Axar's rising up to the challenge
Replacing Jadeja was never going to be easy but so far the all-rounder is showing he is up to the task.
If India’s games against Australia and South Africa are about cementing places in the playing XI ahead of the T20 World Cup, Axar Patel is grasping the opportunity in no uncertain terms. In the just-concluded series against Australia that the hosts won 2-1, the left-arm spinner was the pick of the bowlers from either team by a distance. Despite the bat dominating the ball in all three games, he managed to stifle the Australian batters as well as make regular inroads. In three games, he returned eight wickets at a frugal economy rate of 6.3, and will hope to keep up the good work in the series against South Africa starting in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday.
Patel, of course, wouldn’t have been heading to Australia for the World Cup if Ravindra Jadeja hadn’t suffered an injury to his right knee during the Asia Cup last month. When the India squad for the six-team continental event in the UAE was announced, Jadeja was very much an integral part of the team’s plans with Patel just a standby.
Yet, naming a replacement for Jadeja once he was sidelined with injury was the most straightforward of decisions. As cricketers, the two all-rounders from Gujarat are as similar as perhaps Ahmedabad is to Rajkot. “It was always going to be between Axar and Jadeja because they do similar things. Since Jadeja is not available, we were quite clear that Axar is the guy who can do the job for us,” India skipper Rohit Sharma said before the series against Australia.
Jadeja is a more destructive batter and a better fielder than Patel, but the latter may just have the edge as a left-arm spinner in the shortest format.
In 2022, Patel has taken 16 scalps in 14 matches compared to Jadeja’s five wickets from nine matches. Data from CricViz illustrates (in matches outside India) that Axar has been bowling a tad slower in the air than Jadeja this year while extracting a bit more bounce. Axar also operates from a slightly wider angle and has the advantage of greater height.
Although the breakthroughs may not come with the frequency that they did against Australia, the 28-year-old will be expected to bowl a stump-to-stump line and exert control against the South Africans too. What was impressive about Patel especially in the third game against the Aussies in Hyderabad was his strong comeback in the space of a four-over spell. After being dispatched for 27 runs in his first two overs, he bowled five dots in his third over while claiming two wickets in his final over, finishing up with 4-0-33-3. That he bowled three overs in the powerplay makes his effort even more commendable. One of the victims was the in-form Matthew Wade, caught and bowled to a delivery that gripped the surface.
Come the T20 World Cup, though, Patel’s major challenge will be to find a way to be effective on Australian pitches that are not known to aid finger-spin. He hasn’t yet played a T20I in Australia, where batters can hit through the line if surfaces offer minimal turn.
“In Australia, we will be playing in completely different conditions to what we have been playing so far. Adapting to those conditions will be the biggest challenge for the players,” batting coach Vikram Rathour told a media conference on Tuesday.
Where India may really feel Jadeja’s absence is with the bat and on the outfield. Axar has shown improvements as a No 7 batter – he made an ODI career-best of 64* off just 35 balls to help India chase down 312 against West Indies in Trinidad in July – but doesn’t instill the same fear as Jadeja with his hitting prowess in the slog overs. Nor does he provide the flexibility that Jadeja does by being able to bat in different positions. According to Axar, his T20 batting has become an area of focus only after he began playing for Delhi Capitals in the IPL under coach Ricky Ponting.
“For Delhi Capitals, I was batting at No 6 in the finisher’s role. In fact, Ricky (Ponting) told me that I would be the finisher in the team,” Axar told reporters recently. “After being given that responsibility, I started working harder in the nets to prepare for the role. I started thinking about what I needed to do to succeed in the position. Once you are able to finish a couple of games, your confidence goes up.”