Sweet turned to bitter in the space of an hour or so on Sunday (August 6) for Ravindra Jadeja. The world’s No. 1 Test bowler had just spun India to a series-clinching innings win in the second Test against Sri Lanka at the SSC ground, winning the man of the match award for an unbeaten 70 and his ninth five-for in Sri Lankan second innings. Then came the crushing blow – a one-Test suspension for having crossed the first threshold of four demerit points under the ICC Code of Conduct.
Having operated in R Ashwin’s giant shadow for a long time, Jadeja has gradually found his place in the sun. He is no longer merely the holding bowler, but a serious wicket-taker in his own right. His left-arm spin, and the pace at which he propels the ball, give him seriously incisive strings, and when there is purchase off the surface like there was at the SSC, he can be deadly dangerous because he is seldom anything but accurate.
Virat Kohli has called him ‘precious’, which is precisely what Jadeja is. He is a muscular, intrepid, powerful ball-striker lower down the order – how many teams can boast of a No. 9 who has three first-class triple-tons? – and, after months of underachieving as a batsman, is finally translating domestic form into international runs. Alongside Ashwin and Wriddhiman Saha, he forms a brilliant all-round lower middle order core to which Hardik Pandya too is contributing his might. And because he makes his runs with such authority and pace, he allows Kohli the luxury of giving his bowlers more time and overs to have a crack at the opposition.
On the park, the Saurashtra man is the veritable livewire, the energy engine room that drives the team even during meandering passages of play. To watch him glide across the turf is poetry in motion; his pace is electric, his anticipation exceptional, his throwing arm deadly, his attitude unparalleled. You just had to see the catch he took to get rid of Jonny Bairstow in Chennai last December to see what he is made of. The series had already been clinched, the final Test appeared headed for a draw, and not even a murmur of criticism would have emanated had Jadeja not gone for the catch. Instead, he hared back from mid-wicket, looking at the ball over his shoulder, and sprinted all the way to the boundary to complete one of the catches of the season, on the back of which India found a second wind to complete a 4-0 rout of Alastair Cook’s England.
Jadeja with the ball can look honest more than preposterously threatening, but batsmen across the world will aver that that is hardly the case. He is now thinking like a bowler, like a wicket-taking bowler, and is steadily adding variations to his craft that will enhance his penetrative powers that have already made him the fastest left-arm bowler to 150 Test wickets. Batsmen can take him lightly entirely at their own peril; apart from changes in pace and angle, he goes round-armish from time to time, creating artificial drift and then dramatic turn to tie up right-hand batsmen and left in all sorts of knots.
The world is pretty much at Jadeja’s feet right now – how he tackles the challenges of less responsive surfaces when India travel outside the subcontinent is a subject for another day – so why would he do something so silly as hurling the ball in the batsman’s direction, knowing full well that he is already sitting on one sanction and that he isn’t that far away from a suspension?
An unremarkable ball, a defensive push. Then that bullet-like throw that threatened to punch a hole through Dimuth Karunaratne, narrowly missing the batsman and forcing Saha to pull out all stops to prevent an overthrow. That was the incident that caught the attention of the playing control team on Saturday at the SSC. On Sunday, Richie Richardson, the match referee, slapped the penalty that Jadeja, repentant and contrite, accepted without appeal.
Jadeja now has enough time to reflect on his folly stemming from a spur of the moment reaction to mounting frustration. He has ample opportunity over the next week to rue his misconduct as he watches his mates do battle in Pallekele from August 12 in their bid to secure a first 3-0 whitewash on Sri Lankan shores. He has plenty of scope to regret the momentary loss of composure that will now prevent him from adding to his increasingly impressive tally of runs and wickets. It is one thing to sit out on account of illness or injury; to have to do so because he didn’t respect the laws, or the spirit, of the game enough will be particularly chastening. Jadeja will know that he has no one else to blame but himself.
On another day, Jadeja might have gotten away with the throw. A more benevolent team of officials might not have viewed his conduct with as much severity. But with that not being the case, there is a lesson for Jadeja to learn. Some might say that if that lesson had to come, it is better that it came in a dead rubber, with the series already in the bag; Jadeja will counter that the timing couldn’t have been more off, given his purple patch with bat and ball, but who will be counter it to? The man in the mirror?
Jadeja has been involved in his fair share of scraps – James Anderson in England in 2014, for instance, or the running on the pitch incident in Indore in October that brought him his first three demerit points – for this to be a one-off. Perhaps, the suspension and the manner in which it came about will force him to revisit his approach without sacrificing any of his cricketing aggression.
As the No. 1 Test team in the world, India must set standards not just with their cricket, but also in the way they approach the game. Respect for the opposition, for the laws and for the officials is non-negotiable; this series has been played in great spirit, unlike the ugliness and petulance that characterised the India-Australia faceoff in February-March, and Kohli is not unaware that the legacy his team leaves behind will extend beyond how many matches they win.
“When we are playing out there, I always try and create as difficult a situation as possible so that the batsman gets out, but at the same time, if he achieves something or bats well, then you must also appreciate it because this is Test cricket,” the Indian captain had said at the end of the SSC Test after his players had applauded Karunaratne and Kusal Mendis for their excellent second-innings hundreds. “The opposition will always test you, either with their plans or with talk.
“But when people do well, you understand that if you also do well in these situations, how much strength and hard work it takes. You must appreciate that, it is very necessary. When you do well, other people appreciate you. It can’t be that no one from the opposition will not play well. We always keep saying in the dressing-room that we must praise the guys who do well and learn from them in terms of what they did well in their innings.”
Champion sides attain that status through the standards they set with their cricket, with their conduct, with their behaviour and with the deference situations and individuals deserve. It is India’s responsibility, given that they are at the top of the Test pile, that they lead the way in all these facets. The line between competitiveness and boorishness is a very thin one, but when you transgress it, it comes with repercussions. As Jadeja will readily testify.