MS Dhoni is a man of many twists. In 2013, he turned around Rohit Sharma's limited-overs career by slotting him as an opener. Rohit responded immediately with a match-winning 83 in an ODI against England in Mohali. Two years later, he comforted a shattered KL Rahul, who had just made 1 and 0 on Test debut in Melbourne. He was persisted with, even promoted to open the batting - Dhoni had just retired a Test earlier - and he responded with a century.
In January 2016, he handed Jasprit Bumrah an ODI debut less than 24 hours after he had landed in Australia to be part of the T20I series. Bumrah wasn't supposed to play the ODIs, but was slotted in after India had failed to defend 300-plus twice and 295 once in the series. They had nothing to lose, and Bumrah impressed upon initiation. Later that year, Rahul's ferocious IPL ball-striking earned him a No. 4 slot under Dhoni's captaincy during a T20I in Florida. He smashed an unbeaten 51-ball 110.
One of his last out-of-the-box moves before giving up the ODI captaincy was to hand Kedar Jadhav the ball in the nets in Dharamsala when New Zealand toured in October 2016. Up until then, Jadhav had just nine wickets in nine years of representative cricket across formats, and had bowled less than three balls per match on an average. But all that was to change soon.
The late arrival of lunch forced players to stay on in the nets, working in batches. While the regular spinners Amit Mishra and Axar Patel were elsewhere, Jadhav was thrown the ball. Dhoni liked what he saw immediately and employed him purely as a partnership breaker in the series. It may have been an innocuous move then, but that quirk may have just helped India narrow down their search for an ideal No. 6 at next year's World Cup.
Make no mistake, Jadhav is a batsman, a finisher, but it's his bowling utility that has now been looked at as key in India's jigsaw. In the Asia Cup fixture against Pakistan, he proved his bag of simple yet effective tricks could lend the balance that India dearly missed in England. After losing Hardik Pandya to a back injury midway through the match, they needed someone to fill in at least five overs. Jadhav stepped in and bowled nine miserly overs to finish with career-best figures of 3 for 23.
"If you've to play in the Indian team, as long as you keep contributing, you should be happy. Since the time Dhoni asked me to bowl in the New Zealand series, my life has completely changed and I feel confident about it," Jadhav said. "My bowling is all about trying to read the batsman. My plan is to bowl stump-to-stump, if you score, it's fine but if you miss, wickets are there for me."
One of the key aspects of Jadhav's bowling is his understanding of his limited skillsets. He bowls with a low arm, bowls very slow, leaving the batsmen to force the pace most times, and thrives because the angle from which he delivers the ball facilitates low bounce even on good surfaces. It makes many wonder what it takes to deliver such miserly spells match after match. Is it the efforts put in at training? Not really, if you go by Jadhav's words.
"Honestly, I bowl one or two overs before the match at training. I don't bowl much at the nets. I feel if I try and become a bowler, I will lose whatever I have. So I stay within limits," he laughed. "Upfront when your fast bowlers bowl well, that means batsmen will try to score runs off the spinners. It gives us more opportunities to take wickets, so it works."
The Jadhav of today is far from the bowler who first shone through in 2016. There was a period last year when Jadhav psychologically feared being injured every time he stepped onto the field. Recurring fears of twinging a hamstring or turning his ankle prevented him from being swift in the infield. Cue in a few angry gestures from Virat Kohli when Jadhav conceded easy singles, and murmurs of a lack of fitness. In reality, it was the fear of injury that kept weighing him down, and not without cause.
In the last six months alone, he's injured his left hamstring three times, the last of which, on the opening day of the IPL, left him needing surgery in London in June. He's now returned after three months of intense rehabilitation, and is more confident.
"I don't have it in my mind that I will get injured again," Jadhav said. "In the last four months, I've learnt a lot about training and fitness, and it has definitely made me a better cricketer. Previously, when I got injured and underwent rehab, I would take it easy and feel I'm fit and there's no chance of an injury. Many times, I skipped my routines as a result. But after the third injury, regardless of how I feel, every day I start my day with training: both gym and running. So that gives me confidence that I'm getting stronger and fitter every day, and that helps me on the field."
Bowling aside, he is aware his primary role is that of a finisher with the bat. In 42 matches, he's been needed to bat on just 23 occasions. Out of these, he's been unbeaten eight times, facing 25 balls or more only thrice. Yet, when he's had the chances he has grabbed them, none more famous than his brutal counter-attacking ton during the course of a double-century stand with Virat Kohli that scripted a miraculous win for India against England; after being reduced to 63 for 4, Jadhav made a 76-ball 120 as India chased down 351.
Jadhav understands he needs to score runs to get the World Cup ticket. "Batting, my role is that of a finisher. Everyone has a role, we've been given specific roles, so there is a plan and we follow that. I know if I stay till the end I can perform better and win games for India." Kohli, who batted with him in that Pune ODI, will vouch for that.