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Ajaz Patel’s 10-for shouldn’t be a total shock from a player on his way to becoming New Zealand’s best after Vettori

Ajaz Patel's 10-For Was, In Its Own Way, To Be Expected From A Player Who Could Be New Zealand's Greatest After Vettori
Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

Jim Laker, Anil Kumble, Ajaz Patel. Two of the greatest spinners in cricket’s history and a 33-year-old with 29 Test wickets to his name before the start of the second India-New Zealand Test.

Taking all ten happens roughly once in every 1,000 Test matches. So Ajaz joining those two in one of cricket’s most exclusive clubs should surely rank as one of the sport’s greatest shocks, a triumph to show that every journeyman can have his day.

Well, yes and no. It’s a milestone that depends on circumstance and fortune as it does cricketing skill. Just ask Murali, who was deprived of the chance to join the club by one of Test cricket’s strangest dismissals, an unappealed-for uncelebrated caught-behind. And while Ajaz might not be in the league of Laker and Kumble, he is a fine spinner in his own right, and a player who, by the time he is done, might just rank as New Zealand’s second most decorated slow bowler after Daniel Vettori, the left-armer who remains out on his own.

In a way, Ajaz is the perfect candidate to take all ten. It’s a feat which doesn’t explicitly favour the game’s greatest or most prolific, but rather those who outclass their teammates significantly, and especially spin bowlers, capable of getting through the work required, to bowl a session and a half by themselves, as Ajaz did here. Add in a spin-friendly surface and you have all the ingredients for a record-breaker. When Ajaz had the first three, and the new ball had lost its shine, something silly already felt feasible.

Ajaz is, by a distance, superior to both Rachin Ravindra – a player you can imagine batting at No.4 for New Zealand in ten years’ time, his debut series as a twirler a prized piece of trivia – and William Somerville, whose average has is just a smudge under 45.

The pattern becomes clearer when you look not just at Kumble, who took all ten with only a green Harbhajan Singh to partner him in the spin department, but also the players to come close. The last three to take nine in an innings are Sri Lanka’s Rangana Herath, South Africa’s Keshav Maharaj, and Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan, all in Asia, and all as, by far, their side’s best spinner.

It’s important to emphasise that none of this should take away from Ajaz’s achievement, because, to exceed your teammates to such a degree, you have to be something pretty special. Ajaz was exceptional across the first two days, mastering his line and locating the right pace to bowl, with his deception of R Ashwin so complete that the off-spinner attempted to review, despite having been bowled. Also delightful was his dismissal of Cheteshwar Pujara, a batter who has built his technique against spin around being impenetrable when advancing down the track deceived in the flight and nearly knocked off his feet as the ball spun sharply. Ajaz might never be a regular feature at home, where seam bowlers dominate and spinners have to bat to get a look in. He has also struggled at home, having not taken a wicket in his three home appearances. But he has already achieved plenty in a black cap.

His Test debut in the UAE was one of the most remarkable of the modern era, with Ajaz taking 5-59 in the chase to script a collapse from 130-3 to 171 all out in a four-run win. He also claimed five wickets in the series decider, with New Zealand’s 2-1 victory over Pakistan one of the most underrated and impressive in recent history.

There was another five-for in his next away Test against Sri Lanka in Galle, while he also chipped in handily in a series-sealing victory in England earlier this year, claiming Ollie Pope in the first innings and Joe Root in the second, finishing with a pair of cheap two-fors to show he could have success outside of Asia.

Given the strength of New Zealand’s seam-bowling unit, it’s likely his chances will be limited to more helpful surfaces, but that shouldn’t detract from his success so far. His Test average sits currently at 28.10 – no other Kiwi spinner with five or more Test wickets averages less than 30. And due to his age, it’s unlikely he will take the volume of wickets to truly rival Vettori.

But New Zealand’s spin-bowling history is not especially rich. Second on the list of most wickets among tweakers is John Bracewell, who claimed 102 wickets at an average north of 35, and Vettori has more scalps then the next four on the list combined. Overtaking Bracewell is feasibly within Ajaz’s sights, and even if he doesn’t quite manage that, the honour of ending his career as New Zealand’s second best Test spinner is surely there for the taking.

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