[EXCLUSIVE] Waiting for a single chance, Jalaj Saxena embarks another journey in domestic circuit
Not many people can be proud of being in an elite list with the likes of CK Nayudu, Lala Amarnath, Vijay Hazare, Vinoo Mankad, Chandu Sarwate, Polly Umrigar, Bapu Nadkarni, Chandu Borde, ML Jaisimha, Salim Durani, S Venkataraghavan, S Abid Ali, Madan Lal, Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri, Manoj Prabhakar, Sairaj Bahutule and Sanjay Bangar to have picked up 300 wickets besides scoring 6,000+ runs in first-class cricket. Not many can say they are on the same list as that of Johnny Briggs, Frank Woolley, Frank Tarrant, WG Grace, and George Griffins to have scalped an eight-wicket haul while smashing a century in a first-class game, twice. But all-rounder Jajal Saxena is a proud listee in both mountainous achievements, however, he is yet to be called for the Indian senior team despite being a record-breaker and a colossal performer in the Indian domestic circuit. And on top of that, he is the winner of the Lala Amarnath Award (the best all-rounder in Ranji Trophy) three times while bagging the Madhavrao Scindia Award for most wickets in Ranji Trophy once for the 2017-18 season.
Since the 2012-13 Ranji Trophy season, Saxena has amassed over 300 runs every year, including 821 and 768 runs in two separate seasons. He also claimed 45, 39 and 44 wickets in the last three seasons, respectively. Despite this mind-boggling track record, he has played only five List A matches and four first-class games for India representational sides.
Jalaj has gone through some tough phases during his career when he used to look for answers on why he is not being picked in the senior national team despite garnering praises from all corners of India. He still asks the same question but is now adamant that the selection part is not in his hands.
In a candid interview with Timesnownews.com, Jalaj shared his journey from a small village to being a household name in domestic cricket, his memories of practicing with his father and elder brother Jatin Saxena (who is a professional cricketer as well), the idea behind moving base from Madhya Pradesh to Kerala, his yet to be fulfilled dream of representing India and much more.
As the interaction starts, Jalaj recalls the early childhood days when he, being the kid brother, started following Jatin’s footsteps and head to the cricket ground. Coming from a small village or town is a massive challenge for every cricketer but Jalaj is grateful that his family always supported him and never questioned his decision to take cricket as a profession. He jokes that after grade four, he only used to visit the school to attend examinations but behind everything was his love for cricket. Even with his father working in Bhilai Street Plant and him being a part of a normal middle-class family, there was full support from his family when it came to the dream of playing for India.
“At that time there was no Chhattisgarh and Bhilai was a part of Madhya Pradesh. So I scored some runs in divisional matches and got picked in Under 14s. So from there it all started and honestly, from a very early age, I never felt I would be doing something else than playing cricket. And my entire family never questioned my decision and I am grateful that I got such kind of support from my family,” he recalls.
Small villages or towns back in the early 90s would mean absolutely no facility to train for professional cricketers. And Jalaj remembers the same while he reveals he never had actual coaches till the age of 17. Before that, it was all him, his brother and his father, who used to feed throwdowns to the youngest Saxena.
“Initially when I started playing cricket, it was me, my brother and my father. My father used bowl at me, he used to take me grounds. There was no actual coaching and actual coaches till the age of 17-18. Bhilai is a very small town and there was no proper coaching. So we used to play club cricket. I and my brother talked a lot about cricket, my father helped me a lot. No professional coaching,” Jalaj says.
The dream for representing India had struck Jalaj’s mind at a very young age but that was too early for him to even think about it. He only had one thing in his mind, play cricket and enjoy the game. There were no benchmarks or numbers game going around in his mind as he just wanted to learn the nuances of the game. Jalaj had a smile in his face when he recalled his first call for the U14 Madhya Pradesh team.
“Obviously it was a very nice feeling. I was 12 years old when I got the call from Indore that I got selected for U14s MP and I was very happy. I never thought about anything else and wanted to just play cricket and nothing else. Obviously, I wanted to play for India but that was too far and only wanted to enjoy my cricket. There were no goals or benchmarks at that time that I have to score these many runs or pick up wickets and only wanted to play cricket,” Jalaj says.
In 2016, Jalaj took an extremely risky move by shifting base from Madhya Pradesh to Kerala. The all-rounder reveals that he wanted to be recognised more for his performances and moving to a smaller team would get his hard work to be highlighted more. Since then he has arguably been Kerala’s most successful and consistent performer in the domestic circuit – a move he feels was the right one at that time.
“I was scoring runs and picking wickets for Madhya Pradesh. But I felt if I move to a smaller team (Kerala) and perform there and take them to elite level then I would be noticed more and get the much-needed recognition. Kerala being a smaller team if they achieve something big with me performing good I would get the recognition, so that was the main reason and I took some risks to get the recognition,” Jalaj said.
In 2013, Jalaj made a big mark by scoring a 30 not-out while picking up a fifer against the touring Australia side where he dismissed the likes of Phillip Hughes and Usman Khawaja. But he just wanted to be a better player with each passing day.
“I was doing pretty well at India A matches at that time as well. Before that, I went to the West Indies and picked up a few Man of the Match awards also. Ranji seasons were going good as well. So I was highly motivated at that time and was just trying to learn and wanted to become a better bowler and batsman. I was enjoying the process back then,” the Kerala all-rounder says
Jalaj has played 115 first-class matches and scored 6,153 runs while picking up 307 wickets. The Bhilai-born all-rounder has, thus far, smashed 14 tons and 31 half-centuries and picked up a five-wicket haul 17 times during his first-class career, but is still waiting for his chance to represent the Indian national team. He was making all the right noise but was still not in the scheme of things for the Indian national team. And then everyone has their own breaking point, right? Jalaj had too! He says he just wants to be a better player with nothing bothering him now but a while back, something irked him.
While picking up those individual awards, Jalaj felt proud of his performances and achievements but was left baffled every time when the senior team was announced for some series. But now, Jalaj has overcome that phase and is now confident of donning the India cap.
“Well, one side I was happy that the BCCI is recognising my performances, I was very satisfied and happy that I was performing well for my stateside. It’s a great feeling. Not getting picked for India is not in my hands. During the initial couple of years, I was feeling a bit frustrated but then I realised it was not my job to get worried about the selection part. I can only enjoy my cricket and try to perform to the best of my ability and be consistent. Playing for India is still a dream and I still feel I will play for my country one day and I am working on it, happily. I am not worried or frustrated now and only working to be a better player each day,” Jalaj said.
Recently, Shahbaz Nadeem, aged 30, made his India debut in the third Test against South Africa in Ranchi. Jalaj, who was buzzing for Nadeem’s debut, says his inclusion in the Test side motivates him even more and then remembers when he, out of nowhere, got a call from the Indian selectors about replacing an injured Krishnappa Gowtham in the Board President XI for the warm-up match against the touring South Africa. Cricket is a funny game he says while adding he only intends to perform to the best of his ability where he plays.
(Photo Credit: MPCA)
“Obviously, I am very happy for Shahbaz. I am very happy that he got picked and it gives me motivation that he got picked so I might get a call someday. You know I was at home a month back and got a call that I have been picked for Board President’s XI to play against South Africa, so cricket is a very funny game and things happen. You never know one day you’ll be playing for the country. I am hoping that I will be playing for India and Shahbaz’s selection only motivates me to keep giving my best wherever I play,” Jalaj says.
On May 14, 2019, soon after India A squads were announced against Sri Lanka A and West Indies A, Jalaj, who found his name absent from the squad list, took to Twitter to write: “What have I done so terribly wrong, to deserve this?” The tweet spoke for itself, Jalaj was left frustrated and baffled on being ignored once again despite picking those awards for his performances in the domestic circuit.
What have I done so terribly wrong, to deserve this?— Jalaj Saxena (@jalajsaxena33) May 14, 2019
“As I said, I was frustrated. I got the best all-rounder award and didn’t get picked for India A, so I just tweeted. Sometimes your emotions come out in such a manner that you can’t control it and that phase for me was like that. Every cricketer has that feeling when his emotions control him rather than him controlling his emotions. For me it was that kind of a phase,” Jalaj recalls.
Over the years, Jalaj has been a part of Indian Premier League (IPL) outfits, Mumbai Indians, Royal Challengers Bangalore, and Delhi Capitals, but is yet to receive his first cap in the cash-rich league – a platform which has made careers of so many talents. Jalaj says he needs just one chance to show his talent and years of hard work. He doesn’t know the reason behind teams not picking him in the playing XI and doesn’t want to think about the selection process, all he wants to do is perform to the best of his ability.
“I am working hard. I am working in each and every aspect of my game. I need one chance to prove my self, be it the IPL or international circuit. I am just waiting for my chance, I haven’t gotten a single chance in IPL so far, hopefully, I will get my chances and I am waiting for that,” the all-rounder says.
When asked whether the 2019-20 domestic season could be his make or break season in relation to his international or IPL debut, Jalaj says he is only preparing for the season and is taking one match at a time. He agrees that he had a good Vijay Hazare Trophy for Kerala and wants to follow the process to prepare himself for another domestic season.
“I don’t think too much. I am just continuously preparing for the season. I just take one match at a time and don’t think that it can be my make or break season. I just need to follow my process. I am just focusing on small things that make me so consistent. If I follow the process and the good habits which I follow every year I am sure things will happen. Things which I can’t control, I shouldn’t think about that,” Jalaj says.
When asked who was his idol while growing up, a one-word answer comes up in a flash – Sachin Tendulkar. Sachin or Virat Kohli has been the debate among the fans for the last few years and Jalaj has shared the dressing room with both. However, Jalaj admires the way Virat Kohli has modelled his routine to be the best in the world. Steve Smith’s name pops up in between the discussion but the Kerala all-rounder is quick to put an end to the debate while giving his verdict – Virat Kohli is the best, period.
“Sachin Tendulkar! Since I was a kid I was a huge Sachin Tendulkar fan and now as a batsman, I really admire Virat Kohli like how consistent he is. But I started playing cricket because of Sachin Tendulkar,” Jalaj says.
“I have shared the dressing room with both Sachin and Virat. Both were unbelievable experiences for me and I still cherish those moments. As Sachin has retired now, I can only imagine playing with Virat Kohli. No doubt about Virat is the best player right now, Steve Smith is an extraordinary player but the way Virat is going at the moment, no one comes close to him,” he concludes.
On November 1, Jalaj will be taking the field once again, this time for India C in the Deodhar Trophy 2019, in a bid to prove his credentials for the Indian senior team once again – a thing which he has been doing for 115 first-class, 90 List-A and 48 T20 matches.