A few hours after avoiding the scare of their life against Hong Kong, the Indian team turned up in style against arch-rivals Pakistan on Wednesday in Dubai to register a thumping win in the 2018 Asia Cup. If their performance against Hong Kong was scratchy, rusty and sometimes lethargic, against Pakistan, India produced a professional, clinical display — chalk and cheese, so to speak.

Between the two matches, improvements were evident. The Indian bowlers (well, Bhuvneshwar Kumar) took early wickets to wreck Pakistan’s top order. The Indian openers started watchfully before taking on Mohammad Amir and Usman Khan, before Ambati Rayudu and Dinesh Karthik put together a sensible (if sometimes boring) partnership, to prevent any wobbles after the dismissals of the top two.

But one aspect that was consistent between the performances over the past 48 hours was how Kedar Jadhav stepped up for his captain in the middle overs. For two days in a row, Jadhav showed his importance as the sixth bowler in this Indian ODI set up. When the Hong Kong openers were putting together that mammoth partnership, he came in to the attack and choked the run flow. It was during his spell in tandem with Kuldeep Yadav that the required run-rate started creeping up for Hong Kong before the pressure finally told on their batsmen.

Against Pakistan, Jadhav went a step further and delivered crucial breakthroughs in the middle overs.

A vital component

It was evident during the three ODIs in England that Virat Kohli had to opt for Suresh Raina in the XI instead of other in-form batsmen because he wanted a sixth bowling option. And Raina’s struggles with both the bat and ball meant that, the moment Jadhav regained fitness, he would make his way back into the XI.

It so happened on Thursday, under unfortunate circumstances, that Jadhav would be needed the most.

Running in to bowl his fifth over, Hardik Pandya collapsed in his follow through and wouldn’t get back up on his feet — he had to be stretchered off the field. In what was later revealed to be an “acute lower back injury”, India lost their all-rounder for the evening. Ambati Rayudu came on to complete that particular over, but Jadhav was now promoted as the fifth bowler.

The 30-year-old from Pune is in the XI for situations just like these. To cover for an unexpected injury. To cover for one of the main bowlers having a bad day. That’s precisely the reason why he has been persisted with in the lineup despite the presence of more talented middle-order batting options in the squad.

And when he came on to bowl against Pakistan, he not only strangled the batsmen with his stump-to-stump line, he also made them play the false shots. He made Sarfaraz Ahmed hit out in frustration after the runs had dried up and get caught in the deep. He was partly responsible for the run-out of Shoaib Malik too, making the former Pakistan captain look for a single when there was none. And then he combined with MS Dhoni to remove Asif Ali and Shadab Khan to ensure there was no lower order revival for Pakistan.

He was not just a stop-gap replacement for Pandya as he went on to register figures of 9-1-23-3.

Captain’s bowler

In the 23 innings he has bowled in ODIs, Jadhav has conceded more than six runs per over only five times. And only two of those five occasions saw him go at more than runs per over. That’s impressive control from your team’s part-time bowler. First MS Dhoni, then Virat Kohli and now Rohit Sharma, know that if they do throw the ball to him, they will get a few tight overs on most days. And out of his 19 wickets, only four have been batsmen batting at No 7 or lower — an impressive 79% of his wickets have been top and middle order batsmen (from No 1 to No 6).

And, as a bonus, he offers the ‘mystery’ element too, with his awkward action.

So it was not a surprise that he responded in a tone of surprise when former Pakistan captain Rameez Raja asked him during the innings break whether he will take his bowling more seriously going forward.

“I’ve already taken my role seriously, that’s why I have been bowling consistently,” was his immediate response.

He then went on to explain what, in his opinion, makes him tick.

“Actually, my role is to contain the batsmen and not give too many runs and bowl as many dots as I can. If I get wickets in the process, that’s fine. I don’t have too many variations and I try to read the batsmen’s mind. I don’t get much sideways turn, so I stick to bowling a wicket-to-wicket line. Not making the ball bounce is my strength. There’s not much pace on the ball so batsmen have to use bat speed then, because I don’t provide much speed.”

Not for the first time, Jadhav, when he speaks, came across as a street-smart cricketer. Here is a man who’s not the most talented among his teammates, not the most physically gifted but yet, he has found a way to make himself vital to his captain. And dare we say, should he improve his numbers as a batsman, make himself undroppable for ODIs.

Ultimately, Bhuvneshwar was given the player of the match award and deservingly so. Pakistan’s biggest threats with the bat were their openers and he sent them back to the pavilion for a combined total of two runs, before the fifth over of the innings.

But, coming back after an injury scare in the IPL, Jadhav showed his position in the line-up is vital.