Ranji Trophy: Ravindra Jadeja makes cricket return with baby steps in bid to be fit for Australia series

Around 40-50 college students had thought it was worthwhile to spend their day at the MA Chidambaram Stadium watching an inconsequential Ranji Trophy game, rather than sitting with textbooks in the classrooms which give a panoramic view of the Marina beach. There is little to take home from Tamil Nadu’s last Ranji Trophy league game against Saurashtra. The former are already out of the tournament and the latter have already made it to the quarterfinals. But the return of Ravindra Jadeja means there is a lot more to this contest.

When Jadeja led his troops to the field after Tamil Nadu chose to bat first, there were no whistles greeting his arrival. The stadium gates were yet to be opened for the public, even as students patiently waited, checking live updates on the BCCI app. But by the time Saurashtra had sent down 10 overs, they had already made it inside.

The pitch had a tinge of grass which the Saurashtra pacers used to get some seam movement as Chirag Jani had N Jagadeesan caught behind in the second over.

The first drinks break came and went, but Jadeja was happy enough manning his resources. Forget bowling, he was not even warming up. In fact, Jadeja even introduced his namesake and fellow left-arm spinner Dharamendra Jadeja ahead of him, as Sai Sudarshan and Baba Aparajith were beginning to get a hang of the pitch after the early dismissal of N Jagadeesan.

Shortly after the drinks break, the fans and the rest in the stadium – including the national selector S Sharath – would get to see Jadeja doing what he loves doing. As Aparajith played one down mid-wicket, Jadeja would give a lengthy chase, and the slow outfield would tease him all the way before the all-rounder cut it back just a yard away from the boundary ropes. The side-arm throw would land in one bounce to the bowler’s end as the fans let out a roar that Jadeja acknowledged.

In the 26th over, Jadeja would finally take the ball into his own hands. He handed over his floppy hat to the umpire, and after tying up his hair into a bun like a sumo wrestler, he tossed a couple of times to his namesake at mid-on as Sudarshan waited at the striker’s end.

Right through the practice session on the eve of the match, every time he landed his right foot on the crease and completed his action, Jadeja had a slight hop as if he wasn’t entirely sure of putting the entire body weight on his right leg (he had an operation on the right knee).

But on Tuesday, bowling in a competitive match for the first time in nearly five months, Jadeja, who bowls with one of the smoothest actions, showed no signs of discomfort. Although he underwent surgery in the first week of September, according to those in the know, the all-rounder has been behind the schedule as far as recovery goes.

Jadeja was supposed to be part of India’s tour to Bangladesh in December, but was withdrawn days ahead of the series. He only resumed bowling in the first week of January, so in terms of skill, Jadeja still had plenty to do and it showed right through the day, where he sent down 17 overs without getting a wicket.

One of Jadeja’s biggest strengths with the ball is his unerring accuracy to keep landing the ball at the same spot and making the batsman play. It is mostly around a good length area around the middle and off-stump channel where a right-handed batsman is always second-guessing whether it will take a turn off the pitch or come in with the angle. And on pitches like what he encountered at Chennai on Tuesday, Jadeja can become even more lethal.

But the rustiness of playing a match after five months showed. Not that Jadeja bowled badly. just that the usual accuracy was missing, as Tamil Nadu batsmen handled him well on a pitch that Baba Indrajith said was on the slower side, with the odd ball gripping and turning whenever it landed on the seam.

This game is not about taking wickets for Jadeja. With four Tests against Australia coming up, the focus has been on being match fit, which he showed he is. In the first spell, he sent down only five overs, bowling one maiden for nine runs. Although he bowled only five overs before the lunch break, Jadeja came on later in the second session and had a spell of 7-1-6-0. In the third session, the pattern played out once again as the 34-year-old gave enough breathing space to himself before coming on towards the end of play to bowl five more overs and end the day with 17-2-36-0.

While all the attention was on Jadeja, hosts Tamil Nadu ended the day at 183/4. It is a pitch where scoring quick runs is going to be challenging, more so because it is getting slower and slower. And Saurashtra by, sticking to a stump-to-stump line with fielders stationed in the V, made it all the more difficult for Tamil Nadu’s batsmen.

Brief Scores: Tamil Nadu 183/4 in 90 overs (Baba Indrajith 45*, Sai Sudarshan 45, Baba Aparajith 45) vs Saurashtra.

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