‘Batting with the tail can sometimes be one of the tougher jobs in the team. You want to score as many runs as you can, but they end up putting all the fielders on the boundary so you get caught up in what to do, so it’s quite a tricky situation’, stated Quinton de Kock, two years back.
When one of the best exponents of the art of batting with the tail, Quinton de Kock, tells you something, you take note. The formats of the game have evolved with time, so have the balls, the rules, and a lot more, but this art has remained a vital cog of the game for centuries and will remain so in face of time, evolution, and all the possible advancements.
You name it, be it VVS Laxman’s Mohali epic or Ben Stokes’ Headingley high, or the countless efforts by middle-order batters like Steve Waugh, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Michael Hussey during their heydays, effective batting with the tail has often proven to be a differentiator between sides. Teams often fill batting positions #5, #6, and #7 with smart, diverse operators who are as precise with their moves as a surgeon as often there is no looking back given you are burdened with partnering the lesser efficient lower-order batters, and little mistakes can have grave consequences.
Now, India’s Ravindra Jadeja ticks all the boxes of being a more than a handy customer at #7. Over the years, he has grown into this larger-than-life Sir Jadeja persona in all the facets of the game but none more than batting. In fact, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that his selection in the World Test Championship final was greatly influenced by his batting prowess given he provides that cutting-edge balance that defines games. More so in the big games where the margins are smaller, and often the X-factor players turn the game on its head. And India’s decision had started to feel like an ace, with every passing ball on day two.
As per CricViz, the average swing movement on day two was a remarkable 2.46°, with only four innings recording more swing since 2006 for any team in Test cricket. It was an indication that 250-275 was going to be decent but for getting there, for a team like India, full of walking lower-order wickets, the contribution by #7 and #8 was going to remain paramount.
And Jadeja unsurprisingly made a rock-solid start too. He was playing the ball late, the judgement was precise. All good signs. But then the untimely wicket of Ajinkya Rahane transferred the whole pressure on the southpaw. Now, he had to don the cap of a senior partner. He formed a good partnership with Ravichandran Ashwin but when the right-hander perished India were still reeling at 205/7. They were still far away from 250 but with Jadeja in the middle, there high hopes of a flourishing finish. The stage was set for a rockstar Jadeja to get ‘India out of jail.’ The precise role that had driven his selection over a fourth seamer or a specialist batsman.
But it soon turned into one big disaster. For someone playing his 52nd Test, Jadeja’s resistance to shoulder responsibility was flabbergasting. Even with the #9 Ishant Sharma in the middle, who averages 8.28, there was no show of intent. No muscle power. No urgency. The WTC Final never felt more inconsequential. He even failed to farm the strike effectively. He let Ishant take a single on the fifth ball of the 91st over. Result- In the very next over, the tail-ender succumbed to Kyle Jamieson, followed by Bumrah’s dismissal in the same over.
Now, that was inevitable. Even a regular on-looker could see it coming but not Jadeja. For someone worth his salt, that was inexplicable. And we are talking about a freaking WORLD TEST CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL here. A world title is on the line. Every run is crucial. It can make or break the game. This was precisely the situation someone like Jadeja was supposed to wield his bat-like sword. Use his presence of mind as receptively as he does with the magical run-outs. The very next over India were bundled out for 217. They could merely add 12 for the last three wickets that too with a set Jadeja in the middle. Sir Jadeja, eh? All the hopes of a 250-ish total were dashed. India ended with a sub-par total and the lack of contribution from the last three wickets could prove costly by the time this game culminates.
But that wasn’t the first instance of the prodigal left-hander messing up things with the tail. Something similar had happened in the New Year Test against Australia at the SCG as well. India were 206-7, trailing Australia by 132 runs. They were in desperate need of lower-order runs. However, on the final delivery of the 94th over, Jadeja let Navdeep Saini take a single. It exposed the tail-ender to Mitchell Starc in the next over resulting in his dismissal. Poor judgment. And it wasn’t just limited to farming strike.
The 32-year-old then misjudged a run that resulted in Bumrah’s run-out. He tried to manufacture a two which even Usain Bolt couldn’t have completed, let alone any cricketer. Case of poor risk-reward assessment. Interestingly, something similar had happened in the 2020 Christchurch Test too where Bumrah was run-out as a result of a mix-up with Jadeja. But that’s not it. In the same over that Bumrah got out in Sydney, Jadeja failed to take a single in the last three deliveries. It exposed Mohammed Siraj, but he survived somehow as Cameron Green had the ball in hand. But two overs later, when Siraj was exposed again and left to face a full over from Cummins, he could survive merely three deliveries.
Jadeja’s woes go long back in time as well. In the 2014 Auckland Test against New Zealand, India were struggling at 167 for 7 after MS Dhoni got out. The Saurashtra batter had faced 28 deliveries by then and was the last recognized batsman. It was about time for him to put his foot down on the accelerator. But in the next four overs, three times he gave Zaheer Khan the strike inside the first two deliveries, with the last one resulting in his wicket. But the left-hander didn’t learn from his mistake, and the very next over, he took a single on the first ball, which exposed Shami and resulted in his downfall. India ended with 202 runs on the board.
In fact, it’s not limited to Tests alone. Even in the first ODI against Australia at the SCG, last year, he made 25 off 37 in the chase of 375. He added 34 runs off 41 balls for the seventh wicket with Saini. Remarkably, when the partnership commenced, India’s required run-rate was 11.64 but Jadeja had taken a single inside the first two deliveries of each of the next seven overs, except for the 43rd over where he changed the strike on the third delivery. Jadeja had batted similarly in the second ODI in Auckland against New Zealand last year too, which had even made VVS Laxman remark, “Not sure that’s the right strategy from Jadeja”.
Now, what makes it even worse is the fact that India’s tail is already one of the worst in the world. In the last three years in Tests, India (13.03) have the third-worst average as a team when it comes to the tail-enders. Among the top five Test nations, no team has done poorer than them with New Zealand (18.91) having the best average. India’s poor tail makes it even more significant for Jadeja to step up. Of all the teams, if there is one where a lower-order batter will need to be on his toes all the time, it would be India. So, this combination of Jadeja’s woes when combined with India’s tail frailties makes it a full-blown conundrum.
For someone of Jadeja’s pedigree, who has taken his game a notch higher with every passing year and has scored runs across conditions, nailing the art of playing with tail-enders remains the final frontier. His lack of intent and match-awareness with the tail can prove to be a punch in the gut for the side. And it’s about time, Jadeja fine-tunes his batting to meet the core requirements of a world-class lower-order batter – farming the strike, playing the big hits when needed, piercing gaps in the field, shielding his lesser able compatriots. And most importantly, develop better match-awareness to deliver in situations like the first innings of this game.