Axar Patel: The story behind India’s latest star spin bowler

Axar Patel: The story behind India’s latest star spin bowler

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Virat Kohli and Axar Patel
India captain Virat Kohli hands Axar Patel his cap ahead of the spinner’s Test debut against England on 13 February

Three Tests, three successive heavy England defeats and four five-wicket hauls for Axar Patel.

It was perhaps fitting England’s final batting collapse on a chastening tour of India was, once again, at the hands of India’s newest spin sensation.

Never before has an Indian spinner enjoyed such a productive debut series as Patel has against England.

From the moment he was handed his Test cap by India captain Virat Kohli on 13 February, he has tormented England’s batsmen, picking up 27wickets at an average of just 10.59.

So who exactly is this almost-overnight sensation? From the mystery surrounding his name to a short yet impressive stint in county cricket, BBC Sport delves deeper into the 27-year-old’s journey to international stardom.

Axar or Akshar? The rise of Patel

Axar Patel
Patel has taken four five-wicket hauls in just six innings since making his Test debut

Born in the Anand district of the state of Gujarat, Patel – like many young boys and girls in India – grew up with a love for cricket, but playing professionally was not on the radar.

At the age of 15, however, his talents as a gifted batsman and seam bowler were noticed by peers, friends and, notably, his dad who encouraged Patel to take the sport more seriously.

Just three years later, in just his second first-class match, Patel gave us a glimpse into his future when he took 6-55 for Gujarat against Delhi.

Followers of his social media – he has more than 750,000 on Instagram alone – may notice he goes by the name Akshar, and there are conflicting reports as to the correct spelling and pronunciation of his name.

Some suggest a school principal spelt it wrong on an official form, while others say it was down to a clinical error from a nurse when he was born.

Regardless, Patel started to make a name for himself on the cricket field in 2013 when, aged 19, he was drafted by Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League.

Despite not playing a game for the franchise, Patel rubbed shoulders with the very best cricket had to offer, in a team which was captained by Australia batsman Ricky Ponting and included India greats Sachin Tendulkar and spinner Harbhajan Singh.

BBC Test Match Special pundit and former Indian cricketer Abhishek Jhunjhunwala says Patel’s introduction to IPL cricket delivered invaluable experience.

“When you play in such a big tournament, you get to tap into great cricketers and coaching staff, some of the greatest in the world. It was brilliant for Axar,” Jhunjhunwala said.

Patel’s promise was spotted by Kings XI Punjab who drafted him for the 2014 season, when he took 17 wickets.

His performances caught the eyes of the national selectors and Patel made his debut in a one-day international against Bangladesh in the summer of 2014, followed by his T20 debut the following year.

Test cricket ‘a piece of cake’

Patel became a mainstay in the Punjab team, picking up 61 wickets over five seasons before moving to Delhi in 2018.

He has gone on to play 38 one-day internationals and 11 T20s for India but waited almost seven years for his foray into the longer format.

Patel, selected as a replacement for the injured Ravindra Jadeja, missed the first game against England due to injury.

In the second Test, however, he made an immediate impact, taking seven wickets in the match, including 5-60 in the second innings.

It was the third game – a pink-ball Test in his home city of Ahmedabad – in which he really shone with figures of 6-38 and 5-42 as India romped to another comfortable victory.

Jhunjhunwala says Test cricket “instantly seemed like a piece of cake” for Patel.

“He’s been a decent performer in domestic cricket but to do it on the big stage in Test cricket, I don’t think anybody could have predicted that,” he said.

Axar developed a formidable partnership with team-mate Ravichandran Ashwin, with former England captain Michael Vaughan saying they “exhibited a masterclass in spin bowling”.

But what exactly is it that makes such Patel such a threat with the ball?

“The biggest ammunition is his line and length,” Jhunjhunwala says.

“He’s relentless with his length which makes it so difficult for the batsmen to get any runs off him.”

Jhunjhunwala, who played domestic cricket in India up until 2012, also praised Patel’s arm ball – a straighter delivery which deceived and bewildered several England batsmen over the series.

“He bowls fast, often over 100 kilometres per hour, and when one ball is turning and one is not, it is really difficult for any batsman,” he said.

For Patel, there is a secret behind the success of his arm ball.

“I was a fast bowler in the early days of my career, which is why my bowling style is a bit quicker,” he said after the third Test.

“So, I think my experience of being a fast bowler also helps me bowl arm balls.”

Bringing Bollywood to Durham

Patel is likely to be a part of India’s squad for this summer’s tour of England, but it will not be his first taste of playing in English conditions.

In 2018 he had a short stint with Durham – playing in four first-class games in the County Championship – where he stuck up a friendship with Ireland international Brian McCarthy.

“We came from different backgrounds but we just gelled,” the Dublin-born bowler says.

“I play international cricket yet nobody in Ireland has a clue who I am. Whereas he was already playing international cricket in India and couldn’t leave the house.”

Nowadays Patel is very active on social media – so much so that even his dog has an Instagram account – but he was a “quiet character” when he first arrived at Chester-le-Street, according to McCarthy.

However, it did not take long for Patel’s personality to shine through.

“We had a culture of speaking your mind and having a laugh at Durham and on a bus journey down to Glamorgan he just seemed very quiet, I wasn’t sure how he’d fit in,” McCarthy says.

“But by the time we were on the journey back, it all changed.

“The team were having a few beers as it was a long drive back. Axar wasn’t drinking but he really got involved.

“He put on some Bollywood music and was showing us all his dance moves.”

‘Red-ball cricket is not for me’

Axar Patel
Patel averages 17 from seven innings in T20 cricket for India at a strike-rate of 125.92

McCarthy is not surprised by Patel’s early success in Test cricket, but was not sure what to expect when they first met.

“We were watching an England v India Test on the TV in the changing room and I said to him ‘that could be you’ and he said ‘no, I’m not sure red-ball cricket is for me, it’s very long,'” McCarthy recalls.

Patel, who has a first-class career batting average of 33.54, including 14 half-centuries and one century – scored an unbeaten 95 in the game against Glamorgan and took 7-54 against Warwickshire a few weeks later.

“His knock against Glamorgan showed us he’s a genuine all-rounder and I expect him to go on and perform with the bat in Test cricket too,” says McCarthy.

“And that spell of bowling in Birmingham was just phenomenal, it wasn’t a turning pitch. He just knew his own game so well.”

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