pervasive influence on his career than anybody else. Says Jadeja: "I think the best thing that happened to me was Paji moving to Delhi in 1984. He used to practise at the National Stadium near where I used to stay. Maninder introduced me to him and soon we were playing for the same club. I always scored runs batting with him."
IN fact, after his first century at Kochi in the recent triangular series, Kapil Dev rang up to tell him that he was showing a tendency to run before he hit the ball. Says Jadeja: "From him there's no hiding. All these not-outs have also something to do with the fact that I didn't tire as much expected towards the end of my innings. The little fitness that I have is because of having trained rigorously with him. Paji would never drink water in between in the Ranji matches. Also, never at the boundary. Only in the intervals. These days bowlers have a drink every three overs."
Besides, in one of the matches when he was officiating because Azhar was off the field, Saurav Ganguly was pelted with bananas and other knick knacks. He came and complained to Jadeja. Jadeja offered to switch positions with him, leading Sachin to comment that he was behaving exactly the way 'Paji would have done'—that is, trying to settle the issue without disrupting the game. According to former manager Madan Lal, Jadeja's maturing has to do with 'realising thoroughly what his job was'. Says he: "He's always got runs when India needed it most. The position in which he comes in matches can swing either way." Comments another player: "Now we have our best three players coming one, two and three which is what should be. Jadeja's our Lloyd's insurance. Also, what should be food for thought for you guys is why when Azhar, Sachin and Jadeja bat with each other these terrible mix-ups in running between wickets don't happen. It's always when one of them is batting with Sidhu, Dada (Ganguly) or Dravid. You see, Azhar, Sachin and Jadeja are better risk managers and, of course, run faster."
About the reason why India was crossing 300 now with increasing regularity, Jadeja feels the reason lies in some players becoming stronger mentally. Also, with Sachin opening it gave a great advantage. Says Jadeja: "You see, we are all playing in the shadow of a player who is the defining element of our generation. Our grandchildren will, perhaps, ask us more about how Sachin used to play than about our own game. With him are players like Robin Singh. The way I can define him best is by calling him a cricket Buddhist. He is so cool. You see, what's happening is that we are getting a larger crop of players to choose from. That's good. And quite a few who are getting to be in the mould of Ravi Shastri as far as mental toughness goes. For Ravi to play cricket for as long as he did with that kind of public booing is unbelievable. Some of us can't sleep for a week if we are booed for a single day."
For Jadeja, however, the one day international is a format in which you cannot fool around. Says he: "Every run is important. I was once batting in the last over and played the fifth ball to long off. There was an easy two in it, but my partner at the crease didn't run back. I was upset. He also missed the last ball. While coming back, I asked him about it and he said 'ek do run se kya hota hai, bahut run ho gaye hain hai'. It so happened that we lost that match in the last ball. When I bat there's always the sense in me that each extra run could be the only difference."