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You judge players by whether they comfort you or unsettle you. Images get built over time and create expectations or anxiety. Then they get reinforced. If you fear a bowler is going to concede that big over, and he does, if your expectation is confirmed, the moment stays longer in the mind. So, too, with the matchwinner. For the first three years of his career, Jadeja unsettled you. If you needed 30 at run-a-ball or the opposition needed 9 an over in the last five, you worried when he came on. He gave the impression he did too.
At the Champions Trophy though, his body language was infectious. And he produced the game changing moments. He got the crucial runs at the end against South Africa (47 from 29 balls), produced the run out of Robin Peterson and bowled 9 overs for 31 in a 6.5 an over game. The West Indies were 103-1 inside the 20th over, then lost 3 wickets for 6 in 3 overs, all to Jadeja. Against Pakistan, he befuddled Misbah-ul-Huq at a crucial moment and his dismissal of Jayawardene in the semi-final showed he could get a mighty player of spin undone by cleverly camouflaged change of pace. So, by now, a reputation had been built, you knew he was the captain’s go-to cricketer but you waited to see if he could do it on the big day.
At two moments in the final, India looked gone. After 14 overs India were 67 for 5 and Dhoni’s hope for 130 meant the score had to be doubled in the last 6. Admittedly Virat Kohli set the scene with a largely under-valued 43 but it still needed a final flourish that Jadeja’s 33 from 25 provided. But I thought his real graduation came in the last two overs of the game. He bowled the 19th, a power play over, after Ishant Sharma’s drama filled 18th, and conceded a mere 4 with 19 needed. He might have given Dhoni his 7th batsman and 5th bowler but it was the fact that it didn’t surprise anyone that showed it was a coming-of-age. Where once you feared the moment, you were now reassured. Jadeja had climbed the ladder.
Strangely, he was expected to. In May 2008, Shane Warne introduced me to his “rockstar”, a young batsman who bowled a bit. On the 26th of May, the Mumbai Indians were playing the Rajasthan Royals in Jaipur on a really slow pitch and chasing 146, the Royals were down to 103-5 after 17 overs. 43 were needed from 3 and against a side with international bowlers the Royals had two young left handers batting for them; Niraj Patel of Gujarat and Ravindra Jadeja. They batted fearlessly, ran like the wind between wickets and got there off the last ball. Patel was the better batsman that day but Jadeja was the one you remembered because Warne had said he was good.
It was to be a double-edged sword because it raised expectations and over the next three years; it hurt him. I am not sure he was ready for the pressure situations he found himself in and as he faltered, the burden grew. As the burden grew, it made it more difficult for someone who was still a very young man. By 2011, he was on a downward spiral and the butt of jokes from unforgiving bloggers who hid behind assumed names themselves. You still kept track of him but he needed to hit you with his performances. He did. In two seasons, he hit three triple centuries and bowled long spells on surfaces that gave him nothing. It forced him to be accurate and patient and in retrospect that period away from the limelight forced him to look at his game again. When he got a surprise call up for the Nagpur Test against England, he was able to bowl 70 overs at under 2 an over. And it was his accuracy that brought him all those wickets against Australia.
Now he must battle expectations again. And he must deliver in conditions that will not be as friendly as the ones England put out. In one-day cricket it may not be as big a challenge as it will in Test cricket where India still seek this elusive five bowler line-up. In Test matches in South Africa, in England, in New Zealand and Australia (the next four on India’s calendar!), he will have to bat at number six and that is an examination he hasn’t faced yet. Eventually, I believe that is where he must gravitate towards. India’s ideal balance will lie in Jadeja becoming the batting all-rounder and Ashwin, at number eight, the bowling all-rounder. In Test cricket, he is still very much work in progress.
The Champions Trophy has been a giant leap for him. And the next twenty months are full of opportunity and challenge. He must relish both.