9 titles at 40, 'motivated' Wasim Jaffer refuses to slow down
His languid strokes are a sight to behold even now; his calm demeanour on the crease had an innate assurance few Indian openers had in the 2000s. His last international game came close to a decade back, yet, since then, Wasim Jaffer has done enough to have forged a legacy of his own in Indian cricket, one that won't be forgotten soon.
A towering presence in domestic cricket even in his 22nd year of first-class, Jaffer played a big hand in helping realise Vidarbha's Moneyball tale of clinching their maiden Ranji Trophy title this year.
Habituated to the process of winning, a victorious Jaffer spoke exclusively to Sportskeeda on how different this particular success was, what clicked for the side, and his thoughts on the road that lies ahead.
You've won eight titles previously with Mumbai, but this feeling must surely be different. What are your thoughts on the season gone by, and how different was it from the two decades at Mumbai?
Frankly, no one would have given Vidarbha a chance to win the title. When you play for Mumbai, the team is so strong that you are expected to win the trophy. The expectations weren't as high in Vidarbha's case. That was probably the biggest difference.
I think we played really good cricket where everyone played their part, from first to last. When you win Ranji, you need some luck with you, and we had a bit of it in the middle.
We beat some really good teams and it is really satisfying when you win for someone who has been termed as underdogs.
Was the lack of expectations helpful in giving the young Vidarbha players a free head to play with?
The pressure was there. If you play the Ranji semis and finals, it doesn't matter if you are the underdogs. Every player feels it.
I believe we had great momentum, we had 7 outright wins out of nine games, that says a lot about the team and the way we played. The confidence and believe was within the side. Everyone individually had different pressure and expectations, but we collectively handled it really well.
The most important game for us was the Karnataka one [in the second semi-finals], we came from behind and it gave us a lot of confidence. It was probably the closest game we played this season.
The players have been praising Chandrakant Pandit (the coach) no end, who clearly knows the winning formula (this being his third Ranji title). What makes his workings different from the others?
He is a strict disciplinarian. His working style - I know it from before - is old-school. He won't handle indiscipline within the side, he doesn't like the players to be thinking on an individual level. The main reason for the success is that he got the players out of their comfort zone: the same players played last season as well, but he changed their mindset completely.
He made sure that we played as a team, and even outside the field, we stayed as one. The team bonding sessions were of immense help to play well on the ground, and the coach made sure that the players realised that they needed to push themselves. The 40s and 50s weren't good enough for him, and he wanted them to push for a hundred and play as a unit.
Also, he created the environment that made sure nobody took their place for granted. He pushed them to play better: in smaller states, people tend to take their place for granted.
He was very strict in the way he works and Vidarbha needed this to change things around.
Youngsters like Sanjay Ramaswamy and Rajneesh Gurbani were playing alongside experienced players like you and Faiz Fazal. How easy or difficult was it to maintain balance in such a scenario, and how did the youngsters respond to the challenge?
The younger players really stood up. The opening stand that Sanjay and Faiz had made a lot of difference for us as it gave us a good start in literally every game. They scored over 700 runs as openers (Faiz amassed 912 runs, Sanjay 775 this season) that speaks volumes for the team. They set the platform for the middle-order, where Akshay Wadkar and Apoorv Wankhade [who was playing only his tenth first-class game, after a gap of five years] played their part really well.
Ramaswamy, Gurbani, all were just in their second season and were quite raw. You got to admire their temperament to perform in the bigger games. It is very good to see, as a player from outside, that these youngsters are coping with pressure situations and performing so well. These are good signs for Vidarbha, as well as Indian cricket.
Do you see the team carrying the momentum forward and doing well in the shorter formats (List A and T20s) as well?
I hope so. The hardest format to play is the Ranji Trophy. They have been doing well in the shorter formats: it's important for them to get out of the Ranji bubble and start preparing for the T20s.
Unfortunately, they don't have much time: they are only going to reach Nagpur tonight [January 3rd]. On the 5th, the VCA [Vidarbha Cricket Association] has a big function for their felicitation.
Only on the 6th will the team get to travel, hopefully, they will cope with it.
If the first game goes well for them, it won't be a problem. They are pretty good with the new ball, and the challenge for them is to get out of the winning bubble and move forward.
On a personal front, this was your first title win away from Mumbai. Going back a few seasons, what prompted you to make the switch and why did you choose Vidarbha?
I think when I was playing in 2013-14, I had a dislocated finger in the first game against Kashmir, and I need a surgery. I literally didn't play any game thereafter. I could see lots of youngsters like Shreyas Iyer, Akhil Herwadkar, and Surya Kumar Yadav coming in, and knew it was the right time.
I was at a stage where I wasn't getting picked for India. So I might as well make way for the youngsters, I would like to challenge myself. I had been getting offers to play as a professional since 2008, but I kept refusing it for five-six years because I believed I still had a chance to make a comeback to the Indian side.
When I had that injury and sat out for the whole season, I realised it was the right time to move on and let the youngsters gain experience in first-class cricket.
Vidarbha seemed to be the right choice because I wanted to go to a place where the side is thinking about winning. I didn't want to be just a professional, who goes there, gets the money, score by runs and go off, without it mattering that we win or lose.
I didn't want to settle in a place where the team was losing and you weren't enjoying, I don't like that environment. I have played my cricket in Mumbai, where winning is everything. I wanted to go where I had a role to play, and help out the youngsters.
It was close to Mumbai and Vidarbha had a good set-up in their academy, but more importantly, they had the spirit to win. They had Subramaniam Badrinath at that stage, and Ambati Rayudu for the next season and Karn Sharma as well. They were very competitive, they wanted the youngsters to play well and it made me realise that was the perfect place to play.
Was it also the time when you finally made peace with the fact that you need to look past an India comeback?
I was 36 then, and I had passed that stage when the selectors were going to consider me. I thought this was the time to play for some other state and give myself a new challenge in my career. And it worked out really well.
Any regrets when you look back at how things transpired?
I am not the sort of person who holds any grudges or bitterness inside me. I consider myself fortunate that I got the chance to play for my country, especially from the humble background that I came from where I couldn't afford even a cricket bat, leave alone buying anything else.
To come out of that family, and end up playing 31 Tests for India, being the highest run-getter in Ranji, Irani, Duleep and Vijay Hazare, I should consider myself lucky that Almighty gave me so much. Although everyone would have loved to play for India more, instead of focussing on that, I should be thankful for what I achieved.
At 40, you have achieved almost everything on the domestic front. What is next for Wasim Jaffer, the cricketer?
To be honest, this season has given me a lot of happiness. Especially the way Vidarbha played: how the season panned out for me and my team, I really enjoyed myself. I had to push myself on the fitness front and the biggest challenge for me is to stay fit. The motivation is obviously there.
The next target is to be as fit as possible, and see how it goes. The next big challenge is for Vidarbha to repeat this kind of a performance. Once you show the world what you have achieved, they expect a lot of things: the next season is very important in how we perform, otherwise, people will think this was a fluke.
I am enjoying my role as a mentor in the side, let's see how it goes from there on. I go to play club cricket in England in August end, after which I'll have to make sure I am fit and ready for the season ahead.