The man dressed in pre-wedding finery is seated on a silver throne in the lounge of a hotel in Rajkot. He is trying out various smiles. But when Jaydev Unadkat walks by, the groom-to-be turns his gaze from the wedding photographer and peers at the cricketer hunched over the reception counter.
“Aa koi celebrity che (this is someone famous),” he says to his large family sprawled over the adjacent sofas of purple felt. They watch as Unadkat exits the reception area and disappears into the hotel elevator.
“Mane nathi khabar (I don’t know),” replies a family member from the sofa. The groom-to-be shrugs and returns his gaze and a fresh grin to the camera.
Suspicions of a similar nature are aroused often in Unadkat’s vicinity, during his interview across multiple locations in Rajkot. Presumably, when the fast bowler is not in the pink of Rajasthan Royals or the blue of India or even the first-class whites of Saurashtra—the team he has led into its second straight Ranji Trophy final—he is akin to Clark Kent loitering about the newsroom of Daily Planet.
Although Unadkat couldn’t care less about the excesses that come with his job, such as fame or the lack of it, the 28-year-old fast bowler from Porbandar has been forcing the wider world of cricket to open its eyes and recognise him—and his immense potential—at least when he has his costume on.
In his avatar of a cricketer this domestic season, Unadkat’s performances have been nothing short of superhuman. In the nine matches that Saurashtra has played in this Ranji Trophy, the left-arm seamer has taken 65 wickets, at an average of 12.16 per wicket. That’s already three wickets more than Karnataka’s Dodda Ganesh took in the 1998-99 season, breaking the long-standing record of 62 wickets for a pacer in a single Ranji season; and just three wickets shy of the all-time record of 68 wickets, set in the previous season by Bihar’s left-arm spinner Ashutosh Aman.
Saurashtras Captain Jaydev Unadkat
“See, setting records has not been my motivation this season,” says Unadkat, two days before the semifinal against Gujarat, at a time when he has a tally of 55 wickets and is still a distance away from Ganesh. “Milestones are fine. But my motivation has been to bowl that penetrative spell, where I break a crucial partnership and turn things around for the team. That’s all I have wanted to do so far. That’s all I wish to do in the next match against Gujarat.”
Unadkat from the pavilion end
On the final day of a wildly fluctuating semi-final in Rajkot, Gujarat find themselves pretty close to chasing down Saurashtra’s target of 326. The equation is simple enough for the visitors: 120 runs from the last session of the contest with two batsmen batting in the 80s. Gujarat captain Parthiv Patel (88 not out) and Chirag Gandhi (82 not out) had scored at a rate of over four runs an over in the previous session.
Unadkat bowls the first over of the final session on Rajkot’s infamously flat pitch (where fast bowlers come to die—in January, Mitchell Starc posted his careers worst figures here, conceding 78 runs in 10 overs without a wicket) and is promptly struck for three boundaries. The hits take both batsmen into the 90s.
Saurashtra hasn’t taken a wicket in 42 overs, and Unadkat hasn’t taken a wicket since the 15th over of the innings when he returns for the second over of his spell. Instantly, the leather spits up at Patel from a length and the outside edge is snatched up by second slip. Out walks Patel and in walks another Patel who has played for India. First ball, and Axar Patel spoons a low return catch to Unadkat, which the bowler holds on to. In his next over he bowls out Gandhi for 96. And in the over after that Unadkat takes out Gujarat’s No.11 to end their innings and campaign. It is Unadkat’s fourth wicket of the session, the seventh in the innings, and tenth of the match. But as he would like to put it, it is simply the wicket that takes Saurashtra to the final, nothing less, nothing more.
Take a sad song, and make it better
‘Penetrative spell’, ‘break a crucial partnership’, ‘turns things around for the team’—check, check and check.
“The joy of getting a five-for and raising the ball to the dressing room is a real high,” says Unadkat. “But I will happily give away all that and my tag of being highest wicket-taker as well to get my hands around the trophy. Anything else besides winning that, the first Ranji title for Saurashtra, can take a side.”
Because the final, like the semi-final, will be held at the Saurashtra Cricket Association Stadium, the odds of breaking records and lifting the trophy together are pretty high for Unadkat. The name of this cricket ground should ideally strike doom into the heart of a fast bowler, even if it is his home ground, or especially if that is so.
But mention the SCA Stadium to Unadkat, and watch it take him to his warm and fuzzy place. Why? Since the new ground in Rajkot opened for business in 2013, Unadkat has averaged 17.7 here in first-class cricket, while all other pacers put together have averaged 38.8. If these numbers (courtesy ESPNCricinfo) don’t make you believe in the genius of Unadkat, you are either dead inside or a national selector.
“I understand that not many watch domestic cricket in India and only those who do will be able to appreciate what I have achieved in Rajkot,” he says softly. “Yes, at times bowling here has been hard. What really drove me was this notion that only spinners can win matches for Saurashtra. Whenever I heard that, I used to get very offended as a fast bowler.”
Unadkat says this with a chuckle and instantly pauses with practiced abruptness. Then he adds: “But I think if you can inspire yourself to bowl your heart out on this track, you won’t give up on any other track in India. Or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world.”
This above quote is the very essence of Unadkat the cricketer—one who takes the very worst of what the game throws at him and somehow makes it better.
Not seen as a T20 bowler? No problem, he’ll find a way to become the only bowler from IPL’s top-40 wicket-takers to have claimed two five-fors. Picked as a back-up option on his base price for an IPL franchise and not given a go in the first three games? No problem, he’ll still take 24 wickets and drag the side into the final. Dropped after being the highest wicket-taker for a fast bowler in a T20I tri-series and never picked again? No problem, he’ll just focus on being the best domestic bowler he can be.
Disappointment is a simply a fuel for Unadkat. It explains his numerous comebacks and also why he refuses to roll over even in worst-case scenarios. To understand him, then, is to understand his disappointments. And the largest dose of it came at the very beginning of his career. On one morning just after his teens, he was receiving his first India cap; three days later, he had a fuel source for life.
A beginning, an end
Unadkat has large, expressive eyes that often tend to give away what he’s thinking even as his mind processes placid answers. When he is talking about the year 2010, there is an unmistakable sparkle in his pupils, even if his tone is bone dry. It was, after all, the year that saw him play the Under-19 World Cup in January, and by June he had made a dream first-class debut in Leicester, taking an incredible haul of 13 wickets for India A against West Indies A.
The year kept getting better. By July 2010, Unadkat was a net bowler with the Indian Test team. In October, the month of his 20th birthday, Unadkat was part of India’s Test squad against the visiting Australians and beamed with pride as his friend and ally, Cheteshwar Pujara, made his debut. Two months on, in December, he was told on the morning of a Test match in Centurion that he too would be a Test player.
“What can I say? It was all really overwhelming. Not just for me, but for my family also. Nothing like this had happened to anyone we know in Porbandar. Just the previous year I was preparing for my 12th Standard exams, which was important to me because my father was a teacher in a polytechnic college,” says Unadkat. “Then all of that happened in one go. And to be honest, I can still remember everything even though everything was happening so fast. I just went with the flow.”
The flow involved Zaheer Khan pulling out a day before the Centurion Test and a direct toss-up between Unadkat and Umesh Yadav to make a debut. “I did have a feeling that it will be me because I’m a left armer as well. But even when I went to sleep the night before the Test, there was no official word.
“Morning of the game, Mahi bhai (MS Dhoni) told me I will be playing. But there’s a funny story there,” he says. “He gave me a choice. Do I want my test cap from Sachin (Tendulkar) paaji, Rahul (Dravid) bhai, VVS (Laxman) bhai or Viru (Sehwag) bhai? And they were all watching me and I was given five seconds to decide. That was probably the most difficult choice that I’ve ever had to make.”
He chose Tendulkar: “Getting that cap from him was the best moment of my career.” But best moments seldom last long. For Unadkat it certainly didn’t. South Africa chose to field first on a rain-soaked day and India was bowled out for 136. In response, South Africa scored 620 runs for four wickets. Jacques Kallis got to his maiden double hundred, AB de Villiers scored the fastest Test hundred for his country and three Indian bowlers in Ishant Sharma, Harbhajan Singh and Unadkat each conceded over a hundred runs (S Sreesanth went for 97).
The rest of those bowlers featured in the next Test in Durban, which India won. Unadkat wasn’t just dropped for Durban—which would be understandable—he hasn’t been looked at as a Test match prospect since. One bowling innings and that was that.
“Honestly, once things started going differently from how I had planned my debut to go, I started thinking ‘Why now? Why today of all days?’” he says. The glint is gone from his eyes, but his voice papers over the sadness. “I obviously was raw at that time and that can be a plus point at times. But what happened was I was so raw I didn’t know how to deal with such a situation. All I can say is today I have the skills to do things differently when things are not happening for me out in the middle.”
Unadkat is often asked if he has paid too heavy a price for one bowling innings.
“It hasn’t been unfair, if you look at what all has happened in Indian cricket after that,” he says. “There were times—say after three, four years after that happened—when I was really bowling well and had an outstanding season. But even at those times, there were pacers in India bowling just as well as me, if not better.”
Those quicks coming up the ranks are today not only the core pace group of the Indian cricket team; they could well be the best pace attack in the world. “We are all witnessing the greatest era of Indian fast bowling,” says Unadkat. “That, I would say, is a very good thing because it makes us all step up and be the very best that we can.”
Coming back to life
In January 2019, while India’s pace attack added a new dimension to its legacy in Australia, Unadkat was breaking new ground too, back home with Saurashtra. Handed over the captaincy of the side mid-way through the season, Unadkat led the team into the Ranji Trophy final, which they lost to defending champions Vidarbha. Still, his fluent leadership came as a surprise to everyone except Unadkat.
“I was sort of natural at it because I practiced being a leader even when I was a kid,” he says. Growing up in Porbandar, cricket-mad Unadkat used to organise games and rally his group to come play at the local Chowpatty ground. To ensure they show up, he bought all the requisite cricket gear. And to ensure he could play the leader, young Unadkat would lure all the players over to his house for ‘team meetings’.
“I used to tell my mother to prepare all their favourite dishes,” he says, laughing. “And then when they came over for dinner, I would discuss strategy and field settings for the upcoming game.”
When the Saurashtra gig came to him, Unadkat played leader again, going out of his way to shake things up. “That was important, because when a team has a similar sort of structure for a long period of time, you know, people start taking things for granted. Some bad routines do come in as well,” he says. “I don’t really like to say a lot of things about how I lead. But the foundation to my captaincy is simple: see the dressing room from the perspective of every player in it.”
Saurashtra’s performances since he took over should alone tell you that the home dressing room in Rajkot is a happy place.
“That’s all I wanted to do as a as a captain, you know, to create an environment where people actually feel for the team at a personal level and not just on a professional level,” he says. “I have played in zonal matches where you don’t enjoy your success much because there is no real team environment. But in this team, we celebrate each other’s success more than our own.”
Steeped in mirth, this environment has been conducive to Unadkat’s growth as well. Last season, his first as captain, Unadkat took 39 wickets, then his season-best haul. Now, he has 114 Ranji wickets in two seasons, with a game still to go. “It looks like I am leading from the front. But the truth is all of us in the team are leaders and we are all responsible for so many things,” says Unadkat. “This process of building a team has helped my bowling the most. Life, I would say, is very good now.”
Life has been kind to Unadkat beyond first-class cricket as well. Following his sensational IPL season in 2017 for Rising Pune Supergiants, where he was picked up for his base price of Rs 30 lakh and went on to claim 24 wickets (including a five-for and a hattrick), Unadkat was paid Rs 19.90 crore over two auctions—in 2018 and 2019—by Rajasthan Royals.
Rajasthan Royal’s Jaydev Unadkat bowls during the VIVO IPL T20 cricket match between Sunrisers Hyderabad and Rajasthan Royals in Hyderabad, India, Friday, March 29, 2019.
Speaking of those auctions makes Unadkat visibly uncomfortable, especially because the pressure of his price tag didn’t help with his performances in either of those two seasons. “It did affect me at some level. And it is bound to because wherever I went, people looked at me from that angle of highest earner,” he says in a low voice, as a basic courtesy to the other patrons in the restaurant.
Once his wickets started drying up, Unadkat’s value was questioned by all and sundry. “I don’t blame the fans or the media, to be honest. Because even some from the cricketing fraternity… they talk just like that,” he says. “And then, apart from all those external pressures, there was the pressure I put on myself too. After a couple of bad games in 2018, I was telling myself: ‘you can’t afford to have bad games now’.”
But surely away from the cricket field, the money from the two auctions has helped him lead a more comfortable life? “Not really, no. I had enough money in my bank account even before that to lead a good life. So, it didn’t really matter,” says Unadkat, clicking his tongue. “For the record, I’m still driving the same car from seven years ago. I’m still living in the same house in Porbandar. I still buy the same clothes I used to buy, from the same stores.”
This isn’t him paying lip service; Unadkat is simply stating it as it is—he’s in everyday clothes in an everyday restaurant and speaking slightly louder than a whisper, so as to not disturb the young couple seated on the table beside ours.
Shortly after the conversation on his wealth, Unadkat receives a phone call and excuses himself.
“Sorry about that, it couldn’t wait,” he says after the call ends. “A bunch of my friends from the Gujarat team are meeting me for dinner. I had to make arrangements for them.”