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Dip as a bowler, rise as a batter - where is Axar the Test cricketer headed?

Last updated on 13 Feb 2024 | 10:21 PM
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Dip as a bowler, rise as a batter - where is Axar the Test cricketer headed?

Despite Ravindra Jadeja's absence in the second Test, Axar Patel was only used as a third spinner in Vizag

“Baapu thari bowling kamal che (Your bowling is amazing),” Virat Kohli told Axar Patel in Axar’s native language, Gujarati, after the day’s play during India’s four-match home Test series against England in 2021. 

Making his debut in the series, Axar made the England batters feel like he was (going to) turn the ball square. In only three Tests, he snaffled 27 wickets, averaging 10.6 runs per wicket. England batters didn’t know what had hit them. They have had their struggles against Ravindra Jadeja, and now they had to face a taller (and probably a faster) version of him. 

Three years down the line, Axar’s career has moved to a different quadrant. He has played 14 Tests in his career, all in Asia and 12 at home. In the first two years - 2021 and 2022 - Axar picked 47 wickets at 14.3 runs apiece. The last six Tests, 2023 onwards, four Tests against Australia last year and another two in this series tell a different tale. The left-arm spinner has managed only eight wickets at 49 runs/wicket. Meanwhile, his batting average has jumped from 22.6 to 35.9. 

Axar has crept into the quadrant of a batting all-rounder when India need him to ace his bowling duties. 

What has gone wrong with his bowling? 

For a left-arm finger spinner, Axar has always been an anomaly. While other left-arm spinners rely on creating doubt in the batters' minds about which ball will turn and which won’t with a tight line around the off stump, Axar hardly ever turns the ball. He undercuts it and releases it at a greater height than others. 

There is the illusion that the ball may turn away, but it skids on. Consequently, 13 of his 27 wickets in the 2021 series against England came through deliveries in line with the stumps - bowled and LBWs. And as the beehive below suggests, he didn’t turn the ball all that much. 

Fast forward to 2024, Axar has turned it even less. You can see how Tom Hartley (14 wickets at 24.6 runs apiece) has gained much more turn from a similar line. And not a lot has changed for Axar from the 2021 series, except that he has bowled a bit fuller - 6.7% in 2021 for 15.3% false shots and 14.6% in 2024 for not a false shot. 

During the first two years of his Test career, Axar averaged 11.2 against right-handers at an economy of 2.1. Against left-handers, he picked wickets at 23 runs/wicket and 2.8 runs/over. In the last six Tests, his numbers against left-handers have shown no improvement and remains fine from a match-up point of view. However, his average versus right-handers has been 55.2. 

In a possible case of Axar being found out, the right-handers have opened up the off-side. During Axar’s honeymoon period (2021/22), the right-handers scored only 46.6% of their runs against him in the off-side. Since 2023, that number has gone up to 63.8%. 

There has been a significant increase in the cover region - from 16.9% to 29.7%. 

Axar used to derive a heavy majority of his wickets, making the batter defend either on the front foot or the back foot. He is not rushing the batters on defensive strokes anymore, with a notable drop in the false shot percentages. Despite a smaller sample size, he has conceded more runs on the cover drive. And more importantly, the batters have stopped sweeping him as much as they did earlier. In his debut series alone, Axar picked plenty of wickets on the sweep, dismissing batters like Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Dom Sibley and Ollie Pope. The batters have learnt to play him better. 

The Border Gavaskar Trophy at home last year raised questions that India under-bowled Axar. While it is natural for a third spinner to bowl less when there is Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in the XI, Axar bowled only 86 overs in seven innings as compared to more than 160 overs for both Ashwin and Jadeja across four Tests. 

In this series, despite Jadeja’s absence in Visakhapatnam, the 29-year-old was used as the third spinner after Ashwin and Kuldeep Yadav. He bowled unchanged in the Day 4 morning session, delivering 14 overs. It was a pitch that rewarded bowlers imparting more revs on the ball, and Axar, due to the lack of them, was the least productive spinner in the match. He was the most expensive at 5.5 runs per over, picked the least number of wickets, barring the part-timer Joe Root, and was attacked the most among all spinners in the game (on 38% of his deliveries).

The result in Vizag may prompt India to continue with similar kind of wickets, thus putting Axar’s spot in question.

However, the fantastic start to his Test journey means Axar’s numbers are still far from interrogation. Shreyas Iyer’s batting average dropped from 56.7 at the end of 2022 to 36.9 now and has been dropped from the Test side. Axar’s average of 19.3 with the ball is still an excellent number. 

But it is Axar’s batting that is keeping him in the XI. It is a vital asset in times when the team is moving on from Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, when Virat Kohli and KL Rahul are unavailable and when the team’s upcoming batting order is expected to possess two debutants and another batter with one Test up his sleeve. But at some point, India will need him to add more tricks to his bowling again. 

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