Axar Patel was the hero for India with the ball in what was perhaps their biggest Test at home in recent years. With the series and a spot in the World Test Championship Final at Lord’s on the line, the home team, beaten in the series opener in Chennai, desperately needed someone to fill in the shoes of the injured Ravindra Jadeja and exploit the weakness of England’s batsmen and the favourable conditions on offer. Their man was Axar Rajeshbhai Patel! After an impressive debut in Chennai in which he picked 7 wickets, including a fifer, the local boy, Axar produced the most restrictive ten-wicket haul by an Indian in Test cricket history in front of his home crowd in the stunning Narendra Modi Stadium to rout England in both the innings and hand India thumping ten-wicket victory.
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Axar has been the find for India in this series so far. Two things make his achievements in Chennai and Ahmedabad stand out. Firstly, this is his debut Test series but Axar has shown no signs of nerves or panic and delivered as if he belonged to the big stage. He has already picked 18 wickets in the two Tests at a stunning average of 9.44 and strike rate of 25.8 – this is as good a start as any bowler has had in Test cricket history!
The other thing which makes Axar’s performance in the series so far quite outstanding is how he has easily fitted into the shoes of one of India’s greatest match-winners with the ball at home of the last few years – Ravindra Jadeja. Jadeja has been as lethal and brilliant a bowler in India as Ashwin in the last 8 years matching the great off spinner in numbers and performance. His injury and unavailability for the entire series was a huge blow to India ahead of a massive home series. The hosts tried Shahbaz Nadeem in the series opener. That did not go well as the left-armer was indisciplined, bowled a number of short-pitched deliveries and never looked threatening enough to consistently trouble the England batsmen.
0-1 down and with everything at stake, India needed someone to complement R Ashwin, build pressure and also chip in with the wickets. They drafted in Axar and the limited-overs’ specialist did not disappoint! The standout quality of Axar’s show both at Chennai and Ahmedabad was the clarity of thought in his bowling. With the pitch offering a lot of assistance at both the venues, Axar stuck to the basics and his strength of pitching the ball in the same area ball after ball, over after over, innings after innings and match after match. He did not rely on massive turn but on discipline, line and length and unrelenting pressure on the batsmen.
Five of Axar’s wickets in the first innings were either leg before wicket dismissals or bowled – a testimony to his remarkable, disciplined to the stumps bowling. He bowled an awkward length and a brilliant line tying the batsmen down and building a pressure cooker type atmosphere in the middle for the visitors. The secret to his success was patience and the relentless ability to repeat the same thing again and again and again. This is a skill a bowler develops after years and years of practice. He did not try for fancy variations as he realised there was no need on a pitch offering assistance.
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It was the same story in the second innings. Four of the five dismissals of Axar were of the straighter deliveries or the arm balls and not of the balls that turned. The England batsmen were beaten and done in as they played for the turn. Axar, quite brilliantly made use of the unpredictability of the pitch to his advantage beating the English more in the head than with the spin!
The result – a 2-1 series lead for India and a step closer to Lord’s in June. Axar broke a number of personal milestones and records during the course of his fabulous performance including becoming only the fourth Indian bowler to pick a fifer in three or more consecutive Test innings.
Axar is yet another in a series of inexperienced players who have broken into the national squad in the last two months and won matches for the country in difficult and challenging situations in the big matches and series. Mohammed Siraj made his debut in the Boxing Day Test at the MCG last year and ended as India’s highest wicket-taker in Australia. He raised his game and led the attack in the absence of the big-wigs Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma.
Washington Sundar rose to the occasion on his debut in the series decider at The Gabba. His 62 in the first innings and 22 in the second were instrumental in India’s historic chase in Brisbane. He then produced a batting masterclass scoring an unbeaten 85 in the first innings of the series opener in Chennai when most of the Indian top and middle order had failed around him. His cool and calm temperament and composure in trying situations defined his batting.
Shardul Thakur picked three wickets in just his second Test (and the first after more than three years) and then changed the match top-scoring for India with 67 putting together 123 for the seventh-wicket with Sundar in the first innings in Brisbane.
There is clearly something about this generation of Indian cricketers which makes them fearless and gives them the strength to perform at the biggest stage against the most difficult of opposition. They do not care much about reputation and history. Whether it is the advent of T20 cricket and the IPL which has made the young Indian cricketer more confident and daring or the good work at the grassroots and in the dressing room by people like Rahul Dravid and Ravi Shastri – whatever might be the case India now has a fabulous bench strength.
The emergence of Siraj, Thakur, Sundar and Axar will only raise the benchmark of the seniors with Jadeja, Ashwin, Bumrah, Shami and Ishant also constantly trying to better their game which will mean more success for the national team.
Ironically, it is actually teams like India who can afford a well-planned rotation policy!