One of the inevitable threads during discussions about India's home dominance is about how easy it is for Indian players to rack up runs on pitches they are so used to. Surfaces that are friendly to the extent that India's No. 8 batsman has regularly been someone with three domestic triple-hundreds.
That man, of course, is Ravindra Jadeja. His domestic record juxtaposed with his batting at international level is a natural argument whenever the quality of bowling in India's domestic cricket or even the quality of pitches is discussed. But a sustained dominance in bowling, both abroad and at home over the last few years, has weakened that argument somewhat. With that considered, it could also be a hint that Jadeja's relatively modest average as a Test batsman till the start of last year might have been due to more than a gulf in skill.
Calling it modest, though, might be holding him to unreasonable standards. Most teams would give anything to have a batsman so low down in the order with a batting average around 30, and a bowling average around 25. But consider this: since the start of 2018, Jadeja has lifted that batting average from 29.40 to 35.92 in the span of just 16 innings, batting between Nos. 4 and 9. Fifteen of those innings have come when he's batted between six and nine, and that makes him the best batsman in the world for that range since the start of 2018, with an average of 61.60, 15 runs more than the next-best player. He now has three fifties in a row, and they have all come from No. 6.
In the absence of Hardik Pandya, India's lower-middle order composition has fluctuated. When they play abroad, the dominance of their pace attack has given them the option to play four bowlers, with Hanuma Vihari slotting in successfully as the extra batsman. When Wriddhiman Saha is the wicketkeeper, India have tended to play both R Ashwin and Jadeja. In the last big home season, Ashwin had routinely batted at No. 6 ahead of Saha. That spot is now firmly Jadeja's. But will India consider him as a serious No. 6 option in overseas Tests as well?
It's a show of confidence from the Indian team that has brought to the fore a more relaxed version of Jadeja the Test batsman. For all the wickets that he has taken in Test cricket, Jadeja's popularity - and he is popular everywhere in the country - owes a lot to his sword-swishing celebrations on getting to a batting landmark, often in the frenzy of an afternoon session where India is close to declaring. If swashbuckling energy is Jadeja's persona, then his batting in Tests has conformed to it.
Except in the last year or so. Against England at The Oval last year, Jadeja played a crucial innings - 86 not out from No. 8 when India had fallen to 160 for 6 in the first innings in response to England's 332. India made 292 and went on to lose the game in an improbable chase, but it was something of an anomaly for Jadeja. The 156 balls he faced in that innings, and the 204 minutes he was at the crease, made it his second-longest innings in Tests. In difficult conditions, Jadeja's innings was one you would expect from a specialist batsman. Then, in his other substantial innings abroad in the last 12 months, he made 81 in Sydney in a double-century partnership with Rishabh Pant that put the series beyond Australia in a rain-curtailed match.
Sanjay Bangar, who was India's batting coach in both those series, said after Jadeja's fifty in the first Test against Bangladesh, that the management had spoken to Jadeja about his approach to batting at the international level, and how different it needed to be from the domestic batsman who had scored multiple triple-hundreds.
"I remember we had a chat about what was the difference between him walking in to bat for Saurashtra where he has got three triple-hundreds, and what he used to feel, or what he expected out of himself when he went out to bat for India," Bangar said during broadcast for Star Sports after Jadeja's fifty on the second day of the first Test. "He felt that - going into bat at No. 8 or 9 - he always felt that he batted or thought like a tailender, wherein he never expected runs of himself.
"But what's happening now is, since he's going in at No. 6, with a clear intention that the team management has given him a greater responsibility, I think because of those things and because of the contributions he made in the Oval Test match against England, in the Sydney Test match against Australia, and a couple of other innings that he played, I think those are big confidence-boosters for a player like him."
While it's unclear when exactly that chat happened, there is a visible change in Jadeja's approach. He leaves the ball more often and has generally been patient at the start his innings. The most recent example came against Bangladesh, where he was 15 off 44 balls before he hit his first six, eventually finishing on an unbeaten 60 off 76. Six of his seven innings lasting more than 100 balls have come since the start of 2018. And, according to ESPNcricinfo's data, his control percentage in that period is 85%, as opposed to 82% till that point.
In West Indies, he was picked as the sole spinner ahead of Ashwin but didn't have the ideal series with the ball. With a New Zealand tour next on the schedule, will India consider playing two spinners? Jadeja's bowling numbers when Ashwin is also playing are decidedly better - both home and away.
With Jadeja's batting continually on the rise, and the chance to further fortify the bowling with him at No. 6, India could open up quite a few options in Tests abroad. Two spinners or a fourth seamer - any combination that gives India their preferred five-man attack - has been made to look more feasible than ever. It has been just over a year since Jadeja burst back into the ODI team and made a move towards being the complete all-format allrounder. One successful series abroad as a No. 6 could elevate him, and the team, much higher.