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Match Analysis

The underappreciated genius of Ravindra Jadeja

He is tireless and accurate, but there are other layers to his bowling as well, which perhaps aren't as clearly discernible

It's nearing 10am on Thursday when Ravindra Jadeja strolls in to bowl his first ball in Test cricket since July 2022. Since then, he has played a bit of white-ball cricket, injured his right knee and undergone surgery, and he has played only one first-class game since returning to action.
He took a seven-for in that game, but this is a Test match, and facing him now is Marnus Labuschagne, the world's No. 1 Test batter. The stage can't be bigger, the stakes can't be higher.
Then Jadeja bowls, and it's as if he had never gone away. Quick, angling in from left-arm around, and pitching on that most Jadejaesque of lengths. It draws Labuschagne forward, but still leaves a significant distance between the bat and landing point. Enough distance for all kinds of mischief threatening either edge of the bat.
This ball grips the pitch and rips across the face of Labuschagne's bat. Hello again, Test cricket. I'm well, how have you been?

****

Of the 13 left-arm spinners with at least 150 Test wickets, no one has a better average than Jadeja's 24.40. If you widen the net to include all spinners with the same wickets cut-off, only four - Jim Laker, Muthiah Muralidaran, Clarrie Grimmett and R Ashwin - sit above him.
For a bowler with that sort of record, Jadeja has gone through a strangely unexamined career. While the methods of Ashwin - the Laker to Jadeja's Tony Lock (who sits in second place in the left-arm spinners' list) - are routinely dissected by commentators and cricket writers, often in minute detail, those of Jadeja have usually been described in simplistic terms: he is tireless, he is accurate, he is at you all the time.
This is partly because Ashwin loves to talk about his bowling, and is comfortable doing so in English, the dominant language of cricket discourse. He is also hugely media-savvy, and runs a successful YouTube channel. Jadeja isn't fluent in English, and is a far more reticent figure.
The other reason is that it perhaps demands closer watching to get to the nub of why Jadeja is as good as he is. He is tireless and accurate, yes, but so is Ashwin. There are other layers to Jadeja's bowling, just as there are to Ashwin's, but they perhaps aren't as clearly discernible.
While interviewing India's then bowling coach Bharat Arun after India's 3-0 home-series win over South Africa in 2019, I asked him about Jadeja's hidden layers. His reply was concise and illuminating.
"Because he's got such an efficient action, he can use the crease at will," Arun said. "If you see most left-arm spinners, they'll go wide of the crease and bowl. They can hardly use the crease. But his action is so good that it allows him to use the crease at will. It adds a lot of dimension to your bowling, because you're spinning at different angles, the ball behaves differently from different angles. Not many bowlers have it."

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Angles.
Jadeja starts the 36th over of Australia's innings from wide of the crease, bowling full and flat and angling the ball a long way in. Labuschagne gets forward and looks to defend, and the ball goes with the angle down the leg side and hits him on the pad.
The second and third - delivered from wide of the crease and the middle of the box, respectively - are quicker and finish around off stump, not turning a great deal either time. Labuschagne, as he has done right through this innings, goes deep in his crease both times, but not across his stumps. He wants to stay leg side of the ball and minimise the risk of lbw. He punches one of these balls towards backward point, and defends the other in roughly the same direction.
For the fourth ball, he goes wide of the crease again and bowls full, angling in towards leg stump. Labuschagne defends off the front foot, into the on side. The fifth ball looks a little like the fourth ball - or it must to Labuschagne - at least when it leaves Jadeja's hand. He steps forward but not really across, so by the time the ball lands, his front toe is somewhere between leg stump and middle.
This ball, unlike the previous one, lands ever so slightly shorter than expected, and because of that inward angle Jadeja has created, a little shorter also means it lands somewhere around off stump, or even a little outside.
There is a gap between where Labuschagne's feet are and where the ball is, and it widens dramatically as the ball turns - far more than any of the balls leading up to this one. Is there a chance this is intentional, and not merely natural variation?
A zoomed-in replay suggests it may well have been intended to turn big. Jadeja has delivered this ball not with the square seam and undercut wrist action that maximises natural variation, but in the classic left-arm spinner's manner. The seam points towards slip or maybe gully, and there is as much overspin as sidespin.
It has dipped a little, it has turned a lot, and in an effort to reach for the ball and catch up with it, Labuschagne has stretched so far that he drags his back foot out of the crease. His bat gets nowhere near the ball, and before he knows it he is gone, stumped, to raucous celebrations from KS Bharat, debutant effecting first Test dismissal.
That wicket gave every indication of a batter being set up, and during his end-of-day press conference, Jadeja was asked to describe how he did it.
Jadeja didn't describe the dismissal, but spoke about his general plan of operation against Labuschagne and Steven Smith during their third-wicket stand of 82.
"Some balls were turning, and they [Labuschagne and Smith] were searching for runs," he said. "It wasn't easy to score singles and keep rotating strike. If you kept bowling in good areas, the batsmen will look to try something different - these two are busy batsmen, they look to score runs.
"When their partnership got going, I felt I had to bowl as many dot balls as possible, because there wasn't a lot of help from the wicket - it wasn't spinning consistently. I just looked to bowl on a good line and length."
All this was true and essential. Bowlers look to bowl good areas and force errors. They may also do other things along the way, but that wasn't part of Jadeja's answer.
Then Jadeja was asked about his use of the crease.
"Absolutely, I was using the crease because not every ball was turning, and there wasn't that much bounce in the wicket. So just to create some doubt in the batsman's mind I went wide of the crease, and every now and then close to the stumps. I was mixing it up, and if they step out and the ball turns, a chance could be created, and luckily that's what happened - he stepped out and that ball happened to turn."
This, in a sense, is what happens most times a bowler appears to set up a batter. There is no grand plan to bowl a sequence of deliveries culminating in a knockout blow. Set-ups occur organically: there is a general plan for each batter, depending on their style of play, and as the contest develops, the bowler might try a certain kind of delivery at a certain time, and hope that something interesting happens. Sometimes it does.
But wait, didn't Jadeja make an effort to turn that particular ball to Labuschagne, with that classic seam position and everything? Did that not indicate he wanted that ball, at least, to do precisely what it did?
Well, perhaps.
In his third over after dismissing Labuschagne, Jadeja bowled a ball to Smith with a similar seam orientation, and landed it in roughly the same area. For what it's worth, he bowled this from a little closer to the stumps than the Labuschagne ball.
Having seen Jadeja turn the ball viciously on multiple occasions, having been beaten on the outside edge a few times himself, and having possibly spotted the seam's orientation - the very best players of spin have an extraordinary eye for a rapidly spinning ball - Smith played for turn, leaving a gap between bat and pad as he pressed forward to defend.
The ball went straight on, more or less, and squeezed through that gap to bowl Smith.
"From the same spot the ball went straight to Smith," Jadeja said, later. "So the natural variation happened, but I kept trying to mix up the angles to create doubt in the batsman's mind."

****

On a pitch lacking bounce, Jadeja constantly kept the stumps in play. There aren't too many bowlers in the world who do this as well as him, and the result was this: Labuschagne, Matt Renshaw, Smith, Todd Murphy, Peter Handscomb; stumped, lbw, bowled, lbw, lbw.
There was certainly more help in the pitch than Jadeja suggested in his press conference, but less, perhaps, than what media predictions might have led you to believe. The most eagerly anticipated contest - Jadeja and Axar Patel spearing the ball into the dry, rough areas outside the left-handers' off stump - barely happened at all. It may yet happen in the second innings. On day one, Jadeja's successes against the left-handers, and most of his bowling to them, was from round the wicket, using that angle to try and pitch within the stumps and finish within them.
Along the way, he varied his release positions, delivering from different parts of the crease - usually wider to right-handers and from closer to the stumps to left-handers - and also by bowling with a lower arm every now and then. But he did all this subtly. He usually didn't brush past the umpire one ball and threaten to cut the return crease with his next ball, but changed his crease position by a few inches this way and that. His arm, usually at 11 o'clock when viewed from behind, occasionally dropped to 10:30.
All this, of course, was gleaned from pausing, rewinding, and studying replays over and over. In real-time, most of these variations were far too subtle for a non-cricketer sitting in a press box to pick up. Jadeja doesn't want the batter to pick his variations, so he sure as hell doesn't want the rest of the world to pick them.
The unintended consequence, regrettable for cricket fans, is that his method is bloody hard to describe. It's led to Jadeja closing in on 250 Test wickets at a sub-25 average while being somewhat underappreciated, but he won't mind it if that makes him a more effective bowler.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo