The top-of-mind recall for Jaydev Unadkat is likely to be the exorbitant sums he commanded over two successive IPL auctions in 2018 and 2019. But beyond the IPL glitz is a pacer who has a legitimate claim to being the best fast bowler in domestic cricket in India since 2013.
The numbers support that assertion. Since the 2013-14 season, Unadkat has the second-best average and best strike rate among the top wicket-takers in India. And he has achieved that by playing more matches than any other fast bowler at the Saurashtra Cricket Association Stadium in Rajkot - his home ground. Statistically, that has been the worst ground for fast bowlers since the 2013-14 season, with the highest average for the pacers among all grounds in India. To achieve what Unadkat has in those unforgiving conditions takes uncommon skill. In a candid chat with ESPNcricinfo, the Saurashtra captain bares all: from his domestic record to his reduced IPL price, from not being picked for India A to winning bets against Cheteshwar Pujara.
Your thoughts on the IPL auction - you're back with your old team. At a reduced price but in a familiar setting?
I think this is the first time I'm answering a question about the auctions. I consciously didn't want to speak about it because I felt this has to be taken as lightly as it can be. I haven't thought about it as much as I did previously. All I know is I'm going to play in the same team, and I'm happy I'm going to play in the same set-up where I know the people, the management, the captain. But auctions, pressure and the things that people talk about - I'm just over all that.
Does it give you confidence that even though Rajasthan Royals released you, they had enough faith to want you back?
That has been a trend with me for whatever team I've played in. People have been looking to get me back. All I can make out from that is that I must be doing something good for the team and with my performance. All I want is to be better at it, maybe not give them a chance to put me back in the auction again and prove that I'm worth more than what people think I am. But having said that, I am in a happy space about my cricket. If you would have asked me this question two years back, I would have talked a lot about it, but at the moment, it doesn't affect me at all, even if I talk about it.
"Earlier, it used to play on my mind that I need to get X number of wickets in a season to make my name, but those things don't really play on my mind anymore. I'm above that now. It's just about bowling at my best, bowling hostile spells where you can feel the batsmen don't like playing you"
This is a T20 World Cup year. Are you aiming at something specific, like being in that tournament?
If I take it that way, it's not going to help me. The competition is such that whoever is getting chances, people are doing well. So I just need to focus on my skills. Of course, whatever efforts I'm putting in, it's all about getting my place back in the Indian team, but it's not all about the World Cup. It's a personal goal that I've set, and it's a process that will go on till I prove that I'm worth getting my place back in the team.
Everyone knows what one tournament can do for a player, especially for someone who is on the verge of being in and out of the team. So be it IPL or this Ranji Trophy, everything is crucial.
You had told me recently that you are at peace with your game, even though you aren't making the India A squads?
Yes, you can say that. Although recently, it did disappoint me a bit, that after starting the season on a great note, I was a bit hopeful of being given a chance in the India A tour that's coming up. So it's not that I'm not at all bothered about that, these things do come in the mind, thoughts like: 'when is the next selection happening, and when am I going to get my chance?' Especially when I'm doing well. But like you said, I am in a state of peace in the sense that it does not affect my mindset at all when I play a game. Being the captain actually helps because I'm thinking about the team, strategies and all that and it's not just about me. That's helped me a lot to be in a good space.
You got the captaincy mid-season last year and ended up having your most successful season as a bowler.
I think captaincy added a whole new dimension to my game and to myself as a player. I am someone who loves taking on leadership roles. I've loved it since I was quite young. I am fortunate that I'm playing for a team like Saurashtra. It's not a team with lots of 'big' players, it's a well-knit unit, and it's always good to captain a side like that.
I'm excited for the guys in my team. The way we played last year was something I cherish, and would love to repeat. I don't really care if anyone else noticed it or not, but the way we were enjoying ourselves, coming back from behind to win [in the quarter-final against Uttar Pradesh and the semi-final against Karnataka], I think there's no better feeling. I can do this throughout my career if given the chance.
Yes, of course. But then they are not always available. Cheteshwar was there for the knockouts last year and he was a big help. We've been best friends since 8-9 years now and he's the guy with whom I talk cricket the most. It was really good to have him around in the first year [of my captaincy]. When I wanted any help from someone in the middle, he was there. And as a batsman, you can't ask for anything better than Cheteshwar. And Ravindra as well, whenever he has played for Saurashtra, he has won matches single-handedly. He's obviously one of a kind, cannot be matched.
But now we have a team that is doing well even when they are not available, which wasn't the case before. We wanted to do that as a team, and we've been able to do that last season.
"We had a deal that if he [Pujara] gets a century in any of the innings there [in Australia], I would give him a gift worth INR 5000. And if I would take a fifer here [in the Ranji Trophy that was going on], he would give me a gift worth INR 5000. So we had a friendly battle to see who would come on top and get more gifts. He got three centuries in that tour, but after the 193 in Sydney he told me that was actually deserving of a 200 so I should give him 10,000 for that!"
You've been great friends with Pujara. You and he must have had some interesting conversations when he was in Australia, putting in a Man-of-the-Series performance, and you were leading Saurashtra in the Ranji Trophy?
We had a deal that if he gets a century in any of the innings there, I would give him a gift worth INR 5000. And if I would take a fifer here [in the Ranji Trophy that was going on in India at the time], he would give me a gift worth INR 5000. So we had a friendly battle to see who would come on top and get more gifts. He got three centuries in that tour, but after the 193 in Sydney he told me that was actually deserving of a 200 so I should give him 10,000 for that!
I had a good season as well, I had four fifers here. So he gave me a gift and I gave him one. So it was quite memorable.
Since you said you enjoy captaincy, do you think there was a case for you to get it sooner, and not just when Jaydev Shah retired? [Jaydev Shah retired midway through the 2018-19 season after having captained Saurashtra in 111 games, a Ranji Trophy record]
I think this is the right time, because I have matured as a player. Maybe if it had come to me a couple of years earlier, I would still be fighting my own way about how I want to be as a player. I was still figuring out what my strengths and weaknesses are. But now I'm at a stage where I'm really clear about those things. So now I can really focus on the captaincy as well because it's something that demands a lot of attention. If you want to be the captain of a team, if you want everyone in the team to do well, there are a lot of things you can do as a captain. Keep everyone together, keep the atmosphere good. At the same time, guys who are not playing, keep them on their toes and aware about where they stand. If you want to do all that, you have to be clear in your mind as a player, so I think it's come to me at the right time.
What went right last season for Saurashtra, and for you?
Before the fourth-innings chase in the quarter-final, I spoke and Cheteshwar spoke about how important it is for a side like Saurashtra, who don't really have the kind of players that Mumbai or Karnataka have had, that we qualify for the knockouts every year without the help of guys like Cheteshwar and Ravindra. So it was an opportunity that we thought we could not miss, and everyone believed in themselves more. That was one thing I really loved about our team last season: we started believing we can beat any team, and win from any position.
As for my bowling, my strength has been to use the angles and swing it both ways. A couple of wickets were helpful, but apart from that, not many were. I got a couple of fifers in Rajkot on flat wickets where I really bowled my heart out. The only plan there was to reverse the ball. If you're playing in Rajkot, it's bound to reverse, and if you have the skills it can reverse in 15-20 overs.
You spoke about the hurt of missing out on India A selections. Is it tough to find motivation to play domestic cricket, having tasted international cricket?
I don't agree with that. I would say it's actually easier if you have played at the highest level because you'll always know that you have it inside you to once again perform and reach there. If you haven't been selected even once, you might still have doubts about whether you are good enough to play at that level or not. The aspiration [to play for India] is always there, but for me, every season has been really exciting at the start. Earlier, it used to play on my mind that I need to get X number of wickets in a season to make my name, but those things don't really play on my mind anymore. I'm above that now. It's just about bowling at my best, bowling hostile spells where you can feel the batsmen don't like playing you.
You last played for India A in 2013 with the red ball. The stats say you've been arguably one of the top two or three pacers in domestic cricket from then to now, but you've still not got an opportunity after that.
I feel whoever has got a chance in my place in the past has been doing well, or probably deserved to get a call-up at some point - like I did when I was doing well. I still feel that I have it inside me to come back in the team and be successful as well. I don't just want to get a spot, I want to do well at the international level. I've reached there in all three formats, so it's not about being picked anymore. Now it's about being picked and being relied upon as one of the premier fast bowlers in the country. The standards are high. The way the current crop of fast bowlers is doing is something I try to imitate. When I saw [Jasprit] Bumrah bowling in the West Indies, it inspired me to be as hostile as him. If I want to be at that level, I have to be as good as him. You have to be above everyone else if you want to be successful at that level.
Does the thought of increasing your pace ever come?
Not really. I'm obviously not as quick as some of the other guys, but it's different skill sets. To be honest and realistic, I cannot aim to bowl at 145kph. That hasn't been my strength since the start of my career, so I don't really want to focus on just increasing my pace. Yes, if the fitness levels increase, pace is bound to increase by a few kilometres, which I can feel has happened with me in the last two-three years. I've started to train specific to my bowling style. It's about what I need technically in my bowling to be good. Say I have my back foot collapsing, I would work on my calf strength, or of the muscles needed while jumping in the delivery stride. Steffan Jones, who was our fast bowling coach at Rajasthan Royals, has been helping me a lot. I went to train at his academy in the UK for ten days specifically to tailor my training, and I found that it is helping me.
Speaking of Rajasthan Royals, you have had to deal with a fair amount of trolls on social media, because you've been in the spotlight for the prices you've fetched in past auctions?
At some point, I do feel that people become so harsh they don't realise we are humans as well. But having said that, you can't really go to every individual and see what their mindset is. They [trolls] do it for fun, or just to get attention. People have told me to not bother about that and that social media is something I shouldn't really look at.
Does it happen in real life ever?
I haven't had anyone coming up to me and telling me anything on my face. I think those people only mention you on social media. Face to face, they won't speak anything. That itself shows that those things don't really matter as much as you think they do at times.
We play this beautiful game for fans, for people to follow it and love it. But in our country, it happens that a minority do it out of hatred or jealousy. Critics can help you at times, tell you things that you don't see in your game. But people who just abuse you all the time don't really matter. When it started, it was difficult because I wasn't used to it. But I'm pretty much immune to all that now. You have to develop a thick skin if you are playing cricket in India.
Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo