Friday, February 26

Axar Patel, the last squad ready to torment England at home | England in India 2020-21

In all the noise about India’s most crushing defeat of England at home, of Ravichandran Ashwin’s miracles with bat and ball, of England’s rotation policy, of Moeen Ali, of wicket status, of expressiveness in the field of Virat Kohli, Rishabh Pant and Ben Foakes, the debut of a man rather slipped under the carpet. Lean and lanky left-arm spinner Axar Patel with an air of Ravi Shastri in his mustache, marked his Test debut with five wickets in the second inning and the award of firing Joe Root twice.

Patel was recruited into the team for Test 1 as a replacement for Ravindra Jadeja, who will miss the entire test series after dislocating his left thumb in Test 3 against Australia. Patel then missed the first test due to a knee injury, but used his time on the sidelines to do his homework. “I noticed that Joe Root does a lot of sweeps and reverse sweeps,” he said, “and I thought with the speed at which he threw, I had a chance to get him out and I wanted my first wicket to be his firing.”

And so in the second test it happened, with Kohli turning to Patel with England staggering at 19 by two in the first inning. In his second over, he spun one that sank into the field, slowed and came out of the dust. Root swept and finished Ashwin in the short thin leg. Patel completed his Root double almost immediately after lunch on the final day when he convinced the ball to do a double axis, go off the field and catch Root’s gloved hand before traveling to slip. As close to unplayable as unplayable it comes.

Patel was just 19 when he was chosen by the Mumbai Indians for the 2013 IPL, although he spent the season on the bench. He moved to Kings XI Punjab before joining Delhi Capitals as their second most expensive player before the 2019 season. He also plays first-class cricket for Gujarat, where he won the Ranji Trophy, India’s first-class national competition, in 2017 under the leadership of Parthiv Patel. He has praised RP Singh, the now retired left-arm fast pitcher from India, who played for Gujarat on that Ranji Trophy-winning team, for helping him understand the mindset of hitters. He’s also played a lot of cue ball cricket for India, with helpful last-order runs to add to his left arm spin.

The next test, which begins on February 24, is in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, and Patel’s homeland. The massive new stadium, which can seat 110,000 fans in a year without Covid, has a state-of-the-art drain to soak up any moisture in record time – music to Patel’s ears, if not Joe Root’s.

Patel has also spent time in England. He played four first-class games for Durham in 2018, reinforcing a team that had lost half its players after being relegated. He made his wet Cardiff debut in August and broke 95 of 99 balls in a low-scoring game, before making the mistake of allowing Durham number 11 Chris Rushworth to strike, who was quickly released. Martin Emmerson, the local BBC radio reporter, recalls asking Patel why he had not tried to monopolize the strike. “The gentleman on the other side told me he knew how to hit,” he replied with extreme courtesy.

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Emmerson remembers a young man who came “as a spinning bowler who knew how to hit a little bit, but seemed like a separate class of hitting.” Patel also took what remains his best first-class figures of seven of 54 against Warwickshire at Edgbaston.

The only mystery surrounds the name in the score book: Axar. His real name is Akshar, which means letter. When I was in the Indian U19 team, I had to get a passport before the World Cup. His father ran an errand to his school to collect proof of his name, but the principal misspelled it on the certificate. So your passport and then your driver’s license are misspelled. The man himself is relaxed about it, simply licking his lips for another shot against England, this time in his homeland.

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