Jalaj Saxena: quietly efficient

"I try to perform both roles and am clear about dealing with them separately in my mind. When bowling, I don’t think about batting or allow it to affect me. When batting, I focus on runs, blanking out thoughts on how I should have bowled," says Jalaj Saxena.

Jalaj Saxena... the Best All-Rounder in Ranji Trophy last season.   -  Sandeep Saxena

Jalaj Saxena is an easily recognisable face in the crowd of first-class cricketers assembled here for the T20 Mushtaq Ali Trophy. He was flown to Mumbai for the BCCI awards ceremony 2015-2016 and returned with the Lala Amarnath Trophy for the Best Ranji Trophy All-Rounder. He was in time for Madhya Pradesh’s third game in Group C against Railways at the Reliance Stadium.

Recognition from peers and seniors for performance in Ranji Trophy, contested in white flannels, receiving the award, donning a blazer, from BCCI Secretary Anurag Thakur and returning to join T20 statemates in blue is all part of work, a job he is passionate about. “I am lucky doing something I enjoy. Batting and bowling is part of my life.”

With the award-winner in the squad, MP chased down Railways’ target of 103, winning by six wickets and 22 balls to spare. Jalaj took one wicket in four overs and top-scored with 37 off 40 balls in a first wicket stand of 53 with Zafar Ali. “I was an all-rounder since childhood,” said the 29-year-old opener/off-spinner. “Fitness is critical to enjoying batting and bowling. I am serious about fitness.”

Motivation

The MP team manager arranged a small get-together during practise at the Reliance Stadium and conveyed the BCCI ceremony invitation news to Jalaj in front of teammates. The Trophy is in the hotel room, ready for despatch to Indore. “Receiving the award in front of players and cricket legends is motivation for me and my teammates,” said Jalaj.

He gains more joy putting up good performances against tough opponents. Mumbai brings out the competitor in him, so did a tour to the West Indies in 2012 with India ‘A.’ Jalaj took five wickets in the first innings and claimed four more victims in the second innings in a four-day Ranji game against Mumbai. “I tried to do my part, we made two fielding lapses and they got away.”

The opener’s 79 allowed MP to set Mumbai a 280 target at Indore’s Holkar Stadium. Jalaj sent back four top-order batsmen with off-cutters, but could not halt Mumbai’s escape to victory. “The India ‘A’ tour against West Indies ‘A’ was a success and I was Man of Match once,” said the all-rounder, playing his part under Cheteshwar Pujara. He toured New Zealand earlier with India ‘A.’

Consistent performer

MP is proving to be a tough side in first-class cricket, across versions from four-day to T20. Jalaj is a consistent all-round performer, accumulating 4510 runs and 191 wickets from 91 first-class matches so far. He has hit 11 centuries and has 11 five-wicket hauls to emerge as an effective all-rounder. Can the Lala Amarnath Trophy win him an India place?

Jalal reasons: “Selection is not in my hands, performing is, so I keep doing what I love.” T20 opportunities to hit big-time have not come his way, despite IPL selection in the Mumbai Indians team under coach John Wright and later with Royal Challengers Bangalore under Virat Kohli’s captaincy.

The all-rounder was released by RCB and will go into the players’ pool for the February 2016 auction. As an experienced all-rounder with MP, he is ready with advice in team meetings. “There is no senior or junior in our team under Naman Ojha. Each one is free to express himself,” said Jalaj.

Treasured memory

Time spent with Sachin Tendulkar in the MI dressing room is a treasured memory. “As a junior, I wanted to watch Tendulkar play, so sharing a dressing room is far bigger.” Asked to cite differences in the MI and RCB camps, he said: “MI used to have lots of team meetings to plan about rival teams and players. RCB had four-five international cricketers to take the load, so they did the planning and the others did not have to take the pressure.”

T20 on lively Vadodara wickets makes him excited. “Unlike other parts of India, bowlers and batsmen relish playing on tracks here. I try to perform both roles and am clear about dealing with them separately in my mind. When bowling, I don’t think about batting or allow it to affect me. When batting, I focus on runs, blanking out thoughts on how I should have bowled.”