Virat Kohli’s move to bring on Axar Patel with a fairly new ball to counter Zak Crawley in the first session of day one of the third Test in Ahmedabad was one from the top drawer, writes Rohit Sankar.
At the end of the sixth over of the England innings, India had already sent back the resilient Dom Sibley, but Zak Crawley, who had come in for Rory Burns at the top of the order, had raced to 23 off 23 balls, lacing some exquisite drives and some luscious flicks against India’s quicks.
The pink ball seemed to be zipping through the surface, generating good bounce and carry and even rushing the opener on a few occasions. As such, when Virat Kohli threw a fairly new ball to local boy, Axar Patel in the seventh over of the innings, it raised a few eyebrows. Those doubts rapidly dissipated as Axar sent back Jonny Bairstow with his first ball, an arm ball that beat Bairstow’s inside half of the bat and struck him on the pads. He soon had Joe Root inside edging and then leaving another arm ball that came perilously close to his off-stump.
However, Kohli’s move to bring Axar on could have been to counter Crawley, who appeared to be in pristine touch. The England opener was dismissed by the left-arm spinner Lasith Embuldeniya in all four innings he played in Sri Lanka in England’s recent tour there.
“It didn’t go my way in Sri Lanka like I’d want it to but I thought I learned a lot,” the England youngster had said before the third Test against India. “If I had another crack at it now I’d be a lot better off. I’m not going to let a few dismissals change the way I play. There were a couple of good balls in there, I hit one rash shot so for me there is no problem.”
Speaking of the imminent Axar threat before the Test, Crawley said: “He is a top-quality bowler Axar Patel and I am going to give him the respect he deserves but it is not a problem in my eyes. I’m going to keep trying to improve the way I play.”
While he knew the Axar threat was bound to come at him, what he possibly did not account for was how early the left-arm spinner was brought into the attack.
In all pink ball Tests, only once had a spinner come into bowl as the first change bowler in the first innings of a Test match – Yasir Shah on a flat Brisbane deck in 2019 against Australia. Then Yasir came in for the 11th over. Axar is the first spinner to bowl in the first seven overs of the first innings of the pink ball Test.
Under Virat Kohli, Ashwin has often been used as a first-change bowler in home Tests. The last time a spinner other than Ashwin was used as a first-change bowler in the first innings of a home Test was back in 2017 when Jayant Yadav was used in a similar capacity. Although Ravindra Jadeja has constantly been a part of India’s XI in home Tests, he last came on as a first-change bowler in the first innings in a home Test in 2016. That trend indicates that the Axar move was a match-up card played to disrupt Crawley’s free-flowing innings.
Although it did not pay off immediately – Crawley began with four watchful defensive shots off the left-arm spinner – it made the England opener more circumspect, even if he remained quite solid. It was a while before Axar could even get a sniff as he beat the bat of the England opener with a flighted delivery that turned away sharply to beat him. Axar eventually accounted for Crawley in the 25th over and his 10th over in the innings, plotting his dismissal with a series of arm balls and stock deliveries that turned away from the bat.
Despite the half-century Crawley made, Axar’s introduction slowed his scoring rate. From 23 off 23 balls, Crawley took 68 balls for his half-century and when dismissed for 53, had faced 84 balls. Off the 34 balls he faced from Axar, Crawley made just 17 runs, allowing for 26 dot balls.