Cricket / IPL / Test Cricket

The Million Dollar Question

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The visiting Australians couldn’t tackle the flighted off-spinners of Jadeja, who ended up as the second highest wicket-taker with 24 scalps

 Google ‘Ravindra Jadeja’ and the results will be split down the middle. Genuine news articles share space with the cricketer’s superhuman alter ego, ‘Sir Ravindra Jadeja’. Part-humour, mostly ridicule and with a generous amount of serious dislike thrown in, it seems cricket fans are united by one thing—their love of hating 24-year-old Ravindrasinh Anirudhsinh Jadeja. But where does all the hatred come from? Who is this young man and why has he so successfully managed to capture the sustained ire of India’s notoriously fickle cricket fans? In a team in transition, why is Jadeja’s place in the squad the only one met with complete and utter disdain? Sports Illustrated India went in search of the answers to some of these questions. What emerged is a story that deserves to be told.

Flipping through the Jadeja family album in the spacious living room of their apartment, it is difficult to imagine the hard times this family has seen. Once living in the modest quarters of the dilapidated staff housing at the Jamnagar Government Hospital, the family of four now resides in the city’s posh Jogger’s Park colony. The album that has been picked out for us to see, understandably so, doesn’t tell you all that. It is all about the youngest Jadeja. It chronicles the rise of the man who is now a regular in the Indian cricket team, and earns $2 million per season at Chennai Super Kings (CSK), his IPL club. One photograph, in particular, stands out: A 14-year-old boy jostling with other kids to be photographed with Zaheer Khan and Nayan Mongia. It is the story of Jadeja’s rather meteoric rise in cricketing circles, from the boy angling for a photo to a man others want to photograph. Perhaps subconsciously, it is also the story of a family whose fortunes have been dramatically altered, thanks to the efforts (and no small measure of good luck) of its youngest member.

As in most nations where competition is rife and life hard, Indians too love a rags-to-riches tale. These are the stories that inspire the young to excel; that make men role models; that alter lives. Yet a teenaged Jadeja’s rise to fame—he was 17 years old when he played for India in the 2006 Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka—has been viewed with as much awe as with scepticism. What we discovered were two very distinct trajectories in the life of one young man. On one side was Jadeja’s cricketing potential and a career that has progressed in almost fairytale fashion. He has achieved success at every level of junior cricket and has been rewarded with a place at the very pinnacle of the Indian game. But running parallel is a family saga that is tragic, to say the least. It may not be singular, but that Jadeja managed to battle his personal demons without losing focus on his cricket is mildly providential.

Cut to Act One.

THE WONDER YEARS

The nondescript Nawanagar Cricket Academy in Jamnagar is where Jadeja’s cricketing life began. Mahendra Singh Chauhan, the 50-year-old head coach at the academy, is one of those whose contribution to sport will perhaps never get the recognition it deserves. Chauhan was popular, particularly with boys from poor families, because he never charged them for his services. Were it not for Chauhan, it is unlikely that Jadeja would have received the training he needed in his early years and it is safe to say that he would not have been the subject of this piece.

“Revdee (as Jadeja is fondly called by many, perhaps derived from revri, the sweet snack) was seven when his father first brought him here. Since then this ground has become his second home,” recalls Chauhan. Nearby, a group of youngsters are chatting excitedly in anticipation of an early end to the Delhi Test. “They (youngsters) are excited because Revdee will come back soon and they will all party at his farmhouse.”

When Jadeja first came to him, says the coach, he used to bowl medium-pace. But, after some time when it became apparent that he would not have the height required for a pace bowler, Jadeja was told to bowl spin. “Initially, he used to bowl with a quick, flattish action,” says Chauhan. To fix the boy’s round-arm action, Chauhan would make him bowl over a tall boy stationed in front of the popping crease. There were no plastic cones then, and a slipper was used to mark the good-length spot. Jadeja was told to land the ball right there.

“The reason we see him landing the ball consistently at that spot is because of the training. Today he has done well in batting, but I still consider him a bowler first,” says Chauhan, as he takes congratulatory calls for Jadeja’s gritty 43 in the first innings at the Feroz Shah Kotla. Jadeja loved his cricket so much that he would spend the whole day at the ground, either practising or simply sitting on the staircase below the first-floor pavilion, watching others play. His quiet exterior, says Chauhan, would fool many, but not the coach as he recounts the many occasions he slapped Jadeja. But there is one incident he regrets.

“I made him play against a senior side in a club match,” says Chauhan. “His first two deliveries went out of the park. He then conceded a boundary and a six. It seemed as if he wasn’t serious, so I slapped him in the middle of that over. He took his first five-for in that match, 5/33. Later, I regretted what I did.”

But the coach’s fondness for his young ward only grew. In 2008, when Jadeja was selected for India’s ODI squad to Sri Lanka, Chauhan walked many miles barefoot to a temple to pray for his success.

ROUGH RIDE TO THE TOP

While the cricket was progressing, life at home was a constant struggle for the family of five—Jadeja’s parents, Anirudhsinh and Lataben, and elder sisters, Naina and Padmini. His father, who was a soldier in the army, had to quit within the first year after he was declared medically unfit because of a leg injury. He then worked as a security guard in a private firm and took to the bottle.

Lataben was the suffering woman who kept the family together. A nurse at the Jamnagar Government Hospital, it was her job that put a roof over the family’s heads. The family’s former neighbours recall regular, ugly fights between Jadeja’s parents, fuelled by Anirudhsinh’s drinking habit. But, though the family had little to spare, they ensured their financial condition did not prove a hurdle for the young, talented boy. Over the years, Jadeja worked hard to improve himself in all three departments of the game and grew into a steady left-arm spinner, a handy batsman as well as a spirited fielder.

In 2007, Jadeja’s tragedy assumed epic proportions. “He went back home after practice and a couple of hours later I got to know that his mother had been rushed to the hospital after sustaining burn injuries,” says Chauhan. It is an incident that the family prefers to keep personal and requested that we don’t dwell on either. A week later, Lataben breathed her last. “That was the toughest period of my life. She was everything to me. After she passed away, I didn’t know what to do,” says Jadeja, getting ready for the SI India photo shoot. “I even thought of giving up (cricket).” A pillar of strength for the family, Lataben had perhaps had enough. Jadeja had grown up watching her almost single-handedly take care of all of them and for him the loss was almost too much to bear.

But his sisters and coach Chauhan stepped in to ensure the ‘almost’ remained at an arm’s length. “On the 12th day after our mother died, he was selected for the 2008 U-19 World Cup squad,” says Jadeja’s 26-year-old sister, Padmini. “He wasn’t in the right frame of mind to play, but I insisted that he should do it for our mother who had always wanted him to play for India.”

And it was this outing that opened the doors to the IPL for Jadeja. India won the World Cup in Malaysia and Jadeja returned with 10 wickets from six matches with best figures of 3/23 and an economy rate of 3.14.

In the inaugural season of the IPL in 2008, he was bought by the Rajasthan Royals, and played a significant role in their title triumph, scoring 135 runs from 14 matches at a strike rate of 131.06. He followed it up with a good all-round showing in the
2008–09 Ranji Trophy season—42 wickets and 739 runs—and was promptly picked for the ODI series in Sri Lanka.

His international debut came in the final match of the series on Feb. 8, 2009, in which he scored 60 not out although India lost the match.

CRICKET’S NEW BAD BOY

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Jadeja, who began playing the game at the Nawanagar Cricket Academy under coach Chauhan (centre) is now a source of inspiration for the kids there

With the IPL and the India cap, Jadeja’s financial worries began to fade away. The family soon moved into a two-bedroom apartment. He bought his first car, a black Hyundai Accent. As is popular in India, particularly with first-time car owners, he had the words ‘Life is Cricket’ and ‘Jadeja’ scrawled across the rear windshield. It was a message to the world at large. The family had fought off its misfortune and cricket was the saviour. Today, a framed ODI jersey from his first match, autographed by his teammates, greets visitors at the entrance to the Jadejas’ new address. On the adjacent wall is a photograph of his mother and in the front, above the large LCD TV, is a glass trophy cabinet showcasing Jadeja’s rise through the ranks.

But the familiar pattern re-emerges after Jadeja’s initial success. On the one hand, he proved his credentials as a limited-overs specialist—Royals captain Shane Warne called him a rockstar—but on the other, there sprouted a pointedly personal dislike of the man in the popular discourse. He was soon labelled the new bad boy of Indian cricket; someone who didn’t have the “right attitude” when it came to representing his country.

Jadeja started hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons. In 2009, he was banned from the IPL after it was alleged that he had tried to negotiate a deal with the Mumbai Indians when he was already in a two-year contract with the Royals. But his sister, Naina, denies the charge outright. “We had a chat about what had happened then,” says the 28-year-old. “He told me that he never approached anyone for more money, and he never lies to me. Because of this, we didn’t watch a single game in the second IPL.”

Later that year, he received a lot of flak for scoring 25 off 35 balls in a World T20 match against hosts England. India, chasing 153, were knocked out of the tournament after losing the game by three runs. “It wasn’t his fault,” defends Chauhan. “When he was selected, I had told him not to throw his wicket because he needs to secure his place first.”

The following year, the Indian cricket board summoned him for his alleged involvement in a brawl that took place in a pub in St. Lucia, the West Indies, between some Indian players and angry supporters. Though he apologised at the time, Jadeja still maintains his innocence. “I was there with my teammates, but I didn’t fight with anyone,” he says.

No matter what he did on the field, the “bad boy” image persisted. The media called him a brash youngster whose fortunes had changed, thanks to T20 cricket. Jadeja was, after all, the million-dollar baby at last year’s IPL auctions—and quite undeservedly so, according to the media. Super Kings, looking to fill the slot of an all-rounder, paid a staggering
$2 million. Perhaps the sight of him zipping around Jamnagar in his white Audi A4
or a Suzuki Hayabusa added to the impression. Even the three first-class triple centuries he scored have not helped him shed the tag. This despite the fact that in doing so, Jadeja has become the first Indian to join the ranks of greats such as Sir Donald Bradman, Brian Lara, Graeme Hick and Mike Hussey.

In fact, this distinction attracted quite the opposite reaction. He was now labelled
“Sir Ravindra Jadeja” and Twitter was abuzz with jokes: Sir Ravindra Jadeja missed
out on a triple century, because Australia
did not score enough; or Sir Jadeja can take a hat-trick off just one ball. For better or worse, Jadeja seems to have become the Rajinikanth of cricket.

So how does he deal with this image? “These are things I can’t do anything about,” says Jadeja. “I used to feel bad. Everyone makes mistakes, so have I, but I don’t speak out because I fear that if I say something people won’t understand me because they have this notion about me.”

The all-rounder says he is more mature now and has learnt from his mistakes, but the perception refuses to change. “I never asked anyone to pay me the money I got,” says Jadeja, referring to the Super Kings’s bid.  “People have this idea that I run after money, which is not true. I know money is important because I have seen the other side, but it will be there only if I perform on the field.”

It is at these times that he turns to
Chauhan and Naina for comfort and advice. “I sat with him a few days ago,” says Chauhan, “and told him that he should speak to the media and not remain aloof, which is his nature. He is an introvert but people perceive him to be arrogant.” Naina echoes Chauhan, saying that her brother doesn’t talk much even to them. “So when people criticise him I feel bad because he hasn’t harmed anyone. To suffer what he did as a young boy and still be successful says a lot about how tough he is mentally,” she adds, watching him complete his first five-wicket haul in Tests at the Feroz Shah Kotla.

PASSING THE TEST

It was during the 2011–12 Irani Cup that someone passed a snide remark about Jadeja being only a T20 player. “I was told I won’t be able to play Tests. I took it up as a challenge,” says the 24-year-old who became the 275th
player to wear the Test cap for India during a match against England in Nagpur on Dec. 13, 2012.

Jadeja’s Saurashtra coach, Debu  Mitra, says, “He came to me and said ‘I want to play Test cricket’. I asked him if he had the mindset or skills. Could he live and behave like a Test player? He said ‘I’m ready but tell me what to do’.” Mitra told him he would have to learn to switch gears and play shots along the ground. “It took me some days to instil that habit in him,” adds Mitra. “He goes crazy if he doesn’t hoick spinners in the nets.”

Though Jadeja didn’t quite click with the bat in the Test series against Australia, playing cameos of eight not out (Mohali) and a crucial 43 (Delhi), he was the second-highest wicket-taker with 24 scalps. Five of those were of Australian skipper Michael Clarke, the only in-form batsman in the visiting side.

THE OTHER JADEJA

Away from the media glare and the “bad boy” image tag, Jadeja is like any other 24-year-old—the pampered younger brother, a loyal friend. Naina, the oldest of the three siblings, offers SI India a drive to their new farmhouse in Pasaya, around 30 km from Jamnagar. Along the way, she talks of how she wanted her brother to do well and would fast for his success. “Even today I do that. Before he made it to the Test squad, I took an oath that I won’t drink water on Tuesdays. My sacrifice has paid off,” she beams.

The car enters a sprawling white farmhouse with a red slanted roof, his initials ‘RJ’ engraved on the boundary walls. “Whatever he buys, he makes sure it has ‘R’ written on it because it looks like 12, which is his lucky number. His jersey has the same number, even the Audi has it,” says Naina.

The ground floor has a kitchen, a bedroom and a living room, the corner lined with gunny bags full of wheat. Jadeja’s room is upstairs along with a terrace, complete with a garden swing. A large part of the eight acres is farming land, on which the family also grows tomatoes and raspberries. On one portion of the estate, mango trees have been planted.

“He always wanted a farmhouse where he could relax. He brings a cook along and enjoys non-vegetarian food, which we don’t cook at home,” says his father, who spends most of his time in Pasaya, supervising the farm work. The Jadejas have another house in their village, Hadatoda, 50 km from Jamnagar, where some relatives live. “Whenever I’m in Jamnagar,” says Jadeja, “I go either to my farmhouse or to Hadatoda to see how my horse, Kesar, is.”

His best friend, Balkrishna Jadeja, also a Saurashtra Ranji player, recounts the time the two of them tried to ride the horse. “We both fell down,” he laughs. “Thankfully no one saw us lying on the road,” adds Balkrishna, who describes Jadeja as restless, full of energy and fun-loving.

Besides cricket, there was something else that caught the young Jadeja’s fancy. His friend, Pradeep Vithalraj, talks of how Jadeja always dreamed of owning a restaurant. And last year, that dream came true. The two opened a restaurant—Jaddu’s Food Field—on the Kalavad road in Rajkot. The entire Indian team visited the joint on the eve of the ODI against England in January and was treated to Jadeja’s favourite Punjabi cuisine.

“I always knew there was an entrepreneur lurking in him,” says Vithalraj. “He used to talk about opening a restaurant even before he had money. Last year, he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We managed to open the place on an auspicious day—12/12/12—and for that the work had to be completed in just 60 days.”

The two are now planning to build a township in Jadeja’s name in Gujarat, which Vithalraj, who runs a construction business, claims will be the “best” in the state. For now, the plan includes luxury apartments; all other aspects are yet to be finalised.

As the shoot wraps up, one final question is left to be answered: How does he feel about his performance, now that he has played in every format, now that he has left his mark on Test cricket? It is the first time in several years that Jadeja has received due praise for his cricket, and the number of those converting—from haters to fans—is growing.

“After every series, I introspect whether I contributed in the games. If I did, then I’m at peace, otherwise I’m very restless,” says Jadeja. And it’s just as well. For, his father, who had wanted him to join the Army, had one piece of advice: Be the best in whatever you do, warna na officer ban payega, na cricketer (else, you will neither be an officer nor a cricketer).

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