Axar Patel: boy next door who will hunt you down
- The Gujarat spinner, in his own words, has had a "dream year". A fifer on Test debut and with five five-wicket hauls in five Tests, Patel has made a massive statement on the big stage.
The way Axar Patel has gone through batters' defences this season, it almost feels like he bowls with the help of some uncanny clairvoyance. It's like he has seen the batter getting into a position to play before it has happened, and then released the perfect ball to deceive him.
Of course, he got help from the pitches, especially in the home series against England earlier this year, but his five-wicket haul in Kanpur in the first Test against New Zealand in November came on a really low and slow surface.
Stuck initially with the label of a white-ball player, Patel grabbed and ran with the first opportunity he got, with a stunning fifer on debut in the second Test against England in Chennai. He hasn't looked back since, with a tally of 36 wickets in five Tests, including five five-wicket hauls and one 10-wicket match haul. The Gujarat spinner has created a storm but won't be in South Africa for India's Test tour because of a minor injury.
Patel's IPL stardom and his explosive start in India colours is yet to make a dent in his boy-next-door image. He remains rooted in his life in the small city of Nadiad in Gujarat, around an hour's drive from Ahmedabad.
After helping India wrap up the series against New Zealand starring with both bat and ball, he went straight home.
“The next day after returning from Mumbai, he was at the ground to meet everyone,” said Manish Desai, current president of the Kheda District Cricket Association, headquartered at Nadiad. “That’s his nature—he still maintains the mindset of a tier-3 city boy who is very much attached to his roots."
Patel, like most India players, has had a hectic year where he has been in bio-bubbles and on the road for a long time now, so this extended break at home, where he will work on his rehab before heading to the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru, will not be entirely unwelcome. He should be fit for the ODI series in South Africa starting January 19.
HOME SWEET HOME
Patel’s homeliness is well known among his coaches and colleagues. When he showed early promise, the Gujarat Cricket Association (GCA) wanted him to start playing for Ahmedabad District.
“GCA is our headquarters and I was repeatedly told to send him (Patel) to Ahmedabad, where he would get more matches and better practice facilities. I asked him about it. He said, ‘no sir, I want to play for my district’,” Desai said.
Patel’s former Gujarat coach Hitesh Majmudar also recounts his eagerness to head back home after practice sessions in Ahmedabad. “If the practice gets over at 6pm, he would ask, ‘Should I go home, I will join tomorrow’? If he gets two hours' time, he would go back to Nadiad. He is very fond of his friends. His nature is like that, down to earth.” Majmudar is Gujarat’s most successful coach with all three major titles under him (T20 Mushtaq Ali, Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Ranji Trophy).
Yet the small-town state of mind has not held him back when it came to the big stage. When he was first picked to play in India’s One-Day side in 2014, the cricket fraternity in Nadiad was a little apprehensive about how he would cope amid the big names in the dressing room. Their fears were unfounded. “He is a confident person. When he went to play for India, he never had the feeling that he comes from a small town. He was very confident,” said Desai.
The big names, the nervousness of not meeting expectations, the step up to the next level, the intense competition for a spot—none of these seemed to bother Patel unduly.
“He is very sincere with his cricket, but he doesn’t take extra pressure. You will not find him getting nervous. He is a happy-go-lucky guy. He works very hard but is not worried about performances after giving his best,” said Majmudar, under whom Patel made his senior team debut.
Yet, despite his brilliant performances, finding a regular spot in the Indian Test team will be a struggle. He will be vying for a place with the well-established Ravindra Jadeja (225-plus Test wickets) and the country's pre-eminent spinner R Ashwin (400-plus). Patel’s take on it is straightforward: “Whenever I go to the ground, I try and enjoy and not think about whether Ashwin bhai and Jaddu are there,” he said after the Kanpur Test when asked if he felt any extra pressure being in the XI with two world-class spinners. “I don’t think about whether my role is a lead one or whether there are senior bowlers around me. I only think about my bowling and what is required to be done in that particular spell.”
In the last Test of the season that India played at home, Patel’s skills with the bat also came to the fore. With the team in a spot of bother against New Zealand, he struck his first half-century in the first innings and backed it up with a quick-fire unbeaten 41 in the second. Given that his competition is with the three-dimensional Jadeja who excels in batting and fielding apart from bowling, it was an important step in his career.
An all-format player, Patel also led Delhi Capitals’ spin attack in the 2021 IPL season with 15 scalps in 12 games at an impressive economy rate of 6.65.
THE BIG IMPROVEMENT
What stands out about Patel's bowling is the drift that he generates. It often leaves the batter searching for the line and if he gets late drift, it can sneak in through the bat and pad. The skills, said his former coach, were acquired long ago, it's the fitness to back those skills over extended spells that's new.
"It’s the strength that he has developed now, by working with good trainers and physios, which is the difference," Majmudar said. "And stability is important; if you are in and out (of the team) it gets difficult. Now, wherever he goes (India or IPL), he is in the team. Stability makes you confident. Plus, you only earn stability when you perform, and he has performed.
“He bowls looking at the wicket; if it is the red soil or black, he will bowl accordingly. He knows when to contain, when to go for wickets. You can’t say that he is a big turner, but he has got a lot more variations and adept at varying his pace.”
Patel’s mantra is to go with a clear mindset and gameplan. “When I have the ball in hand, I just try and see to it that I am enjoying my bowling, trying to read the wicket and understand what’s happening, how it is behaving and plan accordingly,” the left-arm spinner said during the series against New Zealand. “Actually, this has been my dream year. The way I bowled in England series and now how the New Zealand series panned out, in between there was IPL...my endeavour is to keep improving and look at areas where I need to get better. All the hard work that I have put in all these years has finally yielded results this year."
THE TEAM MAN
Supremely confident, Patel oozes an easy warmth. It’s a trait of good leaders.
“In the Gujarat dressing room he is very lively and talks to everyone. He will not let you feel like he is an India player. Even if he has played a simple club game with a player, he remembers it and will talk to him,” said Majumdar.
When training in Nadiad, he goes out of his way to work with young cricketers.
“There are 150-odd kids at practice in our district association’s ground. The best thing about him is that he will go to the small kids’ nets and bowl to them so that they can drive against him. The kid will go back and say, ‘today I hit Axar for a four’," said Desai.