IN HIS 23rd over, Mohammed Shami bowled a vicious leg-cutter to M Nidheesh. The tail-ender, wasn’t good enough to get to the pitch of the ball and nick it. But Shami wasn’t done trying to add to his wickets tally. He kept running in. India’s seasoned Test seamer ended up bowling 26 overs in Kerala’s first innings, notwithstanding the fact that the BCCI had put a 15-over-per-innings cap on his bowling for this Bengal versus Kerala Elite, Group B Ranji Trophy game at Eden Gardens. After the day’s play, the Bengal fast bowler would speak about his willingness to continue.
Shami, however, wasn’t the story of the day, because Jalaj Saxena outshone everybody with a magnificent 143 – his 14th first-class ton – on a challenging surface, against quality seam bowling, putting Kerala in a winning position.
In the last match against Andhra, the all-rounder had scored 133 in the first innings and returned with a nine-wicket match haul, including 8/45 in the second innings. Here, on a seamer-friendly pitch, he didn’t get too many overs to bowl his off-spin. But the Kerala run-machine has continued to pile on the runs.
Nearly a decade ago, Saxena had scored a gorgeous hundred against Mumbai, with Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar leading the pace attack for the most decorated side in the Indian domestic cricket. He was playing for Madhya Pradesh then. Saxena hasn’t lost his appetite for runs and taking wickets after switching to Kerala. In fact, he is getting better with age. Today’s knock was a throwback to his century against Mumbai. Saxena himself admitted it.
“That innings against Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar, where we were chasing 300 something and I scored 130, was also on a lively wicket. This innings reminds me of that. So, both knocks are very close to my heart,” Saxena said.
Saxena’s game management was top-class. Resuming on overnight 35/1, the visitors lost Rohan Prem and Sanju Samson early. Shami was spitting venom. Saxena counter-attacked, taking two sixes off the fast bowler. From Kerala’s point of view, it was imperative to take the attack to the hosts. In the end, his innings proved to be the difference between the two sides.
“It was difficult. They were bowling quick and on the spot, Shami and (Ashoke) Dinda. We all know Shami is a world-class bowler. My plan was whenever I got the ball in my areas, I went for it. So I decided to defend the deliveries that I couldn’t hit, otherwise I went for it,” Saxena explained.
Overlooked by selectors
He now has got used to be overlooked by the national selectors. He won the BCCI’s best all-rounder awards in domestic cricket three times – in 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2017-18. Last season, he was also the highest wicket-taker in the Ranji Trophy, with 44 scalps at an average of 17.11. And yet, he had just three first-class outings with India A and that too had been way back in 2013. Only the MSK Prasad-led selection committee knows what more Saxena needs to do to get into the Team India scheme of things. And at 31 years of age, he is not old and wizened, although he has been playing first-class cricket since 2005 even as his excruciating wait to make it to the next level continues.
Saxena is probably another example of IPL performances taking precedence over Ranji Trophy exploits with regard to the Indian team selection.
Ask him about this and he would say: “See, it’s not my job. To be very honest, it’s the selectors’ job and I won’t comment on that. Last time when I played for India (A), I was the highest wicket-taker of that series (in 2013). I had a six-wicket haul against New Zealand A. After that I never played for India (A) again.”
Good thing is that frustration hasn’t started to creep in yet. “I have this belief that someday I will play for India. I’m rather taking it very positively. I try to keep myself motivated. I try to improve my game. This innings and the last one have had been the result of that positivity.”
Managing workload is a key part of Saxena’s game. He bowled just seven overs in the first innings here. But usually it’s 25-30 overs in a day before he returns to open the innings. “It’s very tough. I work really hard on my fitness during off season. But also, this is something I enjoy.”
That Saxena scored at an excellent strike-rate today – 75-plus – was a reason why Kerala recovered from 114/5 to post 291, and take a 144-run first innings lead. His innings had 21 fours apart from those two sixes upfront. That the hosts had to shift to short-ball tactics, with Ishan Porel bowling at military medium in his first spell, worked in Kerala’s favour. To be fair to the young pacer, he came back well to bag four wickets.
V Jagadeesh, too, made a substantial contribution for Kerala, adding 119 runs for the sixth wicket with Saxena. It all but took the game away from Bengal even as Shami kept running in.
Brief scores: Bengal 147 and 5/1 in 2.2 overs vs Kerala 291 in 83 overs (Jalaj Saxena 143, V Jagadeesh 39; Ishan Porel 4/69, Mohd Shami 3/100)