VVS Laxman was among the half-a-dozen panelists brainstorming on ESPNCricinfo chat show Runorder about Ravindra Jadeja's supremacy as a Test all-rounder. He graded the southpaw third in the pecking order, behind numero uno Ben Stokes and Jason Holder, reasoning that Jadeja despite his ennoblement with the bat since 2018 doesn't walk into the playing eleven based on either skill. It is a fair metric to gauge the worth of a utility cricketer but an inseparable twig of the debating tree is how Jadeja's batting number hamstrings his true potential.
Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah's unbeaten 89-run partnership in the second innings at Lord's made for a welcome departure from the status quo which saw India's tail lay down the arms at the slightest inconvenience. Earlier, in events of frantic disintegration at the other end, it was Jadeja who assumed the mantle of a tail-shielder. He did all that was asked of a recognized batsman running out of partners, even as the bulwarking act was carried out at the expense of his personal milestones.
Take, for instance, his 56 in the first innings at Trent Bridge. Jadeja occupied the crease at a delicate scoreline of 145/5, with a well-set KL Rahul for company. The left-hander was selective in his approach, cherrypicking only the freebies that were right up his alley to flaunt glances and drives down the ground. There was not a hint of hurry in his orchestration since a safety blanket stood 22 yards away.
However, a couple of wickets soon metamorphosed Jadeja from an aesthetic accumulator to a safeguarder looking after India's wafer-thin tail. Rahul's exit 16 shy of three figures and a six-ball duck for Shardul Thakur, the batting-depth bolsterer who got the captain's vote ahead of Ravichandran Ashwin, forced Jadeja to flick the switch. This was by no means an alien territory for him, exemplified by the been-there-done-that work ethic as he farmed the strike till the penultimate ball of the over and hunted for boundary avenues while at it before milking a single to rinse and repeat.
James Anderson was the first in the firing line, clubbed for ten courtesy a four and a six that was straight out of Quinton de Kock's playbook of dealing with waist-high crap. The fist was clenched and the sword yanked out from the scabbard as Jadeja fenced Ollie Robinson past point to raise fifty, a knock that paved his way into an elusive club of Indians to boast of the duplex of 200 wickets and 2000 Test runs.
Lapses in concentration often kick in after the glorious accomplishment of landmarks, hence batsmen in their formative years are taught to pool in every ounce of their focus and start afresh. A ton on English soil in sight, Jadeja would have given anything to buy that breathing space. How comforting a thought it must be to not worry about the fragility of his compatriots and amble towards a hundred up for grabs. Albeit, India's tail, with an average of 8.9 for the last three batsmen since 2019 which is the worst among Test teams after Bangladesh and Afghanistan, proved to be an albatross around his neck. Yet again.
Jadeja had spanked a length ball from Robinson over mid-on's head and his eyes lit up when another gift was doled out in the swiping arc. Except it hustled him for pace and drew a top-edge as mid-off backpedalled to settle underneath. A shot that was the by-product of the circumstances had shorn him of his honour, the execution of which would have been the last thing on his mind during the 60-run stand alongside Rahul.
Contrary to Jadeja's opinion, the tail-enders showed the stomach for a fight to add 73 runs to India's first-innings total. But he cannot be blamed even a wee bit for viewing his colleagues' batting credentials through the lens of scepticism. For, the tail holds a track record of letting him down, with each episode of non-cooperation lending its weight to Jadeja's psychological baggage. He was deprived of a hundred in the first innings of the Oval Test on the previous tour to English shores, stranded on 86 as the tail pressed the self-destruction button as usual. That he sold Jasprit Bumrah down the river in a bid to retain the strike was emblematic of the utter absence of faith in the men at the lowest rungs of the batting ladder.
Thus, the narrative flip forged by Shami and Bumrah comes like a breath of fresh air. Jadeja can do away from the modus operandi of smiting the accelerator as soon as the opposition breaks into India's last four. He would be able to place his trust in Bumrah's defence, have a sense of assurance that Shami won't abide by his killer instinct all the time, and, in turn, ply his own trade with peace to pluck the ripe fruits of labour instead of the half-baked offerings.
In what comes as a development keenly sought after, India's tail-enders seem to be investing as much intellect and energy into their front-foot blocks as to their outswinger. A snapshot of Bumrah brandishing throwdowns with his pads on bears testimony to India's commitment to plugging the chink in their armour. Had he and Shami thrown caution to the wind they wouldn't have gone as far as they did in that epoch-making session at Lord's. It was about taking calculated risks while wearing England down into submission. If the tail can continually exhibit such situational awareness and put a heavy price tag on their wicket, the biggest beneficiary will be Jadeja.
Hang on, this is wishful thinking at its halcyon best. We live in a world driven by big data and teams shall take the field having done their homework, unlike England for whom Bumrah and Shami came out of the goddamn syllabus. In case the tail reverts back to type and episodes of resistance become the exception rather than the norm, India might consider shuffling the deckchairs to better utilize the prolific resource that is Jadeja, whose batting average in Test cricket post 2018 hovers in the late fifties. All of his three triple-centuries in the Ranji Trophy have arisen from the sanctum of number four, a spot that arms him with the luxury of time to construct his marathon efforts brick by brick.
Thrusting Jadeja upward a notch or two, although imperative, can't be an overnight change. That he averages 69.25 in Tests batting at the sixth position speaks volumes about the impact he could have up the order, but it's arguable whether there's enough wiggle room to move north. It would be glib to jump the gun on India's middle-order regardless of the torrid run of form of the powerhouses. Heading into Lord's, Pujara averaged 25.09 in the 13 Tests played in 2020-21, Kohli 24.18 and Rahane 25.76. These are barely satisfactory statistics for a trivandrum that has done the bulk of weightlifting over the years, but no batsman in top-flight cricket is immune to an occasional rough patch. Notwithstanding the lull, it is, in all likelihood, a foregone conclusion that the kingpins will be persisted with.
Therefore, it's only prudent to take baby steps to ensure optimal harnessing of Jadeja's caliber. He could be sent in ahead of Rishabh Pant here and there while being swapped with Rahane in, say, a dead rubber or a match with a minnow. Such a systematic elevation would not just allow Jadeja to slowly and steadily attune his psyche to the rigours of the new role but also prevent an upheaval in the old guard. Further opportunities could be bestowed upon him if the runs flow and might lead to the homecoming of a middle-order bat manor born. A win-win deal for all parties concerned, and potentially a maneuver that shoots Jadeja to the top of Laxman's list.