All through the 190 overs when the Indian fielders chased the leather in the heat and humidity of Chennai in the first Test match, one thought would have occupied Indian captain Virat Kohli: The absence of an able substitute for Ravindra Jadeja, who wasn't able to recover in time for the England series after undergoing surgery on his thumb.
There was little doubt at the moment that Jaddu would be sorely missed throughout the series. Three matches in, that thought has all but evaporated, all thanks to Axar Patel.
Unplayable at Motera
At the refurbished stadium in Motera with the pink ball, Axar was in business right away, in front of his home crowd, breaking through on his very first delivery of the match. On a surface on which England went in with a four-prong pace attack, including all-rounder Ben Stokes, the local lad wreaked havoc.
India having lost the toss in Ahmedabad, there were a few sighs among the Indian fans, with memories of the first Test match in Chennai still fresh.
However, Axar's 6-fer ensured that England were not able to cash in as they were bowled out for a merger 112 – one of England's three worst batting performances in India. The Gujarat-born snapped up another five wickets in England's second innings to make it a total of 11 in the match, to become only the fourth bowler to pick up three consecutive five-wicket hauls in Tests.
While he bowled 21.4 overs non-stop in the first innings, Patel was only taken off for the last over in the second England innings. His 11 wickets in the match came at the cost of just 70 runs. This meant that in the patches that India were not getting wickets – and there were not many of those to be fair – England were hardly able to score off the spinner.
A Nightmare on Turning Tracks
Axar's style of bowling is tailor-made for spin-friendly pitches as the left-arm spinner's angle leaves the batsmen guessing all the time. Which one comes in with the angle? Which one leaves the right-hander after pitching? No idea!
What adds to the theatre is that Axar possesses a brilliant arm ball, which is lethal in itself. It becomes even more dangerous as the lanky spinner delivers it, not with a vertical, but a horizontal seam which makes it almost impossible for the batsmen to read in the air.
As a result, accomplished men with bats – more like toothpicks – in hand are left to decipher it off the surface. The fact that Axar's stock ball is around 90 kph and that he undercuts the ball often, it's not the easiest thing to do on a spinning wicket, and hence, the record-breaking success.
The harder pink ball, with extra lacquer, only helped his cause.
"I feel there's a little more glare (shine) on the pink ball, because of which the ball was skidding a little more off the wicket, and I got the lbw decisions because of that," Axar said in the virtual press conference at the end of the day's play on Wednesday.
"Maybe because of this difference between the red ball and the pink ball, I was getting the ball to skid more off this pitch than the one in Chennai."
Axar also makes exceptional use of his round-arm variation. This is more like a snake hissing, but hardly biting. He seldom gets wickets off those deliveries which take big turn, but that is the delivery which plants the seed of doubt in the batsmen's mind. And bingo, he nails them with a straight one.
Instant Success on Debut
After leaking runs profusely in the first Test, India welcomed Axar Patel with open arms in the next fixture. Having recovered from discomfort in the knee which he suffered on the eve of the first Test match, Patel, who was initially supposed to make his debut in the series-opener got his maiden Test cap in the second match, at the same venue.
The first time Axar Patel took the ball in an innings in Test cricket, he finished with figures of 20-3-40-2, bowling at an economy rate of exactly 2.00.
While it was Ravichandran Ashwin who did most of the damage on the other end, picking up his 29th 5-wicket haul, it was the control which Axar provided that enabled the veteran offie to bowl attacking lines.
In the second innings, Patel reaped the rewards for his metronomical bowling, bagging a 5-wicket haul in his maiden Test match. The spinner became only the ninth Indian bowler to pick up a fifer on debut and the only left-arm spinner in the club after Dilip Doshi.
While there was a lot more assistance for the spinners from day one onwards in the 2nd Test match, the ball still had to be put at the right (same) spot to allow the pitch to do its job. And Axar did it with the accuracy and the consistency of a machine.
How Would Axar Fare on Flat Decks?
There is an argument that he might not be that successful on flatter pitches, which is true. In fact, no spinner can replicate this kind of form on batting beauties, unless you are Shane Warne or Muttiah Muralitharan. Even the two greats struggled on flat decks at times.
While Axar might be put through examination on flatter pitches, his record suggests that he will be able to cope.
In First Class cricket, the consistent tweaker bowls at an impressive economy rate of 2.50.
In the recently-concluded IPL as well, Patel (ER: 6.41) was among the top 10 most economical bowlers in the edition, which is remarkable for a finger spinner without a trace of mystery.
On turning tracks, of course, he is a beast. Not only will he be a worthy successor to Ravindra Jadeja, who is five years older than him, Axar has presented a case to play alongside Jadeja and Ashwin on turning tracks.
So the next time you hear Ajinkya Rahane clapping vehemently at first slip and chirping Shabash Wasim, know that the lofty nickname is not without reason.
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