That unconditional love called cricket

There are players who have tasted success in Indian domestic cricket, but have gotten few, if any, chances to represent their country. Through it all, they remain motivated and keep going for their teams.

At 41, Wasim Jaffer knows his cricketing days are numbered. His motivation lies in the numbers he churns out for Vidarbha.   -  Vivek Bendre

These men have had limited international exposure. In fact, one of them hasn’t even played for his country, yet he harbours hope of making it one day. It’s passion and individual growth that drives these men — but how challenging is it to continue playing professionally for years with minimal returns?

Wasim Jaffer still does the “hard yard” to maintain that grace. At 41, he knows his cricketing days are numbered. His motivation lies in the numbers he churns out for Vidarbha. The former India international rules in crunch situations. and that’s where his happiness lies.

“The desire to play and perform is still there, and that is why I am still playing. Once you decide that you want to play, then you have to work hard to achieve that, whether it is by training at the gym or by following your diet. It comes once you have the determination. I am able to do because I still feel I can contribute,” Jaffer said.

 

In the 2017-18 Ranji Trophy, Jaffer played under a lot of pain. But instead of giving in to misery, he put in long hours at the gym to get fitter, and a debut title for Vidarbha retrieved the fighting spirit from his days in the Mumbai maidans. A year later, Jaffer was central to a second consecutive title for his side, scoring 1,037 runs with four hundreds and two fifties at an average of 69.13.

“It wouldn’t have happened had I been playing for any other state. I enjoyed that victory a lot. When you play in that winning environment and you play with the guys who want to win, it gives you motivation.

“Last year, when we won Ranji for the first time, many said we were lucky and it could be a fluke. This year, we proved a lot of people wrong by winning again. When you play in that kind of team, it makes it even more enjoyable,” said Jaffer, who believes “retirement happens when the mind gives up.”

He is keen to continue for Vidarbha as long as Chandrakant Pandit is the coach. “But I know I don’t have a lot of time left. Once I am done, I will probably get into commentary or coaching.”

Test cricket dreams

Jaffer’s skipper, Faiz Fazal, is always reminded of the fifty he scored in his only One-Day International match for India. In domestic cricket, he is quite a star, with two Ranji Trophy titles, two Irani Trophy titles and a Duleep Trophy title. But the 33-year-old has no idea why he hasn’t been picked for India again.

“I really don’t know what’s the reason. Many of our players are ready for India, I feel, including me,” said Fazal, who scored 752 runs in the 2018-19 Ranji Trophy season. The year before, he scored 912 runs — second on the list topped by Mayank Agarwal, who made his international debut in Australia in December 2018. Fazal derives his strength from his consistent performances and the support he enjoys whenever there is a game in Nagpur. People from his colony throng the stands with banners and posters to back him — a rarity for a Ranji captain.

But that allows him to have Test cricket dreams.

After scoring a fifty on his ODI debut, Faiz Fazal hasn’t been picked for the national side again.   -  R. V. Moorthy

 

“I definitely want to play for India. That aim is still intact. I want to play Test cricket for India. Now it all depends on the selectors. We won the Ranji last year as well, but only one player (Rajneesh Gurbani) has played for India A,” he said.

The snub from the selectors has turned the shy and reserved batsman into an advertiser. He keeps reminding reporters that he has been among the runs. “It is essential to self-promote these days. You can’t ignore performances for two years. I am hopeful that this year there will be more cricketers from Vidarbha going to the higher level. This is otherwise a disappointment for us. There is no point if you don’t get rewards for your game. We don’t want monetary rewards. That is secondary in sports,” he said. The dream keeps Fazal going.

The artist

When not playing for Kerala, Jalaj Saxena admires the morning birds through the lens of his digital camera. At times, he cycles away to his “inner happiness.” That gives him a lot of positive energy.

The 32-year-old is a special all-rounder — he opens the batting and bowls off-spin. Now, after 111 first-class games, he is finally close to making it to an Indian Premier League XI with the Delhi Capitals (the rebranded Daredevils). That’s a huge escalation for Saxena, but the India queue is too long to give attention to.

“I feel happiness when I go for long drives and cycling. With the camera, you can shoot the rising run, the birds that fly early in the morning which you won’t see later in the day. The shades of plants look different in the morning. “From my childhood, I have a strong belief that I am going to play for the country. I don’t know when and I don’t know how. I have changed my state (from Madhya Pradesh to Kerala), I have got awards and I have never lost my focus, though I wasn’t getting chances,” he said.

When not playing for Kerala, Jalaj Saxena admires the morning birds through the lens of his digital camera.   -  Pic courtesy Jalaj Saxena

 

To an extent, there is an Aussie behind Saxena’s never-say-die attitude. He has been part of the Mumbai Indians, though he did not get to play a game. At that time, Ricky Ponting was coaching the side. A few encouraging words on fitness from the former Australia captain brought him closer to the harsh realities on the field.

“He always told me about (improving) fitness, body language and fielding. It really helped me. Ponting was a very fit guy (when he was playing). After that session with him, I started taking fitness very seriously. These days, I bowl 30 overs for Kerala and then open the batting. That wouldn’t have happened without fitness training.

“These days, wherever I am, I give one-and-a half hours to fitness. He had mentioned these little things which helped me a lot,” said Saxena, who feels India A and the IPL are the right platforms to let his emotions flow.

“India A is a very big platform. Rahul Dravid is a professional coach. It is a good setup, and when you go there with the aim that you will do well for the country, there are many changes that happen in you,” he added.

Saxena will reunite with Ponting in IPL 2019 as the Aussie is now the coach of Delhi.

That left-arm pacer

Team India has a soft corner for left-arm pacers. Every now and then, there is a need for a specialist one as bowlers have come and gone in the recent past. But Saurashtra skipper Jaydev Unadkat, who’s on top of his game right now, isn’t breaking his head over making an India comeback.

“I don’t want to worry about getting selected again and making comebacks. I have been able to think above all that and just enjoy and live the moment. This season, there was nothing else in my mind except winning the Ranji Trophy and winning every game we played. I think that’s the right attitude to have,” he said.

Considering Jaydev Unadkat’s 2018-19 domestic season, one can’t entirely rule out a second coming for him.   -  AFP

 

However, considering Unadkat’s 2018-19 domestic season, one can’t entirely rule out a second coming for the seasoned speedster. The 27-year-old claimed 39 wickets and he looked stronger. But he is in a different “happy space,” which also involves better training with Nishanta Bordoloi, who also works with the Delhi Ranji team. “I have become more educated on what things I need to work on. I am trying to study my own body and which part I need to work on. The functional training has helped me,” said Unadkat.

These men have been delivering for the love of the sport, and the returns are a bonus. They get high on the sound of the leather landing on its seam, on the ball angling in through the batter’s gate or by just driving a fast bowler through the covers.

These men are the tireless beasts of Indian cricket.