Yearender 2021: Ajaz and Axar make it year of the Patel wrap

The Pandemic year locked them in quarantines but athletes around the world found resilience to call time on people-pleasing and discovered their moral voice to say NO. Gymnast Simone Biles, tennis star Naomi Osaka and Virat Kohli spoke their minds and defied convention. The year also saw athletes discover the full potential of social media – not just the big names but even the hitherto unknowns from small towns became stars in their own right. There were also some breakthrough performances that will stand the test of time. The hockey captain who reawakened a country’s nostalgic pride, a Mumbai-born New Zealand cricket returned to his roots to create history, a badminton star who finally learnt how to marry art with commerce, and the man who launched his gold-plated javelin to quench a nation’s thirst.

The year would end as it had begun for the Patels — Axar and Ajaz. As afterthoughts, in obscurity, far from the isle of fame and fortunes. Axar has had a superb start to his Test career at home, but it’s inconceivable that he will make a Test appearance outside Asia in the foreseeable future. Ajaz has been overlooked for New Zealand’s home Test series against Bangladesh, and it’s improbable that he will get a steady stream of games at home either. It’s the twisted reality of the left-arm spin twins — one will barely get a game at home, the other might only fetch a game at home.

It was just how the year began for them. As afterthoughts, in obscurity, far from the isle of fame and fortunes. Axar, it was presumed, was pitted forever in the white-ball realm, an alternative to Ravindra Jadeja when the all-rounder wanted a break or was injured. Ajaz’s fate was already pre-scripted like the fate of countless other spinners to have plied for New Zealand, a forced formality when playing in Asia. Yet, as the year rolled and rumbled, both not just burned the typecasting around them, but enjoyed moments of glorious sunshine, enough for them to be not forgotten by the game, even if they reacquaint with anonymity.

Ajaz leapt into cricketing immortality by becoming just the third bowler to pick all ten wickets in an innings, and will now, come what may, sit in that rarest of rarefied space alongside Jim Laker and Anil Kumble. Axar Patel would grab 36 wickets at 11.86 in five Tests, a five-for in every two innings he has bowled. It’s unlikely that either will ever replicate the feats of 2021, but for what they did, they are worth celebrating, least of all for not losing heart as well as holding on fervently to their dreams and ambitions.

There were times both might have nipped hopes of playing Test cricket. After switching from left-arm pace to left-arm spin when he was ignored for an U-19 World Cup, Ajaz waited 12 years for his Test cap, a testy spell when he shuttled in and out of his domestic side, and when he didn’t even have a permanent contract. It would have been easy to lose hope, but he held onto the burning ambition to play Test cricket, chewed his time patiently and grabbed his opportunity. Sporadic appearances at home — where he has bowled just 49 overs in three games and has yet to register a wicket — didn’t deter him.

The moment New Zealand set afoot in Asia, Ajaz spread out his figures like a peacock. Five-wicket hauls in UAE, Sri Lanka and a perfect-10 in India are no mean feats, as overseas spinners, even the best of them like Shane Warne, have historically struggled in Asia despite favourable conditions on their first tours. But Ajaz, after a first-day stutter in Kanpur, quickly readjusted his wares, starting from bowling a fuller length to slowing his pace and using the arm-ball more judiciously and imparting more revs. “The way he adjusted to the surface was mind-blowing,” New Zealand coach Gary Stead later said.

It was akin to Axar adjusting to the demands and dynamics of Test cricket. Axar’s first-class numbers (171 wickets at 24.19) are arresting, though not spectacular, yet he was seldom considered as a red-ball operator. Maybe, his craft was more prose than poetry; maybe, he didn’t have too many fancy variations, and was supposedly limited; maybe the world judged him solely on how he bowled in the IPL, where he had been a regular for years. But importantly Axar didn’t view himself through the same lens the world saw him through.

“Whenever I have played first-class or India A, I have done well. I have never seen myself as a white-ball specialist. It’s all in mind-set as to what you perceive yourself as – a white-ball specialist or red-ball specialist. I always had the belief that whenever I get a chance I will do well,” he had said after subjecting England to repeated agony in Chennai and Ahmedabad.

Not-so-orthodox spin duo

Both are not quite orthodox left-arm spinners, not least in the Bishan Singh Bedi mould. Both have embraced modernity to varying scales. Ajaz doesn’t pivot the body as pronouncedly as the romantics, rather it’s just a gentle pirouette. Despite his stout frame, he seems loose-limbed, like most left-arm spinners, who like several left-handed batsmen exude elastic grace. He doesn’t use that much of his body either, relying more on his shoulder rather. The round-armish action enables spin off the surface, and the widish release exaggerates the inward drift into right-handed batsmen. But his modes of deception are entrenched in the classical tenets of drift, dip and turn. He is neither Rangana Herath nor Jadeja, but his bandwidth is closer to the Sri Lankan’s than the Indian’s.

Axar, though, bowls with the shadow of Jadeja cast over him. Often have they snuck into the same sentences, often have they been considered like-for-like at certain junctures of their career. When Jadeja began his ceaseless metamorphosis, Axar, in some corners, was even an early-day Jadeja. It was not entirely bereft of truth, as Axar preferred to bowl at a quicker pace and flatter trajectory, before he began his own evolution.

From the mid-to-late 90kph bracket, he decelerated to the 88 to 95kph range and learnt to release the ball with subtle changes in action and release. Some balls he delivers with a high-arm action, some are more round-arm, some are in-between. Some are over-spun, some less so. Some are delivered with a scrambled seam, some with the tilted or upright seam position. He uses the dexterity of speed, seam and releases to startling effects: on turners, he unleashes the straighter one (where he presses the middle finger hard on the ball at release), on low tracks, he purchases bounce (like in Kanpur), on bouncier tracks, he trades skidders, conveying an illusion of uneven bounce. He is an assassin with a masters in psychology. He toys with their mind — when they expect him to turn, he doesn’t, he makes the ball jump when they expect it to scud along, and when they expect it to shoot along, he makes them leap. Thus, he is subtler than he looks.

If fate had quirkier designs, both Patels could have been fighting for the same spot, not just for their country, but their states too. Ajaz has Gujarati roots — the family hails from Bharuch, before his father shifted to Mumbai and from there to Auckland when Ajaz was just eight. At home, they continue to speak Gujarati, without accent or affectations.

Axar is from Nadiad, 140-odd kilometres from Bharuch, past Vadodara. Like Ajaz, he didn’t begin his cricketing journey as a left-arm spinner, but as a hard-hitting batsman, aka Nadiad ka Jayasuriya. They could have bumped into each other on the county circuit too—in 2018, Axar played four games for Durham; the next year, Ajaz spent close to a year in England, featuring in a clutch of games in the Surrey Championship as well as turning out for Yorkshire.

Test cricket, then, was beyond their wildest imagination. Both were hardly ever on the contention canvas. India were spoilt for choice — apart from Ravi Ashwin and Jadeja, there was Kuldeep Yadav. New Zealand spared little thought for a spinner, endowed as they were with a trio of highly-skilled Test seamers. But 2021 bunched the unlikely twain in their destiny. Perhaps, for the only time.

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