Once a pillar of the Mumbai batting line-up, Wasim Jaffer moved to Vidarbha ahead of the 2015-16 domestic season. Although he played the last of his 31 Tests in 2008, his insatiable desire for runs and the hunger to play the game he loves take him to England year after year, where he plays league cricket.
Jaffer, the highest run-getter in Ranji Trophy history, took time off to chat with Wisden India following an exhibition game for Lashings. He spoke about playing cricket in the Fab Four era, his multiple stints in Test cricket, why India were an improved overseas outfit under Sourav Ganguly, and more. Excerpts:
India has long been renowned for its production of great batsmen, and you played alongside five who would become known as greats of the game. Was it tough knowing there was only one spot available, at most two?
Definitely. When I played my cricket for India we were obviously known for The Big Four: (Sachin) Tendulkar, (Rahul) Dravid, (VVS) Laxman and Ganguly. Apart from the opening spot, there was usually no space. A lot of good players couldn’t get a place in the middle order. Those guys played 80 or 90 Test matches together, so there were not many places on offer.
I was lucky to play a few Test matches with them, to share the dressing room with them, and learned so much. I also played with Sachin in Mumbai, in Ranji Trophy and in zonal games. They were among the best players in the world at the time – Sachin and (Brian) Lara were the best of that era, I feel. Rahul made himself such a great player through his hard work, through his determination; he wasn’t as talented as the other players, but he was the ideal role model. Laxman started out as an opener. It didn’t work out well for him. He came back as a middle-order player and he played some match-winning innings, unbelievable innings. I think his 281 is the best knock ever by an Indian batsman.
You played Tests under the captaincy of three of them. How would you compare them as leaders?
Compared to the other captains, Sachin didn’t find the success that his batting obviously had. He probably played against some of the tougher teams away from India, like South Africa and West Indies, as they were back then.
With all the great players, they probably expect equally high standards from the others – obviously, Sachin could do anything himself but to expect the same from the other players could be hard. He understood the game from his wavelength, and then he expected the bowlers to bowl in a certain way. I think that went against him – I’m just saying this is my perception, not that that’s what happened.
I won’t say he was a bad captain. I found that he could read the situations much before everyone else in a game. He was much shrewder than all the other players I played with. His knowledge of the game was exemplary. He could read a batsman very quickly, but then maybe the bowlers couldn’t do what he was asking. But somehow, as captain, he couldn’t get the success he had as a player.
Perhaps a good vice-captain …
Probably, because he was vice-captain to (Mohammad) Azharuddin for a long time. And when Sourav took over, Sachin was the main man behind the think tank. Him and Rahul Dravid. Obviously Rahul was the official vice-captain, but those guys worked together.
I won’t say Tendulkar was a bad captain. I found that he could read the situations much before everyone else in a game. He was much shrewder than all the other players I played with.
What about Sourav Ganguly’s captaincy?
I feel that Sourav was the man that built the side after Sachin left the captaincy, because he brought in the youngsters that he believed in and gave them ample chances, ample confidence to prove their mettle in international cricket, which is what you need as a youngster – your captain behind you, supporting you fully. Even after a few failures, you know your captain is behind you. Sourav literally built the side from scratch, bringing in Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan, (Virender) Sehwag, Harbhajan (Singh), Ashish Nehra. He was the guy who improved India’s record away from home. I think he was a very attacking captain, and probably one of the better captains that India has had.
And Rahul Dravid?
Rahul had a lot of success as a captain for a short period – winning in the West Indies and in England, which didn’t happen for 20-odd years – so you can’t class him as a bad captain, either. It’s just that Indian cricket was in turmoil under Greg Chappell, and players probably weren’t happy. He gave up the captaincy because I think it was affecting him as a player.
All three had different styles of captaincy, but I’d say Sourav was the best of them.
Was Ganguly the best motivator out of the three, the one with the charisma to inspire the team when the going was tough?
He loved a fight, and honestly felt that India needed to win abroad to be classed as a good team, so he went about his business that way. Even playing at 60%, India were probably going to win at home. The challenge was to win abroad. That’s where his focus was. He built a side realising that we needed two or three really good fast bowlers who could bowl 140-plus kph. That’s why he backed Zaheer and Ashish Nehra to support (Javagal) Srinath.
And he also brought in Harbhajan – that famous comeback, when India beat Australia. Anil Kumble was injured for that series, and we needed a spinner to take responsibility. Harbhajan was nowhere on the scene, yet Sourav backed him. That’s how he worked: if he believed in somebody, he backed him all the way. That’s why Indian cricket progressed a lot under him. By the time he left, we had players who understood international cricket and had done well in international cricket. More than words, it was the confidence he gave to the players – that made the difference.
Did he have much control over selection? You were an opening batsman, dropped twice early on in your career. How easy was it for him to retain influence with the selectors, themselves perhaps feeling pressurized by media and popular opinion?
He had a say – definitely, definitely. He backed his players. In 2002, when we came to England, Sehwag was a big success in the One-Day Internationals, and had just got his hundred on (Test) debut in South Africa, batting at No. 6. In England, we couldn’t find space for Sehwag in the middle order – the Big Four were there – so he asked Sehwag to play as opener. He said, “no matter what happens, I’ll back you”. Sehwag had never batted as an opener before. For someone to come to England and bat as an opener – it’s a tough job. But he backed him. That was Sourav, he gave players licence to play the way they play, and he backed them in selection as well. Sehwag got a hundred at Trent Bridge, and went on to become one of the best-ever openers of India.
And Sehwag arguably changed the nature of opening the batting in Tests, as had Adam Gilchrist with the wicketkeeper-batsman role. There were attacking openers around – Matthew Hayden, Chris Gayle, Sanath Jayasuriya – and guys like Gordon Greenidge before that, but Sehwag almost said you could play Power Play-type cricket in Test matches …
He’s the most uncomplicated cricketer you will ever find. He knows his game inside out, and he won’t change his game for anything, whether he bats at No. 1 or No. 7. He’s always going to bat the same way. And that’s easier said than done, believe me, when you’re batting against someone bowling 140-plus, swinging the ball, the wicket’s doing something. But he’ll still back himself to play the way he plays. He won’t go and look at the wicket or anything like that. He just keeps things simple. It’s amazing, the kind of innings he’s played the world over. And I agree, he has changed the perception of what opening the batting can be.
You say he was uncomplicated. I guess he was relaxed, too?
He was very clear in his thoughts. Even if he failed, it didn’t bother him too much. When he got runs, he was the same guy. His approach would be similar. That’s what made him such a great player.
What was it like batting at the other end? Was his tempo helpful, or did it make you feel inadequate?
It’s very helpful. You’re not worrying about the scoring rate. The opposition is worrying about Sehwag, rather than about you. So that worked really well for you.
You mentioned Greg Chappell. Did he overcomplicate things as coach?
I’d be the wrong person to ask, because I was not in the thick of things. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes. I was making my own comeback at that time, so I didn’t know what was happening with the think tank, how they were operating, and what was being said to the players. So it would be unfair for me to sit here and tell you why those decisions were being made.
Greg Chappell is a big name, but obviously you get the perception that the players were not as happy as they were under John Wright, and perhaps Greg didn’t understand the psyche of Indian people, or Indian players, as good as John Wright did. Probably he tried to change things too soon, too early, and did this by upsetting a few players. Then Gary Kirsten came in and the players were happy again. Probably there was some mismanagement; rather than going slow and making players understand exactly what he was thinking, maybe he was more someone who said ‘this needs to be done – that’s it’.
Rahul was a role model: someone who was not as gifted, but showed you can still make it big with your hard work and determination, and that’s what Rahul was all about.
The Big Four were all in the team when you started. Was there anything you learned from them, either through observing how they went about things or through advice they gave, conversations about the game?
When you have people like Sachin, Sourav, Dravid, Laxman, you just need to ask them a question and they’ll say what they think. It might work for you; it might not work for you. It’s handy, though. Experience counts. So many times they’ve come and said something, and it’s always going to help. They’ve been there and done that. They would watch you bat and would understand what was going wrong, and it would help you improve. They all played 100-plus Tests, Sachin 200, so I was always grateful when they took time to suggest things.
If Sehwag was the most uncomplicated player, what was it about Tendulkar that made him such a great batsman?
He was naturally a very gifted player, obviously, but was probably the whole package. Even though he was so talented, he worked at his game the most of anyone that I know. And the thinking behind facing every bowler, or going into every series, was exemplary. I remember seeing him in Mumbai, practising for certain bowlers. That’s how you stay at the top for 24 years.
Did he share his insights?
Obviously, if you ask him, he’s going to share. But you prepare for a series in your own city, your own state. He only played a few games for Mumbai when I was coming through, so obviously you try and make the most of that. But, as I say, the attention to detail, the planning behind every series was amazing, especially for someone so gifted. You just can’t make a hundred international hundreds without that level of hard work. It was inspiring, and very much a learning curve for the rest of us to see him putting in the hard yards in his batting and his fielding. Obviously we were not as gifted, and weren’t destined to achieve what he has achieved, but we were lucky enough to share the dressing room, play alongside him, practice alongside him, and take whatever knowledge we could.
On a technical level, what was it about his batting that set him apart?
Well, I think it’s just someone who played Test cricket since he was 16 and never looked out of place. In his whole career, probably after the first Test that he played, against Pakistan, when he himself said the hostility of the bowling surprised him – because he had come after a lot of schools cricket and only a handful of first-class cricket – after that he understood what needed to be done, and scored two fifties and a 40 in that series. He never looked out of place at that age, in all the formats, in all conditions, against all kinds of bowling – on the fastest tracks, spinning tracks, wherever you put him, he never looked out of place: 16 – and not just playing, but scoring runs. For someone so young to be so mature just amazes me. Phenomenal.
And then there’s the amount of time in the game – 24 years, 200 Test matches, 450-odd ODIs, hundred international hundreds … he was just born to play cricket. Whatever happened in his life – earning so much money, millions and millions – he never lost his focus on the game, or his freshness. He just loved cricket, and that didn’t diminish.
I think Laxman’s innings of 281, and Dravid’s 180, actually turned Indian cricket around. It changed history for us. If India hadn’t won that series, and Laxman had failed in that Test, then we may not have known him.
What about Dravid – someone whose mental strength set him apart?
Definitely. His hard work, his dedication, his concentration, and his determination to succeed at the international level were incredible. He played a few ODIs early in his career and then got dropped. People would say he couldn’t hit the ball off the square; that was the perception, yet he came back and scored over 10,000 ODI runs. That shows how strong he was mentally.
We all know how good he was as a Test batsman. There were so many great innings he played for India in difficult conditions. He was a role model: someone who was not as gifted, but showed you can still make it big with your hard work and determination, and that’s what Rahul was all about.
They used to say of Geoffrey Boycott that he would play all the shots in the nets in the morning, then basically keep them in the cupboard when he batted in the middle. Was Dravid a little like that?
I don’t think he was as dogged as that. But there was always the fear of losing his wicket. He could be flamboyant, but he wasn’t going to do that if it meant risking his wicket. He valued his wicket so much. So that’s why he probably didn’t play as many shots, even though he could – as I said, 10,000 one-day runs. He wanted the bowlers to earn his wicket: that was Rahul Dravid’s way of playing.
I think he was probably the hardest batsman to knock over. He could look not pretty, face 40 or 50 balls without scoring runs, but he wouldn’t mind as long as he was still there. But he was happy with that. He never tried to overshadow Sachin. He always lived under the shadow of Sachin. He accepted that. That was what was good of Rahul. He made the most of what he had got, and batted the way he knew.
And the team needed that type of player at No. 3 …
Definitely. You won’t get four Virender Sehwags or three Sachin Tendulkars. So you need players like Rahul and Laxman.
It’s funny you mention Laxman with Dravid. His reputation was as a great fourth-innings batsman, and also someone who raised his game against Australia – when they were an indisputably great side – often on quick, bouncy pitches.
He was probably the best player of the five in difficult conditions, I would say. And tough situations. He never opened in his Under-19 days, and so when he opened for India early in his career it was because there was no space in the middle order – the same thing as happened with Sehwag. But because Laxman didn’t do too well, he made his mind up that he wasn’t going to open again. Then he made heaps of runs in first-class cricket and forced his way into the side.
I think his innings of 281, and Dravid’s 180, actually turned Indian cricket around. It changed history for us. If India hadn’t won that series, and Laxman had failed in that Test, then we may not have known Laxman. He was on the brink of losing his place. He got 50-odd in the first innings and was promoted to bat at No. 3, then made the 281. Sixteen Tests in a row Australia had won, so to play such a knock after following on 280 runs behind is incredible. The 96 he got in Durban when India won in South Africa, the 70-odd he got in Perth when India won, the 70-odd with the tail in Mohali against Australia – these are all innings that helped India to win Test matches. He himself would get upset that he hasn’t turned more fifties into hundreds, but the amount of games he turned around is amazing. When the chips were down and India needed it the most, Laxman turned things around on his own.
Technically, I guess his placement and wristwork were what stood out …
Yes. He played a lot of his cricket with Azharuddin, and he was known for his wristy flicks. I won’t say Laxman modelled his game on Azhar, but he was probably his first hero growing up in Hyderabad. But VVS was a treat to watch when he was on song.
Lastly, what about Ganguly’s batting? He’s remembered as a great player of spin and a fine ODI opener, but there are maybe more question marks over his Test reputation than the others. How does Indian cricket judge his career?
I think Sourav was an amazing player, without a doubt. He would have loved his Test runs to be a thousand or two more, and his average a bit higher. But his contribution was phenomenal in the way he led the side. He had exceptional batsmen around him – he has played some amazing Test innings as well, but in one-day cricket, opening with Sachin, he held his own. They have the most runs as an opening pair. But his ability to fight as a batsman when people rated him not that much – I mean, he has 11,000 one-day runs, 7000 Test runs, and that’s no mean achievement, especially while leading the side. And doing that, he showed us that we could go out and win abroad.
Sehwag is the most uncomplicated cricketer you will ever find. He’s always going to bat the same way. And that’s easier said than done, believe me, when you’re batting against someone bowling 140-plus, swinging the ball, the wicket’s doing something.
So, finally, what would be the best innings by each of them that you have seen?
The two I’ll pick for Sehwag are the hundred at Trent Bridge, because that was the first time he opened for India and to get a hundred in seaming conditions against a very decent attack was great, and the second would be the triple-hundred against South Africa. I was opening with him and the kind of shots that he played that day against (Dale) Steyn, (Jacques) Kallis, (Makhaya) Ntini and Paul Harris – and it was a turning pitch, not the easiest of wickets to bat on – but the rate that he scored at and shots that he played, well, people can only dream of doing that.
For Sachin, out of the innings I’ve watched, I think the hundred he got when they chased 387 against England in Chennai. I mention that especially because ten years earlier he played a similar kind of innings (against Pakistan), also in Chennai, and India lost that Test by 16 runs. He had a bad back and couldn’t really carry on so he started playing shots and just when India were very, very close, with four wickets in hand, he got out and Saqlain (Mushtaq) mopped up the tail, with all four wickets falling on the same score. There was always this tag that Sachin didn’t win you games, especially compared to Lara, who was winning games for West Indies. So to play on that same ground, chasing almost 400 in the fourth innings, and staying till the end and winning the game, was pretty special.
For Dravid, I think probably his 148 at Headingley in 2002, in very trying conditions. Sachin got 193 in that game, but the hard work that Dravid did on the first day was crucial. Surprisingly, Sourav won the toss and batted on that green pitch and we put 600-odd on in the first innings. Rahul’s contribution was immense. And there were also a pair of fifties on a not so good pitch in Jamaica to win us the match and the series, which we hadn’t done for 31 years. They were captain’s knocks. Typical Dravid.
For Laxman, the 281 was probably the best knock by any Indian, but I wasn’t there. So the two that I mentioned: the 96 in Durban and the 70-odd in Perth.
And for Sourav, obviously his debut Test hundred at Lord’s was special, but I think his Brisbane hundred in 2004, when everyone was saying he can’t play short-pitched bowling and the Australians were saying they were going to pepper him with chin music. In the first Test he got 140-odd, so that was the strength of his mind. When the chips were down, he had the strength of mind to turn it around.