Six-and-a-half years since his international debut, and three years after he last played for India, Axar Patel looks set for a Test debut. Aadya Sharma revisits an old conversation with the left-arm spinner.
It’s difficult to recall Axar Patel’s most significant hour as a cricketer. As an all-rounder who has picked up 80 IPL wickets and a hat-trick, he’s always seemed to operate in the shadows; some would even say he’s probably best remembered for the one night MS Dhoni took him for 23 off the last over.
Midway through the 2020 IPL, Ravichandran Ashwin, Delhi Capitals’ lead spinner, wondered why his teammate Axar wasn’t getting the adulation he probably deserved. “It is somewhat like football where people are playing their roles. One such player is Axar.”
“He always goes under the radar. He bowls those good overs that build the pressure up for someone else to capitalise with wickets.”
In an era governed by numbers, players are dissected by the sharp blade of statistics for selection, and you won’t find Axar topping charts. He isn’t your head chef; he’s a saucier – he won’t hog the show, but he sure will play his part with gusto.
In playing style, he matches Ravindra Jadeja, India’s all-format superstar – Axar too bowls no-nonsense, slow left-arm darts, supplies lower-order batting punch, and is an athletic fielder.
And, much like Jadeja, Axar made an early entry into international cricket but didn’t hit his strides right away. Unlike Jadeja, though, Axar’s India career trailed off at the age of 24. Now, three years since he last played for India, Test cricket appears to be calling his name. After a knee injury ruled him out of the first Test, he has been declared fit for the second.
Between 2014 and 2017, when he was a regular in India’s white-ball squads, Axar snared 58 wickets in four IPL seasons. However, as Jadeja’s stature grew leaps and bounds, Axar’s chances in the Indian side diminished, and he ended up consigned to watch the other left-armer do his thing. Picked for the 2015 World Cup, he was unable to get a game in the biggest show of all.
“When I debuted in 2014 at such a young age, it was a big opportunity because I got selected over so many others, so many hard-working players,” Axar told Wisden India in 2019. “I got a chance in the [World Cup] squad, that’s a different thing that I didn’t play since Jadeja and Ashwin were there [as spinners]. But, I take it in a different way – there are so many people competing, but I am so close [to getting in].”
2017 onwards, the stocks of Jadeja and others rose further, to Axar’s detriment. In Tests, Jadeja was setting an example for all other all-rounders to follow, improving his batting chops considerably and moving from a supporting to a more central role with the ball. In limited-overs cricket, the rise of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav made it difficult for any other spinners to make their way up, but Axar was aware that, by working further on his batting, he could edge out competition.
“Competition is there in the spin department, but if, along with bowling, I can focus on my batting, it will give me an early opportunity,” Axar said. “In India A matches, for example, I am focussing on both facets, because my chance can [then] increase. I’m not worried about the plenty of other options.”
In 2018, County Championship action with Durham gave him the opportunity to move away from a team structure and “focus on my own game”, while building “the temperament for four-day cricket”. On debut, he scored a 99-ball 95 not out, top-scoring against Glamorgan. His stint returned 18 wickets in four games at 13.05, including a seven-wicket haul against Warwickshire where Ian Bell and Dom Sibley were two of his victims.
Armed with a unique experience, Axar was soon handed another India call-up, but a left-index finger injury stalled his progress once again, forcing him out of the 2018 Asia Cup. Incidentally, it was Jadeja who took his place and went on to play in the World Cup the following year. Crushing as it was, at that point, few things would have given him more motivation than his own journey to reach international level by the age of 20.
In fact, Axar almost never made it as a cricketer, instead opting to study and become an engineer. But he was pushed towards the game by his father, who took up the responsibility to support his son lest his dreams fell flat.
“You want to get settled in life, right? his father told him when he was in the tenth grade. “I’ll get you settled, that’s my responsibility. You take care of the rest, because I really want you to play cricket.”
As he progressed through the ranks, Axar had the support of Gujarat teammate Jasprit Bumrah, who played U16 and U19 cricket with him, and the guidance of Parthiv Patel, his first first-class skipper. However, he did endure plenty of self-doubt early in his career. “At the early stages, there was a lot of toil and questions about whether I would even get a chance. I had to prove myself. The early days were really difficult.”
By then, Saurashtra cricket had seen the emergence of Jadeja, born five years apart and just 200 miles away from Axar. The all-rounder’s gradual progress into stardom was inspirational for Axar, hailing from the same state, as he set about proving himself.
“Jadeja’s from Gujarat as well, so we speak a lot”, Axar said. “[He’s proved] if you keep playing continuously, you’ll slowly keep maturing. The way he’s playing and performing, it’s a very proud thing for us. If we also keep playing like this, we will also mature and get better. We need to follow that [principle], our basics, and not think much about the rest.”
As has happened before in his career, Axar is getting another chance at stepping into Jadeja’s shoes, but the challenge is even bigger, filling in for the No.3-ranked Test all-rounder in the world. He’s been on the cusp of a Test debut in the past, but there have always been questions around his underwhelming batting numbers, and the little impact he’s created with the bat in his limited-overs India appearances, as well as doubts over him translating his white-ball skills in the longer formats.
In the 2019/20 Ranji Trophy season, Axar exhibited his vastly improving red-ball skills, picking up 27 wickets in six games 22.59, and making two consecutive 80-plus contributions with the bat. The numbers were enough to see him in line for a Test debut in the series opener before his untimely injury.
Now he’s back, though, and with two out of the remaining three Tests in Gujarat, his home state, Axar stands a strong chance of finally making the cut. Time will tell if he flies under the radar once again, or finds his moment of glory.