Jaydev Unadkat did get his much-awaited chance with the red ball and he kept his “promise” with a spirited effort in his first Test for India after 12 years.
His love for the longer version of the game became apparent more than ever in January when he typed a tweet that went viral.
“Dear red ball, please give me one more chance.. I’ll make you proud, promise!” the left-arm pacer had posted.
“Everyone thought that I was referring to a national comeback. I was just missing red ball cricket in general as Ranji Trophy was postponed for a second time (due to COVID),” Unadkat told PTI in an interview after his arrival from Bangladesh.
The 31-year-old, who had played his first and only Test way back in 2010 with the great Sachin Tendulkar and current head coach Rahul Dravid being his celebrated teammates, featured in his second outing last week in remarkable circumstances.
Having not been on selectors’ radar despite a record-breaking performance in the 2020 Ranji Trophy, a national recall came for Unadkat when he expected it the least.
He was not even part of the India A side that toured Bangladesh before the Test series, so one could not fault him for keeping his hopes to the bare minimum.
Eventually, his patience and perseverance prevailed as he was flown to Bangladesh as a backup pace option, with Mohammad Shami not regaining full fitness for the series.
The visa delays meant he could only reach Chattogram after the start of the first Test but against all expectations, stand-in skipper K L Rahul gave Unadkat the big break he was waiting for while toiling on the domestic circuit for years.
The opportunity came at the expense of spinner Kuldeep Yadav, whose exclusion after an eight-wicket haul in the series opener triggered a selection controversy.
The scoreboard would show that Unadkat took three wickets in his comeback Test, but his impact was bigger in the game.
With years of first-class experience under his belt since his Test debut in South Africa, Unadkat relished the pressure. Getting the most out of flat tracks in Rajkot is something Unadkat had done for years, and the Porbandar-born cricketer found himself in similar territory in Mirpur.
It did not take long for him to make his presence felt as he removed the previous game’s centurion Zakir Hasan with a ball that jumped from a good length. That was his maiden wicket in Tests, and Unadkat says that moment will remain the most special of his career.
“I was trying to extract bounce off length and I felt I could do that. The feeling (when it happened) will remain one of the most special memories of my cricketing career. Getting a Test wicket is something I visualised 1000 times,” said Unadkat.
Did he feel the pressure of replacing Kuldeep? “Absolutely not. When you don’t expect things, and they happen, I take it in my stride. I just wanted to contribute. If not take in wickets then create pressure from the other end. That was the thought.
“Domestic cricket has helped me immensely that way. You always have a role to play as a bowler even when you aren’t getting the wickets. You can create pressure and put batter in doubt and other bowlers can capitalise on that.” What worked for Unadkat was his ability to bowl long spells on flat decks. 12 years after his debut, he was also a much wiser man having captained Saurashtra to unprecedented success.
“I got my chance as the management felt I was suited to the pitch. Like you said the conditions were similar (to Rajkot), with not a lot of pace off the wicket and you will have to extract whatever you can by hitting the length hard.
“I knew if I will stick to my strengths, there will be something coming my way and that is how I got that extra bounce.” There were times when Unadkat felt low at not being picked for India despite his roaring success in Ranji Trophy but he was also busy building a champion team at the domestic level.
“I always believed that I would get another chance. I didn’t know how to be honest, as the Indian pacers were doing well over the past three to four years. I was getting inspired watching them, to be honest.
“Leading Saurashtra has helped me focus on my game and not be distracted by anything else. It has helped me see the future. Captaining Saurashtra, I am not just caring for my own performance but also of others and team goals. That kept me going,” he said.
The comeback has made him more humble as it was the only thing he was working towards.
“It was very emotional for my family, my wife who was not around in 2010 when I made my debut. He believed in me more than I did. And when I got to know that I was playing, I felt the same goosebumps I felt 12 years ago,” he fondly recalled.
Unadkat could be the next left-arm pacer India has been looking for years but he is not thinking about that. When Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammad Shami are back, finding a spot in the XI will be much tougher.
“I was pretty young when I made my debut. All these years (at Ranji level) I never felt like a veteran. I am still 31 and at my peak. These four to five years would be the peak of my career, and I want to continue as much as I can.” Does he see himself retaining his place for the Border Gavaskar Trophy beginning next month? “I don’t want to expect things as that has been helping me honestly. I am looking forward to the next round of Ranji (against Delhi), and that is all I am thinking about. If it has to happen, it will happen.
“I hope India dominate Australia. It is going to be a great series,” he said.
Was special to play alongside Pujara
Unadkat’s return also meant that he was finally able to play alongside his friend and Saurashtra teammate Cheteshwar Pujara.
When Unadkat wore jersey number 267 after landing late in Bangladesh, it was not a surprise that Pujara got a tad emotional.
“I wasn’t playing in the first game, but I wore the shirt for the first time he said ‘you are looking good’. That came straight from the heart, and I could see how happy he was for me.
“It was special to play with him. He told me to keep pushing myself all these years to get that chance. He has been part of the team for more than 10 years now, I look up to him in a way that I also want to be part of the team the way he has been.
“With all ups and downs he faced in his career and still play 98 Tests has been immensely motivating for me,” added Unadkat.