When Punjab look back at their defeat against Railways in the Ranji Trophy final, the punk-like figure of Jai Prakash Yadav will haunt them many times over. He regularly thwarted all their attempts to fight back with ballistic hammerings and unpredictable medium pace. Punjab, though, were just one of the several teams to feel the force of the Yadav-effect right through the season.
By Indian domestic benchmarks, Yadav's performances this season have been nothing short of colossal. Match after match, crisis after crisis, crunch time after crunch time - he has almost single-handedly lifted the sides he has played for. When Railways were fast slipping down a steep relegation slope with two must-win away games to go - one on a corpse-like pitch at Anantpur, where the Andhra batsmen usually anesthetize opponents with attrition, and the other in Bangalore, where Karnataka were bolstered by Rahul Dravid - along came Yadav with bat, ball and inspiration. When Central Zone played the Duleep Trophy final against North, a team that had swaggered to zonal titles in recent years, he delivered a knock-out punch on the first day with seam, swing and sudden changes of pace. He played a crucial part in the low-scoring semi-final against Hyderabad and dazzled on the four days that mattered in the final. And we haven't even spoken about his talismanic influence in the one-dayers.
Rarely has a player made an entire season his own. Sunil Joshi, Ashish Kapoor and Sairaj Bahutule have had outstanding seasons in the recent past, where they shone in an allround capacity, but theirs was mostly supporting roles with the bat. Also, their bowling was at its most venomous only after the second day and unlike Yadav, they rarely turned games on the first morning. "It's not something that will happen too often," said Yadav when asked about his outstanding year, "and I don't think too many other players have performed so consistently with both bat and ball in any season. If somebody had told me last year that I would end with more than 500 runs and 50 wickets, I would have laughed at the joke."
Yes, many pitches suited his style of bowling - pitching around the good-length area, cutting it either way, swinging it a shade, reverse-swinging it at a wide range of speeds, bouncing and yorking when least expected - but an actor's magnificent performance can't be attributed solely to cinematography. Yes, he made no hundreds, but crisis management at the top of the order can be more valuable than meaningless wealth accumulation. Yes, most of the international stars didn't play this season and quality of opposition could have been better, but a student can only answer the exams set, he can't worry about the toughness of questions. Forget matches and tournaments, this will probably be remembered as JP's season. That in itself is a staggering thought.
So, a glittering CV has been submitted to the selectors whose decisions over the next few months could decide the applicant's future. Yadav knows how one opportunity could open up a whole new universe. "If I don't get a chance by the end of this year," he says, "I don't think can ever make it to the national side. If this season's performances can't get me a place, nothing can. But even if I just get one or two chances I need to make the most of them. One over or one shot can change a player's life."
Just as Yadav spoke these words, Pankaj Dharmani was signing a few autographs in the background. He probably felt the same way five years back when he amassed 1194 runs at an average of nearly 80 and was perilously close to reclaiming the wicketkeeper's slot in the Indian team. Whether Yadav will take a similar course or get one more shot at a comeback remains to be seen.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is on the staff of Cricinfo.