June 10, 2006

The Monk Who Moulded His Ferrari

By H Natarajan

For nearly three days, West Indies had held the upperhand in the Antigua Test. It was an extension of the agony that the tourists had endured right through the tour. The 1-4 annihilation in the one-day series was followed by an equally insipid first innings batting display in the opening Test. Defeat looked a distinct possibility after India conceded a first innings lead of 130. A good start to the second innings was essential in India’s effort to avert defeat in the Test. It’s under these circumstances Wasim Jaffer engineered a marvel – an innings of 212. The double hundred dramatically altered the equations that gave India a realistic chance of winning the Test.

Jaffer’s knock would have acquired greater value had the Indian bowlers not failed in their task to capture the last three wickets in the 20.5 over they had at their command. But the situation was entirely India’s own making. The Test squad had no place for Ajit Agarkar. And the final XI had neither Harbhajan Singh or Ramesh Powar. To make matters worse, they dropped Irfan Pathan and placed their faith in three fast bowlers who had a combined Test experience of four Tests going into the match! There was far too much onus on Anil Kumble – the only other frontline bowler in the side.

The biggest gain for India emerging from the Antigua Test was unquestionably Jaffer. To score runs in batting-friendly circumstances is one thing and to make a big score under monumental pressure is entirely another matter. Jaffer’s ability as a big-hundred player in domestic cricket is too well-known, but the chasm between domestic cricket in India and the game at the international level is wide. He bridged that gap with an innings that must rank as one of the finest by an Indian opener on overseas soil. It was Ferrari class!

In the 74 years that India has been playing Test cricket, there have been only nine batsmen who have scored double centuries abroad. There is a degree of difficult in scoring such a big hundred in alien conditions. Jaffer’s classic in trying circumstances at the Antigua Recreation Ground must be viewed against the fact that even batsmen of the calibre of Vijay Merchant, Vijay Hazare, Polly Umrigar, Gundappa Vishwanath, Mohinder Amarnath, Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohammad Azharuddin, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman have not achieved the honour of scoring a double century in an overseas Test.

Jaffer’s high-quality innings was a throwback to the days when openers played the waiting game. His approach almost seemed almost an anachronism in an age which boasts turbo-charged Test openers like Virender Sehwag, Shahid Afridi and Sanat Jayasuriya who have re-written the age-old beliefs of traditional cricket.

The days preceding the Caribbean tour have not been easy for Jaffer. He underwent a surgery for a shin injury to his right leg. The period immediately following a surgery is never easy. A failure in the first innings did not help Jaffer’s cause. But in the second essay, his composure, temperament, maturity and increasing confidence was undeniable. His innings was not entirely flawless, but there was more certainty about his feet movement. The unhurried elegance with which he hit of either foot and on either side of the wicket was a joy to behold. And as he moved towards his double hundred, his face was a picture of tranquility. There were no visible signs of nerves, anxiousness, anxiety or excitement. All the excitement at the approaching milestone was seen more among his team-mates and the crowd. The milestone took time to come, but it made no apparent difference to Jaffer. And when he finally did get there, there was no leaping in the air or throwing his hands up in the air in glee. He made it look as if it was just another day in the office. The only emotion after getting to the double hundred was a belated, toothy smile that was a mixture of shyness and satisfaction. If Steve Waugh is an Ice Man, then Jaffer is a monk!

Jaffer’s rise from humble origins is a saga that brings back memories of Vinod Kambli’s formative years. However, the significant difference between the two Mumbai team-mates is that while Kambli went astray, Jaffer has stayed rooted to terra firma. He is humble to a fault. And when success comes to such a fine human being, everybody is happy. Evidence of that was Brian Lara’s applause on Jaffer completing his double hundred.

Jaffer’s earliest notice of his ability as a big innings player came when he scored 400 in less than one and half days in a Giles Shield quarter-final. It was an innings that helped him gain the Mumbai under-16 team. His next significant innings came in his second first-class match. Just 18 years old, he scored an unbeaten 314 against Saurashtra and shared an opening partnership of 459 with Sulakshan Kulkarni.

Life has been a struggle for the son of driver in BEST – Mumbai’s public bus transport system. But Jaffer has shown immense self determination besides faith in the Almighty; the tonsured look that he sports now is following a visit to Mecca for umrah, just before the tour to the West Indies.

“The years in the wilderness taught me the importance of mental strength," Jaffer told reporters covering the first Test. “I have learnt that to succeed in international cricket, mental toughness is the key."

Was this a direct outcome of the Webster Effect? One does not have an immediate answer to that. But having found the “key”, one can hope to see him unlock more cricketing riches.