In the course of 12 months, Jaydev Unadkat has led Saurashtra to its second Vijay Hazare Trophy title and the quarterfinals of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. He returned to Test cricket after more than 12 years, featuring against Bangladesh in Mirpur, and then merely two weeks later, rocked Delhi with the first-ever first-over hat-trick in the history of the Ranji Trophy.
“I was more emotional playing my second Test than when I made my debut in the format. This came after years of hard work and patience,” says Unadkat, wearing beige chinos and sandals and easing into a chair at the Saraza cafe in Rajkot earlier this month. He was leading Saurashtra in an Elite Group B match against Delhi at the Saurashtra Cricket Association Stadium and had just taken his career-best figures of 8 for 39.
“I was just thankful for the chance,” Unadkat says, taking a sip from his cup of cappuccino. “I was happy because I knew everyone who backed me would be smiling today. That reaffirmed my belief that things happen if you keep dreaming and working towards them.”
A constant paradox of Unadkat’s career so far is that his ambitions with the red ball, most responsible for shaping his image as a domestic cricket behemoth at 31, have also caused him great consternation. Indian Test cricket’s shift from the occasional inspired fast-bowling spells overseas to a pace battery that now breathes fire can be neatly tracked over the arc of Unadkat’s career. He now holds the record for waiting the longest for a maiden Test victim as a specialist bowler.
Meanwhile, Unadkat takes a sharp breath and exhales slowly, as if to slow himself down during the conversation. It seemed like a good moment to point out how Unadkat’s persistence has perhaps inspired talented youngsters to seek success with patience. “You know we were in our car, driving back from somewhere, when he got a call from the selector,” Rinny says with a reflective pause and a smile. “I mean we all knew it was that call. We started shouting. It was an amazing feeling.”
“She was jumping…” says Unakdat, his eyes lighting up. Rinny continues: “My in-laws were there in the car with us, and during the call, we were silently jumping and shouting (laughs). I don’t know how he felt then. He was very calm, surprisingly.”
It is surprising. After all, Unadkat had missed 118 Tests between his debut and second Test, a record surpassed only by England off-spinner Gareth Batty, who missed 142 Tests. “I was very emotional. I had waited so long for this moment. Watching them celebrate, the joy then came out. We celebrated with some traditional Rajkot gathiya and fafda chutney but no jalebis. That’s how we always celebrate when we get some good news, with traditional snacks and piping hot masala chai,” says Unadkat, as Rinny nods in agreement before adding. “But he couldn’t eat a lot because the matches were coming up (smiles).”
Unadkat displayed openness and honesty in abundance during the interview. It is a quality that does not always come easily to top-tier athletes, and no one would begrudge the most scrutinised set of cricketers in the world if they wanted to seal off parts of themselves.
But Unadkat offers refreshing pragmatism. “Even when this [Test return] happened, I always knew that once those guys [Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah] returned, I may or may not be in the squad,” he says. “That mindset of giving your 100 percent wherever [I play] has been my strength. I care a lot about Team Saurashtra, and that is helping me stay focussed. Matches for Saurashtra will keep happening, and I will be there. So, the wait [for another India call-up] has become much more joyous because now I have a new-found belief that I belong at the highest level. I knew it all along but now, others know it as well. I want to enjoy every chance that comes my way and use my experience from the past 12 years to do better. I follow the same mantra when I turn up for Saurashtra.”
Over the course of his more than decade-long career, Unadkat has often embodied emotional economy in the face of tall success and agonising misses. It has established him as someone to root for. Who isn’t charmed by an honest trier? I ask him if he reads what is written in the press about him - the good, bad and the ugly. “I do know about better-written articles,” he says. “My wife reads them all and passes on the good ones to me. I know people talked about how I’ve persisted with the red-ball format and deserved a call-back more than anyone else. It makes me proud.
“When I started playing, Test cricket was on my mind and representing India in the longest format was my foremost goal. After that one Test, people started judging me. But I always wanted to prove that that one Test doesn’t define what I am capable of as a red-ball bowler. I am better than that. I was better than that then as well, and I am better now as well.
“It was always on the back of my mind, but that never became a burden, and maybe that’s why I persisted. I wanted to break into the team somehow. I knew it was going to be hard given the way our fast bowlers have been performing, home and away. I’ve always felt that this is how an Indian pace battery should be - watching from the outside, one should feel they are at you at all times. That wasn’t the case earlier. When we went overseas, we always fought hard but fell just short of dominating. That motivated me more.
“That’s where my wife came in as well. When I met Rinny, she didn’t have a clue about the sport (smiles)... but now she knows what it means for a player to represent their country in Test cricket. We’ve visualized this moment together. There were times when I had doubts, but her belief never wavered. After we won the Vijay Hazare Trophy, she kept telling me that an international comeback was just around the corner, but I was unsure since it had not happened for so long. But our collective belief kept me going.”
As the interview draws to a close, we shake hands and I say, “Well, it’s great to meet you, Jaydev. Thanks for your time.” Unadkat flashes a smile and says, “Cheers. I am just happy to be here.”
On Friday, Unadkat was included in a 17-member India squad for the first two Tests against Australia at home, starting next month. Indian cricket’s paradigm may have shifted since a 19-year-old left-arm pacer from Rajkot donned the whites for the first time, but Unadkat, all these years later, continues to keep himself — and us — engaged.