Jaydev Unadkat transcends reputation in season of spontaneity and long spells

After a record-breaking season that ended with a Ranji title, Unadkat has made a legitimate case for a Test comeback

Jaydev Unadkat sends one down  •  Shailesh Bhatnagar

Jaydev Unadkat sends one down  •  Shailesh Bhatnagar

Jaydev Unadkat is big on focusing on the "small aspects". Some of these revolve around life philosophies and finding happiness in the intangibles. An avid reader, he jots down notes and tries to incorporate lessons or insights at team meetings whenever he comes across something he believes is "interesting". As far as Saurashtra's cricket team goes, he's equivalent to a CEO.
One such insight that left a lasting impression on Unadkat during the 2019-20 Ranji Trophy season was that decisions made in a blink - snap judgments, essentially - can also be very good. He was captivated by what he read in Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. The book is a series of anecdotes and psychological case studies that explore impulsive decision-making. It also delves into the subconscious mind. Little would Unadkat have realised when he read the book recently that he'd apply the lessons in the Ranji Trophy final, to deliver the knockout blow to Bengal.
"I would say I am at my peak. I've now got a lot of options of getting a wicket, which is always the thing a bowler looks for. You can't be a one-trick pony."
Jaydev Unadkat
Bengal had just lost the huge wicket of Anustup Majumdar, but had the capable Akash Deep join the well-set Arnab Nandi. The lead was just 64 runs away, and Bengal's batting stretches until No. 10. In the semi-finals, Deep had salvaged Bengal from a hopeless situation by making 44, lending support to Majumdar against a competent Karnataka attack. Saurashtra were slight, but by no means outright, favourites. It's at this point that Unadkat brought out his "blink" moment.
Deep had just been beaten, and Avi Barot, the wicketkeeper, had missed with a shy at the stumps. Unadkat was alert to the possibility of the throw missing, and had stayed where he was on his follow-through to collect the ball. Then he noticed Deep's feet were outside the crease, and threw down the stumps. The split-second decision told you of his match awareness. The decision went upstairs and Deep was gone to what you could only call a brain fade.
"To have good judgement, you need that experience to make crucial decisions in day-to-day situations," Unadkat explains. "I have the habit of talking to the boys about such stuff, and how we can incorporate learnings from what we read or see into cricket. Most of my chats at team meetings or general pep talks revolve around life philosophies, equating it to cricket, and not by directly giving a cricket example. It helped bring a different flavour to our team meetings, it got players thinking."
As perfectly as the "blink" moment was executed, Unadkat was slightly itchy. That he'd come into the final with 65 wickets, delivering wicket-taking spells for fun. On all kinds of surfaces, with old and new ball. And when it mattered the most, he had bowled over 35 wicketless overs, had DRS calls overturn potential wickets, including the crucial one of Wriddhiman Saha early on the fourth day. The game was slipping away, but he was drawing on his reserves.
"I got 65-odd wickets in 15 innings, more than four wickets per innings, and after that, everybody wanted me to strike when the team needed the most," Unadkat says. "But I was wicketless for 30 overs. Till Thursday evening, I kept thinking that it will be that one ball which can get the crucial breakthrough. I knew if I could get that one wicket, it would mean a lot more than those previous wickets.
"Chetan Sakariya started well. That first over [on the fifth day] gave us the belief that it will not be easy. I was telling myself that if I could challenge myself and bowl the ball of the season, it will help the team immensely. I was telling that to myself before every single delivery. I said that to myself before getting Anustup out."
It needed a sensational delivery to dismiss Majumdar. Bowling from around the wicket, Unadkat made the ball talk. He got one to pitch on a length outside off and jag back in sharply - a hint of reverse. The ball didn't lose much pace off the pitch, Majumdar looked to play across the line - perhaps not the best split-second decision - and before he'd realised, the ball had thudded into his pads and the umpire had raised his finger. He was stone dead, and a polite request for a review only delayed the inevitable.
"The dream season could only have been special if you actually win the title," Unadkat says. "At the end, we had had three defeats in finals and it doesn't feel good. It is a long season where you have put your blood and sweat. This season, I have given everything mentally and physically. I wouldn't have enjoyed any sort of record if I hadn't won. I wanted to do it one more time for my team. I wanted to prove I'm not just someone whose numbers are looked at only when IPL auctions come up."
"I don't want to end it here. Yes we have won the trophy and I am the happiest captain in the world right now, but I still want this phase to keep going on and on for me. I want to keep going and leave no stone unturned."
Jaydev Unadkat
At this point, Unadkat is asked what the turning point was in the game. In a game that was decided on the basis of the first-innings lead, there were many. The Cheteshwar Pujara-Arpit Vasavada partnership, Saha's reprieve through DRS, Manoj Tiwary's dismissal, Majumdar's wicket - it was that kind of a game. It fluctuated wildly one way, then swung back on even scales, then turned the other way, and eventually when it looked even again, Unadkat grabbed the game by it's collar and saw Saurashtra home, just like he had done in the semi-finals when it appeared as if Gujarat might end up doing the unthinkable.
"Look, the Ranji Trophy is not just series played among players. A lot of families and former players who feel for the team are involved. I got a lot of messages from people who had that belief that I can do it for the team," Unadkat says. "Those messages worked for us. We talked about it in the morning, that there was one twist left. I told our boys that 'this is our ground and we are going to make it count.' We did believe there was something left for us in the game and we came out with that mindset and that did the trick for us."
After the kind of season he's had, it's only natural to talk of the next goal. Perhaps an India comeback?
Think Unadkat, and invariably it's the shorter formats that come to mind, largely because of the IPL. But over the years, he has shown there's much more to his bowling than just delivering four overs game after game in T20. For starters, he has increased his pace, can sustain his intensity through the day, and not just merely over his first spell. He's also added the extra dimension of reverse swing, the kind Zaheer Khan made famous. Remember the around-the-wicket angle to the right-handers at his peak?
"It is the best I've bowled, am at my peak for sure," Unadkat says. "It's not just about taking those wickets, but how well I am recovering game after game, how [much] fitter I am feeling. How I am bowling on a fifth day with an old ball. Those reveal a lot of things, much more than numbers or wickets I take. So in terms of those things, I would say I am at my peak. I've now got a lot of options of getting a wicket, which is always the thing a bowler looks for. You can't be a one-trick pony, I have been trying to work on it. Consistency is to take wickets, and for that you have to find ways. Going through the season, fine-tuning things, changing fitness routines have all helped me be what I am."
All of this means Unadkat has definitely pitched for a Test recall too, 10 years after his infamous debut at Centurion, where his most memorable moment was when he was asked whom he wanted his Test cap from, between Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid. He went wicketless, conceded 101 runs in 26 overs, and hasn't been discussed for a Test berth since. While India's next Test is eight months away, Unadkat has quietly put the ball back in the selectors' court. And in Rajkot, they were all watching keenly. In a rare acknowledgment in public from a chief selector, Sunil Joshi even tweeted his appreciation for Unadkat. Does this all then mean he's slowly building up hope for a comeback?
"I have been working harder than many guys, as hard as any other cricketer in the country to earn my rewards," he says. "It was not just the IPL on my mind at any time. Yes there was auction happening and people were talking just about that but this was something I really wanted to achieve [Ranji Trophy title]. I wanted to do it for the team, I wanted to do it for myself. I wanted to prove to myself that I don't want to play the game for something other than cricket. I started playing this game because I was so passionate about it.
"I have still got that hunger to make a comeback. The hunger has been stronger than this and that actually kept me going throughout the season. To be honest, it was challenging to physically survive the season. Bowling those long spells as a fast bowler in almost every game. But as I said, the hunger is more than ever before. I just want to keep this phase going. I don't want to end it here. Yes we have won the trophy and I am the happiest captain in the world right now, but I still want this phase to keep going on and on for me. I want to keep going and leave no stone unturned."
How does he compare this with other achievements in his career?
"If you ask me about the emotional quotient this is right at the top with everything else," Unadkat says. "This is the moment of my career. It has never gotten bigger than this. Not just my achievement, but my state's achievement. This team has been working really hard. People who have played for Saurashtra in the past have been wanting this trophy to come home. We have had a glorious cricketing legacy to carry as well. Maybe we just did not have the team 10 years [ago]. The team has come a long way, playing a lot of finals. Like I said it, right up there."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo