The first time I saw Wasim Jaffer bat was in the 2007 tour of England. Indian cricket had just come out of a tough time; a star-studded lineup had crashed out of the World Cup that year early, and the cohesion and ethos of the team was in doubt following the infamous reign of Greg Chappell. Jaffer played in his signature position, at the top of the order. England didn’t have the strongest team; they were also reorganizing after a disastrous 5-0 Ashes whitewash.
However, their bowling was always going to be a formidable force at home, with James Anderson set to begin his rebirth as a test match cricketer and an underrated Ryan Sidebottom offering classical new-ball swing which would test any opener in the world. Jaffer didn’t set the series alight; he didn’t hit a hundred. He did. However, hit a key fifty in a big opening partnership with Dinesh Karthik after Zaheer Khan produced an inspired effort to bowl England out cheaply. India won that match, and then the series, and that innings is forever etched in my mind. Jaffer exuded calmness, control, and beautiful, pure strokeplay.
Jaffer had a bad tour of Australia that winter and soon found himself out of international consideration following the emergence of the Gambhir-Sehwag opening partnership. He returned the Mumbai team with determination, and hit 1260 runs in the 2008-09 season at an average of 84. Unfortunately for him, his age consistently worked against him in his bid for a recall, in addition to the sense that an average of 34 in test cricket was simply insufficient, especially after that number was skewed by two double-hundreds.
Jaffer kept going for Mumbai. He captained them to their 38th and 39th Ranji titles, in charge of a side which championed the never-say-die attitude of Mumbai cricket. This was the time when I personally encountered him. He started coming to practice in the off-season at the ground where I played after school, a few times some weeks and then not again for a few months.
No matter what I was doing, drilling my catching or working on my running, my coach always let me watch Jaffer bat. The batsmen in our team would all huddle up behind the net, silent as to not disturb him. Jaffer never had a reputation as a big hitter; he had a test strike rate of 48 and only ever played 23 T20 games. But in the last five minutes of his practice, he would show us how talented you had to be to average 50 over 242 First-Class games.
Young fast bowlers would charge in and he would ease them over the clubhouse. Spinners would try and rip the ball hard to beat his outside edge, but he would unfailingly skip down the wicket and hit them without a hint of difficulty out of sight.
When I got older I got to bowl to him a little in the nets. I had played age group cricket with guys who are now in the Ranji setup, and I thought their talent was incredible at the time. This was something else. Jaffer treated me like I was giving him throwdowns, which I suppose, looking back, I essentially was. When I turned on the TV to watch him bat out the day during his double-hundred in the Irani Trophy this last week, the Rest of India bowlers seemed to have suffered a similar fate. Jaffer, at 40, playing for what many saw as an outmatched Vidarbha team, was handling some of the best bowlers in the country like he could have scored the same with an arm behind his back.
Jaffer has over 10,000 runs in the Ranji Trophy, a record. It is doubtful that his record will be broken or even threatened anytime soon. I had a bat signed by a few of the Mumbai Ranji players. When people asked who the autographs were from, the first name I always said in the name of recognition was Wasim Jaffer. Abhishek Nayyar and Dhawal Kulkarni also scribbled their names on my bat, and had found themselves in the spotlight from strong IPL careers. But in Mumbai, anyone who played cricket immediately respected and acknowledged the name Jaffer.