We surprised ourselves by how we played: Jaffer

Author : Wisden 27 Mar, 2018

The highest run-scorer in Ranji Trophy history, on top of the pile in the Irani Cup too, and over 18,000 runs in first-class cricket – there’s no stopping Wasim Jaffer, even at 40.

We Surprised Ourselves By How We Played: Jaffer

A pillar of the Mumbai batting line-up for 19 years, Jaffer moved to Vidarbha ahead of the 2015-16 season. Although he played the last of his 31 Tests in 2008, his insatiable desire for runs and passion for the game has kept him going.

In a chat with Wisden India, the domestic stalwart opens up on his improved fitness, his role as a mentor, and on Vidarbha’s coveted double this season.

With the highest score in Irani Cup, you continue to prove that age is just a number.
It wasn’t easy, to be honest. A day before the match, I got hit on my finger during practice. I was in two minds whether to play the game or not. Obviously, I didn’t want to miss a game as big as the Irani Cup, especially after our hard-fought Ranji campaign, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to field in the slips. I wasn’t able to grip the bat properly as well on the first day. But eventually it worked out well, we got to bat first and the way the innings and match progressed, I’m glad it worked in our favour.

You crossed a lot of milestones during that knock. What kept you going despite the injury?
When we had the team meeting before the game, the point I spoke there was ‘this is probably the kind pitch where individual scores of 60, 70 or even a 100 won’t be enough from anyone. Anyone who gets a hundred and thinks that he’s done the job for himself and team and throws his wicket away – it won’t be accepted. A huge first-innings score is very vital. Anyone who has got in, has to ensure that he grinds it out and plays for the team even after his personal milestone and that has to be me.’ Fortunately, whatever I preached in that meeting, I could practice.

I knew I couldn’t take too many risks. I held back as long as I could, without putting any figure in my mind. But it was important to bat from the team’s perspective, because if we lose one or two wickets, there is not much batting left after No. 7. I knew if we got something around 300, it would be chasable on that that track. We had to ensure that we bat Rest of India out of the game. I achieved my first milestone of getting a 100, so the next target was to get the team to 700, that kept me going.

Age hasn’t withered your love for batting. Where does the insatiable hunger for runs come from?
Batting is the only thing that I know, and probably do well. I’ve only been passionate about it. In the last few years, I missed a couple of seasons due to injury. When I moved to Vidarbha from Mumbai in 2015, I had a finger injury in the first Ranji game and even last year I had a knee injury, so in the last four seasons I missed quite a lot of games. This season, I was very determined to make up for all the lost time.

I really enjoyed the setup this time with the Vidarbha boys, especially the way they behaved. I knew I had come to the right place, and fortunately, they had signed up Chandrakant Pandit as the coach, which I feel was a big decision. It made a lot of difference. If you are losing all the time, the boys won’t have the right attitude, and obviously you get fed up and can’t think about your own batting. But that was not the case here, their attitude and performance reignited my love for scoring. Beating good teams has always made me happy, that is the kind of setup I have come from in Mumbai. This entire season, we played and dominated like one of the best teams in the circuit, that was really inspiring for me.

Batting for two days can be tough. How do you work on your fitness and endurance?
My physique is not very huge, so when I come back from England [where he plays league cricket every year] I tend to put on weight. But this season, I worked very hard with Vidarbha’s trainer, Mr [Amiya] Mohanty and the physio, Niraj [Karmachandani]. They put in a lot of effort on my fitness. I always knew that if I intend to play after a certain age, I need to be in good shape, I never took that for granted. I obviously can’t be super fit at this age, but I should not look like an odd one in the ground. I need to hold my own and look the part, not just playing from past glory. So I worked very hard in the gym, despite the injury, did various types of training. I even followed a diet to cut down my weight, and all of it showed good results.

When you left Mumbai, did you think you would be a part of another Ranji Trophy winning side?
To be honest, no. I never thought I would win the Ranji or Irani trophy again. When I came to Vidarbha as a professional, the aim was to strengthen their batting, mentor the youngsters in the side and make the team stronger. But the way we played this time, we surprised everyone, even myself. I’ve played around six to seven Irani Cups for Mumbai, and ended up losing most of them. We won the Irani Cup in my first season with Mumbai, but after that they haven’t won. Credit to the Vidarbha boys, the way they lifted their game, it was very surprising for me. They brought so much self-confidence within themselves. They would come prepared every day, they would have their homework done, it was really good to see their enthusiasm. Next season will be very crucial and challenging for all of us to follow this performance again.

The close semifinal win against Karnataka would have been special too…
That was the only game this season which went so close. We beat most of the other teams hands down. We worked really hard in those four-five days, that gave us a lot of belief. The way we came from behind and won it, that was extra special. I have played games like that for Mumbai, but for these guys it was the first time. I told them my experience of the close finish Mumbai had against Karnataka in the 2009-10 final. All of them were crying, lot of emotions were on display that day. But having played close games in the past, I always felt that even when Karnataka needed 7-8 runs, things could still change. But after that game and this season, our boys will always have this in mind: With a right attitude and approach, they can change the course of the game even in the last minute.

When were the seeds for the culmination of this successful season sowed?
The team has been doing well in the last few seasons, but according to me, signing Chandrakant Pandit was the defining moment. He knew how to motivate them. In the domestic circuit, it may seem like his style is slightly old, he’s a disciplinarian, but he brings in a lot of work ethics and self-belief within the side, so credit goes to him. When he came on board in July, and started his preparations, we practiced a lot differently this time. Three or four players who were a part the side were left out, and players whom he thought had a lot of potential and belief in them, were brought in. In hindsight, we’d like to believe that the decision worked. He has his own style of getting things done, but he ensured it gave results as well.

How did you and Pandit bring about that winning mentality in a young Vidarbha side?
I always felt there is no shortage of talent in the side. I realised that early when I played my first season with them. What they lacked was self-belief, and that too because of the inexperience of playing big matches against big teams. So it was important to change that attitude. We could fortunately do that in this season. Even in that semifinal against Karnataka, after the second day’s play, everyone in the team thought that our game is over, but myself and Chandu talked a lot about how things can change for the better provided we have the right attitude. We both were positive throughout the game, so that rubbed off and the win completely changed their mentality.

Chandu doesn’t praise anyone much, he’s always has that habit of being critical and pointing out mistakes, so I think that also probably helped in bringing out that constant drive to improve, both personally and as a team, in them. If you win two major trophies, what else do you need? From now on, I don’t think they would need any advice on how to win, they just have to follow this mentality for the next season.

Could you tell us about your role as a mentor? Did you work with the players on any particular aspect?
I worked with Sanjay [Ramaswamy], Aditya Sarwate, Ganesh Satish and Rajneesh Gurbani as well. But I worked a lot more with Sanjay this time.

Sanjay had a very awkward initial movement while batting, so that had to be changed. He’s an introvert, he doesn’t speak to anyone in the team. He would close all communication paths and just wouldn’t listen to anyone. One day I just took him aside and shouted, ‘You don’t need take all the advice you get, but you need to keep an open mind, and good players do that. It’s just the start of your career, if you just shield yourself completely, then you will lose out on a lot of important advice.’ Then I got Chandu along and we told him how to sort his initial movement, how to get into a good position to play.

Credit goes to him that he accepted what we said, worked hard on it and within probably a couple of weeks, he was a changed player. First game he made 160 [161] against Punjab, who have a decent bowling attack, and got around 800 runs [775] through the season. He took our advice positively and implemented in his game, and he’s only 22.

Even personally, it has been a great learning curve for me as well. Towards the end of my career in Mumbai, a lot of youngsters were coming in like Surya [Suryakumar Yadav], Ajinkya [Rahane], I worked with them in a much quieter way. But my role was highlighted a lot more when I moved to Vidarbha. I’ve always had this tendency to go and speak to younger boys and try and help them.

Players in the team also consider you as a life coach. Could you throw some light on that aspect?
I try and joke around, I try to make the atmosphere healthy. I’m not a very serious person when I interact with them. I don’t portray myself as big player in front of them, I just try to keep the mood light. Almost everyone is scared to speak to Chandu, so I’m more of a middleman who calms the situation down. Chandu gets very hyper at times and he is very strict as well. So I try to act as the bridge between Chandu and the players. I also organised free sponsored bats for two-three players who were still buying them. So it feels good when people do well and have the right approach.

Do you still play league cricket in England during the offseason?
Since I’m not involved with the IPL in any capacity, it makes sense to go to England and stay in touch with the game even during the offseason. I take my family along, at least for a short trip and try and spend time with them. It is a good break for us too. When I started out, it helped me a lot in making me bat responsibly. Since you are there as professional, they expect you to score runs, it also brings a lot of independence with the way you train and what you eat there. But after so many years now, it has become a part of my journey. I don’t do know anything apart from playing cricket.

It’s been over two decades since you made your first-class debut. What keeps you motivated?
I still enjoy the game a lot. Just as much as I did when I first started. At my age, fitness plays a vital role. If I am fit, there is no shortage of motivation. I know I’ve got only one or maximum two seasons left in me, and when you have a season like this, you feel you can still go on. Had we kept losing, I would have got frustrated and started evaluating my future. But after the season we just had, I’m tempted to play one more season. Staying fit is a challenge, the passion and hunger for runs is still there, getting a hundred in a four-day game still excites me, especially when I’m challenged by youngsters. The coaching, commentary stints and other stuff around the game are always there. I can explore them later. But right now I have to enjoy the couple of seasons still left in me.

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