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India v New Zealand

The third wheel in India’s spin attack, Axar Patel is carving a reputation on his own

Axar Patel
by Rohit Sankar 4 minute read

Once labelled as a limited-overs bowler, Axar Patel has had a fairytale start to this Test career, silencing critics by sticking to his strengths, writes Rohit Sankar.

At 21 years old, while still learning the ropes in a sport that he never really chose on his own, Axar Patel was at the receiving end of a blunt, undoubtedly harsh remark from Sunil Gavaskar. “He just rolls the ball, he does not have the flight and his deliveries are very much predictable. He does not turn the ball unless the pitch is favourable. He is slightly slower than medium pace,” Gavaskar told NDTV in 2015 when asked if the young left-armer could be a potential Test spinner.

Six years hence, Axar has had a fairytale start to his Test career, forcing his critics to seek cover. In four Tests and one innings, Axar has 32 wickets with a four-plus wicket haul in all but one of his seven innings in Test cricket. “It’s like a dream within a dream,” Axar stated at the end of the third day’s play at Kanpur where his five-for prematurely ended New Zealand’s innings.

Being the third wheel in a strong spin attack is never easy, especially if the impression around you is that of a one-trick pony. Axar has Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, two of the best modern-day Test spinners, in the same team, and rarely gets the first go at a batter. At Kanpur, on a flat wicket, he did not come on until the 24th over in the innings, as the fifth bowler, behind the two quicks and both spinners. He was taken off after two overs, and did not return until the 43rd over in the innings.

A restrictive spinner, known for containing batters with stump-to-stump lines, Axar was quickly written off as limited-overs material. It’s a perception he has worked hard on changing, especially given the national team already had someone very similar to him in Jadeja. While taken aback by Gavaskar’s criticism all those years back, Axar took it on the chin and continued working on what he felt was his biggest strength: bowling back of a length and troubling batters with bounce and accuracy.

A month later, he was routing a visiting South Africa A side in Wayanad with a stirring spell of 6-6-0-4 in the second innings. Six years later, little has changed. It took another injury to Ravindra Jadeja for Axar to get his chance in whites against England, but he stuck to those same strengths. Skidding the ball through on turners made him a threat of a different kind. Batters just couldn’t relax against him. He constantly threatened the stumps.

With maturity, he learned to undercut the ball, maintaining the same grip on the ball as his stock delivery that turned away from the right-handers. Being a fast bowler in his early years, it was easier for Axar to impart pace on the ball. At the NCA, he worked on making his arm ball, which is a variation in itself to other arm balls because he delivers it with a horizontal seam, more potent. His first-class career stats are a reflection of the kind of bowler he is. Nearly 45 percent of his 167 wickets in first-class cricket are bowled or lbw.

Here in Kanpur, on a flat track and with New Zealand off to a solid start with a near-150-run opening stand, Axar’s challenge was to disprove the theory that he just relied on the pitch and his accuracy for wickets. Axar had to vary his pace and length and deceive batters in the air. He did just that by using his non-turning delivery as the underlying threat. Patience was imperative on a wicket like this, and once it started to show uneven bounce, Axar was right in the thick of the action.

He mixed up the high-arm release delivery by often going wider with a slingy action, all while maintaining impeccable accuracy. The results were exceptional. More than the non-turning ones that would usually fetch Axar his wickets, the one that was delivered from wider and turning after angling in, threatened the batters more.

“I was using the crease more today, [which I] didn’t do that much yesterday in those 10 overs. But today, I was using the crease more, [by bowling] wide off the crease or closer to the stumps. I also got some purchase from the wicket so I did that,” Axar said in the post-day press conference.

Learning on the go is increasingly important if you want to stand out as the third spinner in a three-man spin attack. Axar’s stellar start in Test cricket is the reflection of an understanding of his own strengths and a willingness to step outside his comfort zone and improvise during match situations.

“Axar Patel, seasoned campaigner, I wouldn’t call him a youngster,” former head coach Ravi Shastri had said during his debut series against England. On Saturday he merely lived up to those words.

 

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