The father was a swimmer who had two sons. The younger one was so attached to his father that he too wished to become a swimmer. He tried a hand but was forced to give it up as he was allergic to chlorine. Then he followed his elder brother, who by then, had turned into cricket. This time, he made a mark and further made it large with his skills with bat and ball. This is the story of Jalaj Saxena, who presently needs little introduction among the cricket buffs in Kerala.

Jalaj Sexena is relishing a dream run with Kerala cricket team. Kerala had sought the assistance of this all-rounder belonging to Indore in Madhya Pradesh to achieve the goal of entering the knockout round of Ranji Trophy, the much celebrated domestic cricket tournament.  A fractured index finger saw a dejected Saxena warming the bench in the dressing room during a crucial phase of the 2016-17 season.  However, the whole scenario turned on its head in the second season and Kerala created history by marching into the quarterfinal of the Ranji Trophy for the first time securing 31 points from five wins in six matches. The achievement is so special that Kerala recorded convincing victories against stronger sides such as Rajasthan and Saurashtra.

Saxena played a crucial role powering Kerala’s gallop. Currently leading the bowlers’ table with 38 wickets, this opening batsman has so far amassed 482 runs comprising a century and three half-centuries.

Saxena seemed beaming with confidence as he sat down for a chat with mathrubhumi.com on the lobby of Residency Tower at Thiruvananthapuram.

Stepping into the world of cricket?

Actually, I started playing very young, when I was around 8-9 years old. My father was a sportsperson -- a swimmer who worked in Bhilai Steel Plant. Influenced by him, I too started swimming initially but was allergic. Then I turned to cricket emulating my elder brother Jatin Saxena. Jatin is still active in first class cricket, who played for Madhya Pradesh and later Chhattisgarh.

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Jalaj Saxena / Image courtesy: KCA Facebook page

How cricket fascinated Saxena brothers?

Those were the times when we used to watch cricket in television. Sachin Tendulkar was at his prime. Both of us were great fans of Sachin and we enjoyed playing the game. Like thousands of budding cricketers, Sachin inspired us.

Attitude of parents when you pick cricket?

Since my father was a sportsperson he supported me. Like any other sportsman, he too wanted his kids to engage in sports. And he coached me in my initial years. I learned a lot from him. I started as a fast bowler who can bat too. After 3-4 years I changed to off spin.

The qualities he imparted?

I feel that sincerity is in my genes, which I acquired from my father. My father and brother both were sincere and committed to their game.  I think I too inherited it. When I used to play cricket, I loved it. I worked really hard from my initial days and I think that made me.

Influence of Narendra Hirwani?

I represented Madhya Pradesh in Ranji Trophy for 11 years and also their U-19 side too. I played for a club namely CCI (Cricket Club of Indore). Narendra Hirwani was also from CCI. So in my initial days itself, he was a stalwart for MP. Since both of us were spinners and I used to watch him bowling in the nets. When I was selected to the Ranji team, he was with us for a couple of seasons. So I could spend a good time with Hirwani and I learned a lot from him. Every time I speak to him, he gave me fresh tips. It is nice to have a spinner like him in the squad. For the past 2-3 years I could not meet him. However, a reunion happened when I was picked up for Board President’s XI to play the warm-up match against Sri Lanka in Kolkata. He was our trainer.

The trainer you admire the most?

My father. He dedicated his life for us. He is the one who brought me into cricket. He used to bowl me for hours in the nets and taught me the basic things. Whatever I’ve become now is just because of him.

Memories of MP dressing room?

It’s a pretty long time. For 11 years, I was part of their Ranji side and represented them at junior levels too. So I spent 16-17 years with them. They are still good friends and I keep in touch with them. In life, you tend to change. Now, I’m enjoying my stint in Kerala.

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Jalaj Saxena with MP teammates/ Image credit: Facebook

 

Selectors disappointed you too many times?

I think it’s not my duty to look at what selectors are thinking. Instead I focus on my game. That’s what my father has taught me. That’s more important. He used to say that if I look at other things, it will divert my mind and take my focus away. I never thought about it. My job is to play cricket and I really work hard. But one thing is there—my dream is to play for India. It’s not like that guys should select me. I’m working hard to achieve my dream. People think that I cross 30 and has a little chance. I’m putting my efforts. I know that it is tough. I have my own firm belief that I will play for India one day.

Your fitness regime?

In the off season, I work hard on strength training, speed work and skill-based training. I am well aware of the constraints to bowl 30-35 overs every day during the match days and pad up to open the innings. It demands a lot. So keeping that in mind, I train accordingly.

Do you believe in destiny?  

Yes, I believe in destiny. Someone once said I own a career of near misses. But I take the challenges positively. I believe that unless or until I quit, I should not say I missed, because I still have a chance. I try my level best to achieve it.

The decision to move to Kerala?

Indeed, it was a very tough decision. I was doing well for MP and I was very attached to the team members, with whom I spent a major part of time. But the decision to play for Kerala was a risk. Since I was able to perform really well for the past few years, I wanted to move to a team in plate group and help them reach elite group so that my performance would be recognised. So that was a challenge for me.

Do you ever feel desperate?

I was adjudged the best all-rounder for two consecutive years at domestic level and had won the BCCI’s Lala Amarnath award for best all-rounder too in 2014-15 season. I was anticipating good news. Hoping that I’ll get a call up, I was preparing for it. Somehow I couldn’t and felt a bit sad. I don’t blame anyone. I just take it as a challenge and put it in a positive way. I decided to make myself fully compatible by displaying a better show with the bat and the ball. I still maintain this belief.

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Jalaj Saxena and Sanju V Samson complete a run during a Ranji match in Thiruvananthapuram / Image: KCA Facebook page

 

Best moment in career?

One of my special moment is with Kerala this season. In the match against Rajasthan, I scored made 184 (79, 105) and took ten wickets – the top scorer of the match and a 10-wicket haul. I’m currently holding the record for second best bowling figures in Ranji. In 2015-16, I picked 16 wickets for 154 runs. The man at the top of the table is legendary spinner Anil Kumble, who picked 16 wickets for 99. So it is an amazing feeling when you are compared with a legend. I cherish these moments.

Style of approach?

For me planning is a very important part of life. My planning starts in the off season. I set goals and work hard to achieve them. So I try to play mental games in my mind. So I’ll be more prepared and I can get a feel of the match situation in advance.

Experience in Dhaka Premier League?

It is a different feeling. The kind of cricket played in Bangladesh league is tough. I represent Legends of Roopganj in Dhaka League. I play Chennai league too. For the past few years, I’m playing in different conditions. I try to adopt to different conditions. It will help me to improve my skills and to cope up with different situations. I try to play as much as cricket. It adds to my skills et.

Role of Yoga in life?

I do Yoga a lot and it is a routine. It gives me calmness. It teaches about life and the ways to handle your life and handle yourself. My father and grandfather had great knowledge about yoga and I feel blessed that I was imparted the lesions.

Personal take on Kerala?

Kerala is a beautiful feeling, I must say. Last season, we had camp in Wayanad and Alappuzha. Both are very beautiful places. I really enjoyed my stay here. I spent quality time in Wayanad and Alappuzha. Food is bit spicy. People say it’s god’s own country and I realized it is absolutely right. I enjoy the whole Kerala feeling. But, still I cannot understand any Malayalam word.

Influence of IPL in Indian cricket?

It provided a lot of opportunities to many people associated with the game. Because of IPL, the standard of Indian cricket has gone up. The whole dimension of cricket has changed now like fitness level, skill sets and so. It has many advantages and financially too. I’m really happy that something like that happened in India. People are getting benefited. It is very good.

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Mingling with Kerala teammates?

As I said, I never felt that I’m away from my family. Everyone here is very supportive. When I signed my contract with KCA and thinking about it, I was just a little bit concerned on how they will treat me. They were so friendly and I never felt that I’m away from home.

Trainers in Kerala?

I’m blessed to have fine coaches around you. We did very well with P Balachandran last time. He is a nice man- a proper gentleman. Dav Whatmore is a thorough professional. He will make sure that each player is well prepared before the tournament. He is up to the mark. Whatever you need, he will provide.

Facilities in Kerala?

It is really amazing. They have done a great job. Look at the stadiums in Alappuzha and Wayanad. KCA is covering every nook and corner of the state. They are proving good facilities and you can see the result. Kerala have the most talented group of players. It is just because of the facilities.

The two seasons with Kerala?

Last time, I fractured my index finger. It was a big blow. I lost 3-4 matches. This time, everything has turned out to be a perfect season. And I am having dream run.

Are you a fan of multi-day matches?

I love test matches. When I saw test matches in television, it gives me immense pleasure. When Akram or Bret Lee bowl at Sachin, it was a quite a feeling to watch them in action. It’s incomparable. I love test matches too much.

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Jalaj Saxena / Photo: Praveen M

 

Are you a foodie?

I’m not a foodie. I’m a vegetarian. There is little option here in Kerala and the land is known for non-veg. But overall, I’m liking the food.

Life beyond cricket?

For me, cricket is life. Right now, I can’t think anything beyond cricket. So for me, until I quit or retire, then only I’ll be able to think about life in other way.