Axar Patel: The perfect replacement
- After three innings bowling in whites for the very first time, Patel has returned 2/40, 5/60 and 6/38. Suffice to say, he has surpassed expectations, perhaps his own.
There will come a time when Axar Patel steps aside for Ravindra Jadeja. He knows he has to. In fact, Patel is quite used to this drill. For the bulk of his brief shorter-format career, Patel has served as a like-for-like replacement for Jadeja. He has a high release that prevents batsmen from getting underneath the ball, variations that make up for his occasional lack of turn, uses the long handle well as a lower-order bat and is a decent fielder if not in the same class as Jadeja. But then, who is?
Patel’s last appearance for India in T20s was in 2018, 2017 if you consider ODIs. But only 10 out of his career’s 38 ODIs were outside the subcontinent, including six in Zimbabwe. You get the drift by now. Patel is 28. It is possible he has made peace with the hastily drawn conclusion that restricted him to playing only the Indian Premier League the last three years. But life keeps springing surprises.
So, after three innings bowling in whites for the very first time, Patel has returned 2/40, 5/60 and 6/38. Suffice to say, he has surpassed expectations, perhaps his own. Thankfully, Ravichandran Ashwin’s brain is also working in overdrive. With the off-spinner, you know there will be leg-side traps, arm balls, square turners, dipping long-hops and balls that leap out of the rough. Patel is the perfect foil with his steady stream of stump-to-stump balls zipped through the air that constantly checks the batsmen’s back-foot defence. It’s an unabridged version of his T20 approach, one that fetched him 100 dots last IPL and an economy of 6.41, the second-best (after Washington Sundar) for any bowler to play at least 15 matches. Patel extracted more spin in Chennai. In Ahmedabad, the only time the ball turned was when he pulled it back, making it land on its seam. But Patel’s most threatening delivery at both venues is the ball that goes straight through, one that can’t be picked out of the hand. It is the reason Patel looks almost unplayable at times.
On Wednesday alone, five out of six dismissals by Patel came off deliveries that didn’t spin much. In fact, his first delivery of the day arrowed in full to Jonny Bairstow, impacting on middle stump and hitting middle and leg. Ben Stokes too was fooled by a delivery that didn’t spin after hitting the length spot. Ben Foakes and Jofra Archer were done in by the skidding arm ball but the one wicket that required more work than others was Zak Crawley’s. The 25th over started with Patel sliding one down the leg before he adjusted his line to bring the ball on to Crawley’s off-stump. The third ball jumped and spun past him, pushing the England opener to his back-foot before the fourth delivery rushed on to him straight from an angle. Set up beautifully, Crawley was clearly confused about his shot selection, thus offering a forward defence, expecting turn. Only for the ball to hold its trajectory and take his off stump.
“Axar is good at getting one to skid on and one to turn,” said Crawley later. “This pitch suited him quite nicely and he bowled well, to be fair to him.”
As a batsman you won’t come across a bigger dilemma when slow bowlers start getting the ball to skid. What also kept Patel in business in Ahmedabad was his speed, varying between 88.1 km/hr and 95.6km/hr.
“My strength is to bowl wicket-to-wicket and use the help on offer. In Chennai the ball wasn’t skidding. But here the ball is skidding, probably because of the shine (lacquer) which is why we got more LBWs. 85-90kph is an optimum speed here,” said Patel after the first day’s play. In Chennai, Patel was quicker, between 91.3 km/hr and 100.4 km/hr, to get more spin.
“The way the wicket is behaving, you know there is spin, but the spin is there only if you put some strength behind the ball,” he said in Chennai. “If you leave it like that or flight it too much, then there is not much turn from the pitch. The speed has to be high. Otherwise the batsman is going back and has time to adjust. Speed is very important for a spinner on this pitch.”
With the pink ball skidding more than the red ball, all Patel had to do was not waver from the stump-to-stump line. Not once did Patel pitch the ball outside leg-stump to right-handers in the first innings. The only thing that kept changing was the amount of spin on the ball. “Because it was skidding so much, I was undercutting it even more and trying to bowl a little quicker than usual too,” he said.
It isn’t easy, especially for a bowler with white-ball credentials, to do almost everything Jadeja does so well at home. But Patel has been able to pull it off by staying true to his limitations and thinking like a T20 bowler. Gone are the days bowlers didn’t mind getting carted for a few boundaries for that chance to lure batsmen into a false shot. The same can now be achieved by denying them scoring opportunities consistently. “With a lot of T20 cricket happening, you see its effect in Tests as well with batsmen being more aggressive. That’s why keeping a tight line and pushing it quicker through the air is getting more success,” said Patel. “If the batsman is defending well, then you go on the back foot in your mind. But if he’s not defending well and going for sweeps and reverse-sweeps you feel there’s a chance.”
On pitches that don't produce much turn, you need time to analyse batsmen. Thankfully for Patel, he got an uninterrupted 22-over spell on Wednesday. Against visiting teams like England who have suddenly decided to stop playing the sweep shot, long spells have the potential to play havoc. In Patel’s case, it meant more dot balls, leaving the batsman in a rut and allowing him time to set up his prey. Everything worked like a charm. Ashwin averaged 1.63 runs in 16 overs on Wednesday. Patel averaged 1.75 in 21.4 overs. In Chennai, Patel bowled 41 overs. Ashwin bowled 41.5 overs. This shows how well Patel has complemented Ashwin. In fact, there were times he looked more menacing. This is what Patel has done in the space of two Tests--not give his team a chance to miss Jadeja. History is never too kind to replacements. But Patel is proving to be an exception. He should get three more innings to prove he belongs at this level but it’s unlikely to affect his long-term fortunes. So enjoy this brief Test rendezvous with Axar Rajeshbhai Patel. Take heart from the untiring consistency with which he keeps attacking the stumps. Rarely are transitions as seamless as this.