Tough Jaffer revives comeback hopes
In 2007-08, an opener batted with a badly injured hand in the Ranji Trophy final at the Wankhede Stadium, scored an unbeaten second-innings century to hand Delhi the title and eventually won his place back in the Indian Test side. The man he replaced had been struggling on the tour of Australia, but five years on the situation appears to have reversed for Gautam Gambhir and Wasim Jaffer, who has perhaps shown a greater hunger to play and perform, amid tragic circumstances.
This year Jaffer batted at the same venue in the final of the same tournament, and scored a century that helped Mumbai to their 40th Ranji title. He lost his father - who was battling for life in hospital for almost half the season - three days after being named Man of the Match in the final against Saurashtra and completing a competition in which he averaged 76. As difficult as events have been off the field, Jaffer has shown a determination and commitment to score runs for Mumbai, practiced with the team, and piled it on in what has been a prolific season.
Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag - who has been struggling himself - are likely starters for the Australia Tests but Jaffer's run merits more than an outside chance. Sure, India would prefer a younger alternative to someone about to turn 35, but the selectors going back to M Vijay, who had a highest of 42 in eight innings this Ranji season and lost his place in the Test team in 2011, to play for Rest of India shows a scarcity of options. Gambhir has a superior record in Tests, his struggles have come against better bowling attacks than those on offer on the domestic circuit, and has had a relatively better run in ODIs including a match-winning innings in the World Cup final, but his place in the Test side, just as his opening partner's, hasn't been above scrutiny.
In the last three years, Gambhir has averaged 31 in Tests and is still searching for a three-figure score in that time. Sehwag has lost his place in the ODI side, and failed to fire in six straight innings against England. In this season alone, on the only stage he's played, Jaffer has hit three centuries, five half-centuries, and reclaimed his Ranji record for most runs. He returned to play the Irani Cup despite his personal loss, and made 80. His innings on the second day was cut short when he belatedly withdrew his bat after nicking Sreesanth, but his knock was assured, free-flowing, littered with boundaries through the off side, and the landmark of 50 runs seemed a routine achievement given how his season has panned out.
The national selection panel has been watching the proceedings at the Wankhede Stadium. One member, Vikram Rathour, is coaching Rest of India. There has been an increasing demand on the one hand to groom more youngsters as part of a long-term plan that includes India's overseas assignments, starting with the tour of South Africa at the end of this year. On the other, there's the immediate concern of taking on Australia at home after having returned from two disastrous tours and losing to England in India for the first time in 28 years. These are desperate times, and if the selectors who meet to pick the squad on February 10 view them as such, considering Jaffer as an opening option should not be ruled out.
Siddhartha Talya is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo