Sheldon Jackson - support act to Cheteshwar Pujara, leading man in his own right

Sheldon Jackson flicks the ball square ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Sheldon Jackson is on 99. The hundredth might come in Saurashtra's Ranji Trophy 2018-19 final against Vidarbha. Or not, if he has Cheteshwar Pujara batting with him and it's a fourth-innings chase.

No Jackson's score isn't 99 - he hasn't been dismissed for that score or been left not out on it in senior cricket either. He's hit that many sixes in his first-class career, in 108 trips to the crease. But during his 100 against Karnataka in the semi-final, he didn't add to that tally. It's the only time he's batted more than 200 balls in an innings and not hit at least one of them beyond the ropes. He batted for a minute short of six hours, making it easily the longest he has gone without hitting a six.

That's because he was batting with Pujara.

"If you're batting with someone so calm, those vibes get to you. If he's at the other end, I'm myself in a very calm state of mind. He settled everything down. He's in control, at times he's even in control of me," Jackson tells ESPNcricinfo.


"It means that, if I was batting with someone else, I might not have gone up to them and asked if I should go after a bowler," he explains. "But just because he is there I find it necessary and find the need to go up and ask him. He is the senior, he is way up ahead. He reads situations very well. If I ask him something and if he says yes, I'm okay. If he says no, I'm still very okay.

"My natural game is aggressive. There were times when I was losing my patience. The spinners were bowling and they had mid-on and mid-off in the circle. That's my strength actually. Even if I've not reached the ball, I can still clear the fielders. Whenever I was trying to attempt that, he was just coming up to me and telling me to keep on playing, look to build a stronger partnership, that they would give us runs in the front. I don't think I played even one shot in the air. I had to make an effort to just play along the ground, because playing in the air is like 50% of my game. I've scored a lot of runs playing in the air. When I felt the need, I went up to him and asked him, 'Do you think I should go after this bowler?' He straightaway said, 'No just play. They will give you loose balls anyway, which we can convert into runs rather than taking a risk and going up in the air.'

"He doesn't scold. Till date I've not seen him lose his cool. He tells you gently, but even when he tells you something in a gentle way, I take it pretty seriously. Because if it's coming from him, you should take it seriously."

And Jackson - first-class strike rate of 60.74 before his semi-final second innings and owner of a naturally attacking game - can point to how he made 100 off 217 balls as evidence that he did take Pujara's words seriously.

"If you're batting with someone so calm, those vibes get to you. If he's at the other end, I'm myself in a very calm state of mind. He settled everything down. He's in control, at times he's even in control of me." JACKSON ON BATTING WITH PUJARA

That particular innings has lifted his season tally to 838 runs, the most for Saurashtra in 2018-19, and the most Jackson has ever scored in a single Ranji season. In Pujara's absence, Jackson became the batting spine for Saurashtra, and he's played stellar supporting acts in their march to the final.

First was in the quarter-final against Uttar Pradesh, where Saurashtra chased down a Ranji record 372 in the fourth innings. Jackson's contribution was 73 not out in an unbroken 136-run stand with Pujara. In the semi-final, Saurashtra's target was 279, but on a pitch that played more tricks. And as opposed to coming in 236 for 4, he was walking in at 23 for 3, with a steamed-up Karnataka team and a partisan home crowd.

"Before I went in to bat, I remember while going down the stairs, our coach [Sitanshu Kotak] said, 'You never know, there will be a 100-run partnership and we'll be back in the game. Just be there for that 100-run partnership.' And actually that's what happened. We batted and batted," Jackson says. "When we were 23 for 3, I couldn't go in and just start playing the way I did in the first innings, where I was playing my natural game. And the ball was doing a bit, conditions were not in our favour, and the bowlers were fresh. So it was important to play balls rather than play for runs. And Pujara was continuously guiding me."

That innings has put Saurashtra in a third Ranji final since 2012-13, coincidentally the season that Jackson made his breakthrough and cemented a regular spot for himself in the side. His stats since the 2012-13 season are impressive. He averages 50.60 in first-class cricket, and has 16 centuries and 24 half-centuries in 106 innings.

In List A cricket, Jackson averages 45.78 since that time, at a strike rate of 86.73.

With that kind of consistence across seven seasons, perhaps Jackson should have played more than the stray appearances he's made outside Saurashtra. But he's played one match for India A in the longer format, one season of the Duleep Trophy only, and been part of the playing XI for one Rest of India team in the Irani Cup.

In the Duleep Trophy, in 2016-17 in Noida played with the pink ball for the first time, he made 368 runs in five innings at an average of 122.66.

In the Irani Cup, he made 59 not out in the second innings as Rest of India hunted down an incredible 480-run target to win against Mumbai. Yes, Jackson's been part of record chases before this season too.

His last appearance for India A in a 50-over match was in a warm-up game against an England XI in January 2017, where he made 59 off 56 as the entire top order came good to chase down 283 in less than 40 overs.

The numerous tattoos Jackson sports might make you think he's a fiery rebel, but he deals with the limited opportunities that he has been given with Pujara-like calm. "See I got dropped from India A after scoring 62 [59], against England. I don't know why that was, but I'm okay. My job is to score runs, do well for the team, so I'm doing my job. I could have played a lot more. The way I have performed, whether Duleep Trophy, Irani Cup, India A - things could have been better. But what's written is written. I have no grudges or anything."

The script has been a great one this season so far. Two match-winning partnerships in fourth-innings chases alongside Pujara to top an already successful season, the second one coming in great adversity.

Jackson was unbeaten on 90 at the end of the fourth day against Karnataka, with Saurashtra just 55 runs from victory. In the evening, he was sitting propped up on a bed nursing an injured ankle, a takeaway from the quarter-final, picked up during a game of foot-volleyball of all things in the tea break on the third day. Jackson describes with his hands how the swelling, visible even now, was double the size earlier. The Saurashtra back-room somehow kept him on his feet, with anti-inflammatories, painkillers and injections - and he did his job out in the middle.

In the semi-final, he fielded in positions where he wouldn't have to run too much, and had to come off the field more than once to get fresh strapping done. Then he batted in another fourth-innings chase with that ankle far from healed. The only time he put a load on it that wasn't strictly needed was when he reached his century, and celebrated by jumping in the air with fists pumping, giving full vent to his emotions with a physical release.

It was also the only time he wasn't entirely in control during a hundred that has meant more than any other so far.