The quiet Indian
The cup of tea has gone cold, but the hand holding it has begun to quiver. You can sense the heat build up in the air-conditioned room inside Bangalore's Chinnaswamy Stadium. Wasim Jaffer, India's Test opener, a steady lantern in this age of flashy neon lights, is angry, hurt and embarrassed.
They say he's too laidback, not aggressive enough for today's cricket. They say he doesn't sledge; that he's not a dasher like Mahendra Singh Dhoni, not a "character" like Sreesanth. They say he's not a marketable brand. They laugh behind his back, poke fun at his selection for the Indian Premier League. They say he doesn't belong.
"I am always what I am," says Wasim Jaffer.
He says he's aggressive, not abusive. Dependable, not flashy. He says his body language is all about staying focused on the game, not showing off in front of cameras. What's wrong with my brand, he asks.
He just may, Jaffer agrees, be stuck between two generations. His cricket template is Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar. But those players won't be around for long. Jaffer will soon be alone in a dressing room of highly talented cricketers who can also dance, woo Bollywood actresses, sign mega ad deals, and call big Matthew Hayden a liar.
"Today's generation of players is keen to develop a rock-star image," Jaffer says. "They give a lot of attention to their looks, their clothes, and their hairstyle. Ten years ago, nobody used to care.
"Glamour has come into the game in a big way. There's Twenty20, and the media is interested in whatever you do, on and off the field. Everybody wants to know from where you cut your hair, where you bought your clothes, or what shoes you're wearing. So players have now begun to behave in such a way that it fits that image. But that's not me."
"Look at my runs, assess my performance," says Jaffer, pointing to his five centuries in 28 Tests, including two double-hundreds. And that's why, he says, he was hurt by the US$150,000 he was deemed worth at the IPL auction last month - the lowest price an India cricketer fetched.
"Obviously it hurts when you compare the price of some others to what I got. I have proved myself on the field, and I have made runs in Test cricket, over 2000 of them. But other players who haven't scored enough have got much more, because people think they will be a big hit in Twenty20. That's what public image does. You can only change their views by going out there and scoring runs."
So just why is Jaffer different?
You could look at his early cricket for answers - the way he was pushed up the order through the Mumbai leagues by an older brother who lived his ambitions through his quiet, reserved sibling. Or, like the man himself, you could simply shrug your shoulders, wave the past aside, and say, "Not everyone is the same."
He agrees, though, that there's been too much "crazy talk" about him. Indeed there has, especially on the evening of the IPL auction in February, when after Mahendra Singh Dhoni had gone for $1.5 million and Andrew Symonds for $1.3 million, talk centred on Jaffer, and why Bangalore had chosen a Test player for its Twenty20 team.
|'There are those who dress up and behave like Casanovas after the day's play - even in the past, like the great Garry Sobers. But for somebody like Sobers, it never affected his cricket. If you can manage that, fair enough. Personally, I won't be able to cope with stuff like that, because I know it will affect my cricket'|
"After the auction, my wife phoned to tell me who got what. She was very upset, very sad that other players had got much more.
"Really, I was surprised that people had built such an image of me - that I can't play one-day cricket or Twenty20. How can you say that when you haven't seen me play one-day cricket or Twenty20 cricket? In India people are very quick to tag players as "attacking" or "defensive". I am a Test opener now and I can't be aggressive like some of the batsmen who come later. I have to see off the new ball, and I have to make sure that I give a stable start to the team. That's my primary job. I can't just go out there and start playing my shots.
"Look at Rahul Dravid. He started as a Test specialist but now has nearly 11,000 runs in one-day cricket. What would you say to that? He has adapted so well. The greatest thing is, he came at No. 4 or No. 5 and got all those runs. He was not an opener, where you have all those field restrictions and runs come quickly.
"That's why I was upset when, after the auction, I realised the image people had of me. Why didn't they at least look at my domestic one-day record? Last year I got two big centuries in the Deodhar Trophy and another one in the Ranji final. This year I scored a 132-ball 178 [in a Ranji one-dayer]. There are other players too [in India], who are considered one-day specialists, and I have scored more than them. It's a misconception that I can't score quickly."
In fact, at one point during the auction, in which 77 players were bought by the eight IPL franchises for a total of $42 million, Jaffer feared that he would not be picked at all.
"It looked like most of the IPL teams didn't want me. That's why I am so thankful to Dravid [captain of the Bangalore Royal Challengers]. He understands the true value of a cricketer. He must have been tagged like this too, early in his career. So I was touched when he stepped up and took me in. Now it's my responsibility to deliver for him."
Does Jaffer feel a misfit? Does he wish he had been born ten years earlier? He says "these things" don't affect him, because he believes in sticking to what he is comfortable with and letting his bat take care of the rest.
"There are those who dress up and behave like Casanovas after the day's play - even in the past, like the great Garry Sobers. But for somebody like Sobers, it never affected his cricket. If you can manage that, fair enough. Personally, I won't be able to cope with stuff like that, because I know it will affect my cricket. But today's generation, it seems, is able to manage. They go out, enjoy themselves, start drinking at an early age. Again, as long as it doesn't affect their cricket, it's fine."
There has been the talk about Jaffer's body language, his apparent lack of aggression, the slouching walk, the hangdog expression, the "lazy" fielding, and the more serious accusation that he just doesn't care about what's happening out there, except for his own batting. Jaffer replies with a smile, a pause and a sigh.
"I have been accused of all this ever since I started playing cricket. But those who know me very well have understood that it is just the way I am. That's my nature. It's not that I am not interested. There are a lot of players who really don't want to do the things they do on the cricket field, but they show off just to be seen on TV or in photographs. I have never focused on these factors.
"There are a lot of people who have come up to me and said, 'Wasim, you have to show off a bit to meet the demands of today's cricket.' But it has never come from inside, and I always ended up asking myself, 'Why do I need to do that? The focus should be on my performance, not on such petty things'. Look at Dravid, Laxman or Kumble - they are all so sober on the field and yet they are such great cricketers. It's your personality, and your cricket that's reflected on the ground.
"If you look at my fielding, too, I don't drop catches, I don't misfield. It's just that I move in my own style. I am very laidback. But if you are doing the basics very well, that's good enough. You don't have to show off, that you are running around or leaping about here and there. As long as you are motivated inside, your focus is on the game and you are doing your job well, that's enough.
"I will narrate a story here," says Jaffer. "During our Test tour of South Africa in late 2006, there was a lot of controversy surrounding Sreesanth. So one day Dravid addressed the team on what he thought aggression was all about. He told us that aggression is about standing up to be counted when your team is in a dire situation. Aggression is getting your team through in times of need, Rahul said, and not abusing the opposing player.
"Performance on the field, that's aggression. Standing up for your team, that's aggression. Ask Sunil Gavaskar, ask Tendulkar, ask Dravid. Remember, there's a young generation watching your every move, preparing to follow you."
The doorbell rings and Jaffer nods: the interview is over. But as he reaches out to push the cold cup of half-drunk tea to a corner of the bedside table, he turns back.
"Look, I have played one Twenty20 game before, for Mumbai," he says. "Anyway, leave it. Let the IPL start and I will try and prove that I belong. There will be world-class players, and the whole world will be watching. You never know, people will then realise that I can play one-day cricket, too. Hopefully, Inshallah, they will see a new Wasim Jaffer."
Ajay Shankar is deputy editor of Cricinfo in Bangalore