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India v England

Forget the pitch, this was a masterclass from Axar Patel

by Rohit Sankar 4 minute read

Axar Patel’s one-two punch against England’s right-handers in the Ahmedabad Test was a masterclass on how to bowl spin in the sub-continent, writes Rohit Sankar.

Axar Patel made his Test debut less than a fortnight ago. He already has three five-wicket hauls and came within a DRS review of a Test hat-trick on day two of the third Test in Motera, Ahmedabad, looking every inch an international-class operator since he arrived.

His value on this wicket was evident right from his very first ball, when he came into the attack and struck first ball against Jonny Bairstow with a quicker one that slid off the deck and rapped his pads, while his working over of Zak Crawley was complete.

Cannily used as a match-up move to counter a perceived weakness against left-arm spin, Axar quickly showed he could be a bigger test for England batsmen than Ravichandran Ashwin with his one-two punch. Crawley watched cluelessly as four balls spun past his edge, but he could hardly be blamed for playing inside the line; not doing so was the biggest mistake England’s right-handers kept making against the left-arm spinner.

An age-old adage in Test cricket in the sub-continent is that on a ‘turning’ surface – even with Virat Kohli terming it a “good pitch for batting”, the reality remains that the Test finished inside two days with spinners taking 28 of the 30 wickets to fall – the one that does not spin poses as much a threat as the one does. Axar proved this yet again with relentless accuracy from around the wicket to England’s right-handers, who accounted for seven of England’s top eight in this Test, befuddling them as much with the one that went straight on as with the one that didn’t.

With the stumps under threat ball after ball, the sweep – a shot that the visitors, in particular Joe Root, had used to great effect in the first Test in Chennai – became hazardous, with the speed at which Axar bowled helping him exploit any indecision. The defensive push was even more dangerous with playing inside the line posing a threat to the outside edge and playing for the spin bringing LBW and bowled into play.

It is this uncertainty that Axar diligently exploited. Switching between his arm and stock ball, combined with subtle variations in release points and pace, has catapulted Axar from a fringe player in Test cricket to one who could be the third member of a three-prong spin attack alongside Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja (when fit) in home Tests. His similarity with Jadeja, aside from the accuracy, extends to how miserly each can be, cutting down the run flow and choking batsmen for room. It’s a quiet marvel that India have barely noticed the absence of Jadeja, perhaps their most important player in home Tests, and they largely have Axar to thank.

The stats tell the story of the simplicity of his approach. Fourteen of his 18 Test wickets are right-handers. More importantly, 10 of those 14 wickets have been either bowled or LBW, suggesting how dangerous Axar is with his arm ball, or the one that slides in straight after landing.

Unlike traditional left-arm spinners, Axar’s stock ball does not have a great seam presentation and wobbles through the air. Any dip or probability for drift reduces with this, but what it does exaggerate is the effect of his natural variation, or the one that slides through the surface. If the ball lands on the seam, it turns away from the right hander, but if it instead lands on the leather, it slides on with the angle. This randomness, and the very similar action he has when delivering the two variations, makes Axar a massive threat.

The pink ball might further have aided his case as he revealed in the press conference after day one. “My aim was to bowl wicket to wicket and use the help on offer. In Chennai, the ball wasn’t skidding. But here it was skidding which resulted in more lbw decisions,” Axar had said at the press conference after the first day’s play. “The pink ball had more glare, so it was skidding more after pitching. I got more skid on this wicket than Chennai. As such, I was focussing more on under-cutting the ball. I tried to bowl a lot faster so that I can take more advantage with the new ball.”

After a six-wicket haul on day one, Axar knew the threat his straighter ones posed – all four of his wickets of right-handers in the first innings were off arm balls – and he wasted no time using them in the second innings. Each of his first three balls in the second innings slid on with the arm at a pace of greater than 89kmph. The shiny lacquer on the pink ball, that Axar hinted was a factor in his sliders being more effective, ensured the batsmen were hurried when defending or playing shots. With a wider release point, subtle pace change and immaculate accuracy, Axar was virtually unplayable.

“It is impossible to sweep him. It is impossible to defend him,” Virat Kohli said in the post-match presentation ceremony. It couldn’t have been put in simpler terms.

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