Alleged match-fixing traitor turns match-winning mentor
On November 27, 2000, exactly 23 years ago, to be precise, Ajay Jadeja, then just 29 years old, was banned for life from cricket by BCCI.
There were spectacular moments in Ajay Jadeja’s career – catching Allan Border out on debut; a swashbuckling 25 runs off 45 balls against Pakistan; three wickets in a single over against England - he led India to victory in eight of the 13 ODIs he captained. When hopes went soaring, an allegation of match-fixing by Manoj Prabhakar saw them dash.
While the veracity of the allegation made by Prabhakar still remains suspect to this day, one thing remains for certain. Had Ajay Jadeja not been embroiled in that controversy, his cricket career would have taken a different trajectory. He would have led India somewhere in that career.
When the court finally relaxed the lifetime life ban to a five-year suspension, his prime time was over. In hindsight, he may have found solace and fulfillment during the period through the movies he acted in. And post-ban, he engaged in domestic cricket as Delhi's captain and Rajasthan's captain-cum-coach.
His heart always belonged to cricket. From the dry, sunbaked Ranji Trophy pitches and echoes of silence in the empty stands, Jadeja seamlessly transitioned into the world of commentary. Now with no mic in hand, he graces TV screens, sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the Afghanistan cricket team logo. Ajay Jadeja has assumed the role of assistant coach and mentor for the Afghanistan team; and satisfyingly, his team has been doing wonders in this ongoing World Cup under the tutelage of another talented cricketer, Jonathan Trott, who too had his career truncated midway.
A fielding star
In the annals of cricket history, fielders were traditionally known for straightforward catches, with Eknath Solkar being a notable exception for India. Otherwise, it was often a pursuit of the ball racing to the ropes. Things changed when Kapil Dev defied convention by sprinting backwards to pluck a remarkable catch from West Indies legend Vivian Richards in the 1983 World Cup final. To this day, that catch is celebrated as a pivotal moment that tilted the scales in India’s favour.
Later, in the era when Mohammad Azharuddin stood out as a fielding virtuoso, the 21-year-old Ajay Jadeja emerged on the scene during the 1992 World Cup. With a full-length dive, he snared the catch of Allan Border, etching his name in the hearts of Indian cricket fans. From that moment, he became a hero, and his captivating smile conquered countless female hearts.
The specialist finisher
Jadeja, who started his international career as an opener, cemented his place in the role of a finisher, a position relatively unfamiliar to the Indian team then. Apart from Kapil Dev’s occasional fireworks in the lower middle order, India lacked batters with the ability to master the art of finishing matches. who had developed finishing skills. Jadeja’s aggression against Waqar Younis in the quarter-finals of the 1996 World Cup and ending with a sensational 25-ball 45, was literally an incredible moment in Indian cricket.
Jadeja’s vulnerabilities against bounce and swing hindered his chances in Test cricket, resulting in playing just 15 matches. He played 196 ODIs amassing 5359 runs at an impressive average of 37.47. It included six centuries and 30 fifties, making him the best Indian finisher prior to MS Dhoni in ODI cricket. In Tests, his total is a mere 526 runs and four 50s; Despite making his debut as Kris Srikkanth's opening partner, he averaged just 26.18.
The bowling wonder
In the 196 ODIs he has played, Jadeja has bowled in only 52 and taken 20 wickets in it. A military medium pacer, he bowls a little faster than Sachin Tendulkar. But Jadeja has won a match that India was sure to lose with his bowling – against England in Sharjah in 1999.
In a memorable ODI, England was near victory chasing 222 set by India, having scored 196 for the loss of six wickets at the end of 46 overs. Captain Mohammad Azharuddin turned to his deputy Ajay Jadeja after fifth bowler Robin Singh and change bowler Ganguly had been taken to the cleaners by English batters. In the second ball, Robert Croft was caught by substitute fielder Hrishikesh Kanitkar. There was not much hope for India as England had its dependable middle-order batsman Neil Fairbrother at the crease with 57 runs. But in the very next delivery, Neil was caught behind keeper Rahul Dravid and Darren Gough was clean bowled in the last ball of the over. Jadeja ended with 3 for 3 in the just one over he bowled in the match.
The last man came to the crease. Jadeja ran out Ian Austin in the next over by Javagal Srinath and India won by 20 runs.
New role in Afghanistan
When Afghanistan beat England in this World Cup, cricket pundits and the media in one voice described it as a coup. However, when they saw the game against Pakistan, many said that if Pakistan had won, it would be described as another coup. Afghanistan's performance was so authentic.
This was followed by an old video clip of Ajay Jadeja. In the perspective one he is seen saying, "Look, the rest of the teams have a 100-150-year-old cricketing tradition. It has only been some two decades since Afghanistan took to the sport seriously. They have come close to victory in many tight matches. In 2019, they posed a serious challenge to India. Afghanistan cricket is still in its infancy. Let its players start consistently beating big teams and then they find a place in the elite league.”
This World Cup proves Jadeja's words prophetic as there have been surprising performances from teams that may not have been taken seriously. The Netherlands beating South Africa is one such case and Afghanistan’s win are examples of the changing cricket dynamics. Today, the possibility of underdogs Afghanistan making it to the semis is not discounted.
Even former Pakistan captain Shoaib Malik was all praise for Jadeja after the win over Pakistan. Indian legend Sachin Tendulkar had also posted a congratulatory message to his old friend on X. Even while former England all-rounder Jonathan Trott is the head coach of Afghanistan, the victory means much for Indian cricket fans who recognize Jadeja’s contribution in Afghanistan’s resilience.
Match-fixing tale and ban
In 1994, Prabhakar had made a tumultuous allegation that an Indian player offered him Rs 25 lakh to lose a 1997 match against Pakistan in Sri Lanka. Six years later, Prabhakar dropped another bombshell, claiming that the player was none other than Kapil Dev!
On that day of this revelation, it was a heart-wrenching moment when the whole world saw Kapil in tears. Interestingly, Pakistan wicketkeeper-batsman Rashid Latif came forward to assert that Sachin Tendulkar was privy of everything. However, the Indian cricketing fraternity remained steadfast in their support of Kapil and Sachin, unwavering in their belief in these two iconic figures, regardless of the claims made by others.
The houses of several superstars and officials were raided. Of those implicated, only Mohammad Azharuddin was conclusively proven to be involved in match-fixing. Kapil’s protégé Ajay Jadeja, India’s best swing bowler till that time Manoj Prabhakar, first class cricketer Ajay Sharma and Indian team physio Ali Irani were found to have connections with bookies. The sanctions and restrictions followed.
Jadeja, who had approached the court against the ban, had already started trying his luck in films. By then, his captivating smile which had even charmed Madhuri Dixit, no longer enticed fans as his popularity had ebbed very low. When the Delhi High Court took up his case, none came forward to appear for Jadeja. Although the magistrate's court subsequently commuted his sentence and allowed him to play domestic cricket, he had grown too old to pursue his cricketing career.
That marked the end to the career of Jadeja, who was expected to lead India, at least in One-Day cricket. Perhaps, only time can reveal whether it was Prabhakar who thwarted Jadeja’s prospects, preventing him from becoming the best ODI captain India might have seen, or if it were his own deeds that led to his downfall. Until then, Jadeja is unlikely to be celebrated to the fullest extent, even if Afghanistan win the World Cup.