“My mother never wanted me to play cricket; she wished that I would focus more on studies. But you know what has happened now? She screams at me when I get out!” Saurashtra’s allrounder, who is having the best season of his career with 530 runs and 16 wickets with his medium-pace, Chirag Jani laughs at how the past has melted into the present.
Jani, 30, has been one of the more consistent performers this season, apart from their captain Jaydev Unadkat, who has grabbed 65 wickets. Jani has taken 16 wickets and as a middle-order batsman, hit two hundreds and two fifties. In the semi-final, it was his half-century in the second innings that helped Saurashtra set a competitive target as they were tottering at 15 for 5 at one stage.
His early memories are coated with cricket. Jani grew up in Mahuva, a small village in Bhavnagar district in Gujarat, his father was a constable in the village and also had played cricket at district level. The five-kilometre walk to the school would throw up thoughts about the cement-pitch ground – and what fun he can have with cricket that day. In the evenings, he would run back, again thinking about tennis-ball cricket in the neighbourhood of his home.
Couple of events led to a dreamy cricketing path. When he was 12, his father Suresh was transferred to Bhavnagar City, one of the earliest places in Gujarat to get underground drainage and a water filtration plant, the largest in Asia then.
Secondly, a cricketing trial for kids was held around the time when Jani’s family had moved in. The tennis-ball cricketer went to a rudimentary facility. “Not much facilities. My selection took place after they asked me to knock the ball and take catches. The coaches felt that. ‘this boy can hit the ball well and catches well, so he can play.”
Their instinct proved right, Jani performed in the district games and graduated later to junior and senior teams of Saurashtra. He made his debut for Saurashtra in 2012 though since he was considered a better fit in limited-overs cricket, his first-class cricket has had its ups and downs.
“I was a good white-ball player but it did take me a while to break into first-class, red-ball game. And when I would get a chance, I would be dropped after a few games,” Jani recalls. Prior to this season, Jani has scored two hundreds and seven fifties in 44 first-class game.
He had a reputation for clean hitting in his early days.
During the limited-overs List A debut game in 2012 vs Maharashtra, he had scored a 67-ball 98, after Saurashtra were wobbling at 232 for 9 chasing 308. The IPL call, came. “I was picked for IPL but didn’t get many games. Getting the matches and backing is very key for any player, I can’t stress enough how important that is. You need someone who can come and say, don’t worry, you are there for next four games even if you don’t perform. Ask any player what is their biggest fear, they will say, will I be playing the next game or not,” he explains.
A time came when Jani was finding it tough to retain his place in the state side and by 2017, he suffered a back injury twice. It was then his Ranji teammate Sheldon Jackson stepped in to help, from lending a shoulder to instilling confidence. “He too had to wait for four years to make his Ranji debut, he knows and understands things. If this season has been my best, credit should also go to him for the support,” he adds.
The right mental space has helped him this season and batting in the lower-order at number seven has made him understand things better. Though scoring runs is a challenge and there have been times when the onus is on him deliver. He says he doesn’t think of big goals, instead, he has prepared himself to take ball by ball.
With the Ranji final against Bengal around the corner, Jani has returned home for a break. Like his team-mates, this year could be special and they could win the title. At home, his mother had a few words for him: “Acha khel ke aana”. (Play well).
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