India vs England: Axar Patel stars on debut as Virat Kohli's India make a strong comeback
Sometime during the warm-ups before the fourth and final day of this Chennai Test began, England captain Joe Root—still in his training kit—leaned over a cricket bat on the match pitch and didn’t move for a minute or so. No tapping of the bat on the dusty crease, no nod of the head towards a phantom bowler; none of that. Root simply stood there, possibly visualizing himself overcoming a debutant left-arm spinner who had dismissed him in his first innings and nearly done so again in his ongoing second.
It all began with Patel’s very first ball in Test match cricket on Sunday, a delivery with which he ended up finding the outside edge of a batsman who had scored two double centuries and a daddy hundred in the space of his last three Tests in Asia. Very next over, debutant Patel ended up making Root his maiden Test victim anyway. But on that day, the second day of the Test, their battle didn’t last long enough for the crowd in Chennai to sink their teeth into.
That game of cat-and-mouse between an innings-old spinner and a 101-Test-old batting legend ended up taking place on Tuesday, when Root’s relatively long vigil was put to an end by Patel once again, his fourth scalp of a debut five-wicket-haul that ended up ushering India towards a series-levelling victory by a record margin of 317 runs.
There would be no miracles for England, chasing a record victory target of 482; their last seven batsmen lasted just a little over a session on Day 4. All ten English wickets fell to spin; Patel took half of those and Ashwin added three to add to his first-innings fifer and a sensational century in India’s second innings.
The second innings contest between Root and Patel began in the final overs of Day 3 itself, but not without Root doing everything in his power to avoid it. When R Ashwin had gotten rid of opener Rory Burns just before close of play on Monday, Root sent in Jack Leach as the nightwatchman, who was promptly dismissed by Patel for a golden duck to smoke Root out of the dressing room. Such a script, then, all but ensured that the first ball Patel bowled to Root on Monday evening—in the final over before stumps to add to the drama—ended up with a loud LBW appeal and the batsman was saved only by the grace of umpire’s call.
The first two balls Patel bowled to Root on Tuesday also beat the batsman all ends up. One puffed up from brown dust and the other turned away from his bat after pitching on hard soil. But after that, the England captain found his stride, sometimes riskily, to get out of Patel’s grasp. To the point that after Patel’s first three overs of the day, Virat Kohli brought Ashwin on from the other end for assistance. Ashwin couldn’t put a foot wrong in his home ground for the first three days of this Test and he would strike without having to wait on the fourth day as well.
First ball of his day, Ashwin spun the ball into Dan Lawrence’s body, which turned through the legs of the charging batsman—like a nutmeg in football—and wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant did well to not lose sight of the ball and flick off the bails. Less than 30 overs later, Pant’s fast-improving 'keeping skills would once again be on display, this time his stumping of the big-hitting Moeen Ali (he hit five sixes in all) ending the match. But between those two stumpings, the formalities of India’s endgame revolved around stopping Root’s defiance.
In the over after Lawrence’s fall, the England captain drove Patel down the ground for four and an over later he even pulled a shortish ball through square to find his scoring touch once again. This made Kohli end Patel’s spell and replace him with Ishant Sharma. But when Patel returned, eight overs later, he too would find his touch by remembering the basics that gave him a Test cap in the first place.
“There was plenty of help from the pitch. So, my game-plan was to keep the speed of the ball up and not vary the length too much; keep it stump-to-stump and wait for the batsman to make mistakes,” he would say later of his strategy, possibly the most apt description of the wicket of Ollie Pope that he induced in his comeback over. The ball was full and “stump-to-stump” as Patel put it, which was mistakenly swept directly into the deep square-leg fielder’s hands by Pope.
A couple of overs later, he spun it wildly past Root’s defence. The England captain had now spent 91 balls at the crease in the fourth innings, nearly twice as much ball-time as the next best in Lawrence’s 53. But the 92nd ball of his innings would be his final one, as Patel would find enormous bounce from a length. It spat up and clipped Root’s glove, en route to Ajinkya Rahane's smile at first slip.
The end of Root caused the end of tailender Olly Stone in his following over, trapped LBW first ball, to hand him a five-for. But when that over ended with Ali bashing him for three consecutive sixes—the last of those landing outside the ground—Patel didn’t feature in the Test again. He didn’t need to anyway, and was later modest about taking five on debut, the first Indian spinner to do so since Ashwin did it a decade ago in Delhi.
“I’m just happy that I could bowl well when the team needed me,” said Patel, a man of few words, at the post-match presentation. But his captain made up for it with high praise. “We actually would have played Axar in the first Test too if he didn’t have that niggle,” said Kohli. “He was very keen to get on to the field. And being a left-arm spinner on a pitch like that, where it was turning square, he was all smiles and couldn’t wait to get the ball in his hands.”
Patel would be looking forward to the remainder of this series as well, as it shifts to Ahmedabad—the ball turns square in Patel’s backyard too.