With a century from No.5 at Rajkot, Ravindra Jadeja the batter demonstrated yet again why he has been one of India’s finest, writes Abhishek Mukherjee.

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The series is level. Rohit Sharma has won the all-important toss at Rajkot. It is a flat pitch, the experts have announced, and all India have to do is put on 400 and unleash their spin brigade, punctuated by Jasprit Bumrah’s bursts of brilliance.

Instead, they are 33-3. At Visakhapatnam, Yashasvi Jaiswal made a double century, Shubman Gill a third-innings century, and Rajat Patidar his debut. All three are gone. At the crease is Rohit Sharma, yet to reach forty in the series.

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Indian fans wait in apprehension, for it is the turn of Sarfaraz Khan, who boasts of an average of 69.85 in first-class cricket but got his Test cap barely over an hour ago.

Instead, Ravindra Jadeja strides out. His 16 first-class innings here have yielded five hundreds, including a triple hundred and two other doubles, but eyebrows are raised. On air, Ravi Shastri questions the promotion. He sees this as India shielding debutant Sarfaraz.

In reality, India were promoting not only a southpaw to break the right-arm monotony but also one of their finest Test batters in recent times.

A cricketer like none other

Spinners traditionally have a higher bowling average than fast bowlers, which makes it uncommon for the former to take 250 wickets at under 25. Jadeja is one of only three men have done it in the history of Test cricket: Muttiah Muralidaran and R Ashwin are the other two.

That puts him in the pantheon of all-time great spinners, but it also masks his stature as a steadily improving Test match batter – his second suit – over the years.

We have discussed on these pages on why Jadeja ranks among the greatest Test all-rounders. Let us focus on how strong and crucial his batting has been.

Jadeja came into the Rajkot game with a Test batting average of 36.16. Since the start of 2019, that number reads 42.54, the third-best among Indians with a thousand runs, after Rohit and Rishabh Pant.

Being among the three most successful batters over a five-year span for any side is special, especially if batting is not your main suit. For India, it is more significant for several reasons.

This was a phase when India decided on a five-bowler tactic. This was easier at home, with both Jadeja and Ashwin in the XI, alongside Axar Patel since 2021. However, they picked four fast bowlers outside Asia, of whom three had little batting credentials. Thus, they backed the best batter among their spinners. Jadeja stepped into that role.

The period also coincided with a dip in form for Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, and KL Rahul. Of them, Kohli and Rahul seem to have regained their old mojo, but in the interim period, India faced collapses from time to time. The role of Jadeja the batter became more significant.

Unlike most countries, India did not have a specialist left-handed batter between Shikhar Dhawan’s last Test in 2018 and Yashasvi Jaiswal’s debut in 2023. This often prompted them to promote Pant, but also, at various times, Axar and Jadeja.

India had pushed Jadeja inside the top five at home twice, but these were stopgap arrangements. They seemed surer of his promotion when they tried him in the tour game on the 2021 England tour. Later on the tour, Jadeja opened in each innings at The Oval ahead of Rahane. Shastri, critical of Jadeja’s promotion today, was the Indian coach back then.

They abandoned the idea as the left-handed Pant settled into a role in the top five, but Pant’s accident and subsequent absence created a place for a left-hander in the top five.

When left-arm spinner Matthew Kuhnemann wreaked havoc on a rank turner at Indore in 2022/23, India pushed Jadeja above Shreyas Iyer, one of their best players of spin, and tried him again in the next Test match, at Ahmedabad.

In their next home series, against England, India replicated their plan of pushing a left-hander up the order during their chase of 231 at Hyderabad, but this time they had another option. Axar was the chosen one.

One can see why. Jadeja, on the other hand, has batted well with the tail, most famously with Mohammed Shami at Mohali in 2021/22 but also in the odd stand with Bumrah and even a greenhorn Mohammed Siraj while battling a dislocated thumb. On the other hand, a promoted Axar had batted beautifully in the Mirpur chase in 2021/22. He batted better than some specialists against Australia in 2022/23, but had been left stranded, especially in each innings in Indore despite looking good.

Jadeja missed the Visakhapatnam Test, but replaced Axar at Rajkot. Had the left-handed Jaiswal been the unbeaten batter, India would probably have sent Sarfaraz at five. But with Rohit at the other end and no Axar, they took the logical route by promoting Jadeja.

Reaching stumps unbeaten, he justified their call, and re-emphasised his worth as one of the best batters India have right now.