"I Believe in God, And the Only Thing That Scares Me Is Axar Patel."
The conversation in the England dressing room following the four-match Test series was something on similar lines. A 27-year-old in his first Test series came dressed as a ‘nightmare’ for England.
The visitors expected spin, there was none. And when England expected the ball to stay straight, Axar gave it a rip. That’s how the left-arm spinner’s Test career has been. You expect him to turn the ball, he doesn’t and when you play the straighter delivery, a bullet is right there with your name.
It is almost like playing Minesweeper on your good old Windows XP, it is a game of strategy but seldom does that work without luck. It is possible to win every time on Minesweeper but the mines are such that it will take you a lot of time to get used to it. In short, it is all about playing the possibility.
While Ravindra Jadeja goes by the modus operandi fast-burning turner, Axar has it very unique, his stock deliveries often stay in line while the surprising ones take a sharp turn. If you think that was Axar defined in a single sentence, then came the slow-turners that he had in store for the Bangladesh Tests.
You put it all together, you have a left-arm spinner, who possesses so many variations – which often can come as a big surprise for the batters. Australian top-order batters have a big task, a massive one in front of them – considering how most of Axar’s success has been against the right-handers.
74.46 % (35 wickets) of Axar’s have been against the right-handers, with just 12 wickets against the left-handed batters. In fact, everything about the left-arm spinner against the right-handers works in his favour.
The trajectory, the angle, the speed and now with the added tool of guile and flight. It was evident in his debut series against England, where he created chaos amongst the English batters – and on more occasions than one – made the Three Lion batters doubt their own defense.
Point of release
In this study from Himanish Ganjoo, it is evident that Axar’s release point – around 2.15-2.30 metres – is higher and unknown in the history of Test cricket. Given that most of his balls are darted and targeting the stumps, it makes it tough for the batters to assess what’s in front of them.
Most of them end up defending the stumps, the others defending right in front to remove LBW out of the equation while the others just don’t read the line or the length enough to negate the threat. 47 wickets in eight Tests is a testimony of what he has to offer with the ball.
"Axar is at the stumps all the time. It's going to be pretty challenging. He's a fair bit taller and his release point is still pretty high. But you don't feel like his bounce is a threat as much because he does get balls to skid through,” Shane Watson had to tell about Axar to ESPNCricinfo.
If Australia have roped in Mahesh Pithiya to understand and counter the threat of Ravichandran Ashwin, Agar most likely will have to emulate Axar’s threat in the nets. But there is a big difference, neither does Agar have the height nor does he have the pace that would allow for the ball to drift and sting the batters’ pads.
“You’re never going to get exactly the same as you’re going to get in a game, and that’s one of the real complexities around preparing for a cricket tour,” Australia’s head coach Andrew McDonald had to say on the challenge of facing Indian spinners.
According to reports, the Australians have also spent a lot of time alongside their video analysts in cracking the Axar-code. Consistency is another aspect of the left-arm spinner’s arsenal, with 201.1 overs of his in the 4-6m length, which for the batter makes it extremely tough.
Very rarely does the left-arm spinner err his line or length. So, as a batter, you ideally should be playing on your backfoot, right? That’s what has resulted in a truck load of dismissal. Even when he is bowling at the back of a length mark, the trajectory of the ball is such that it skids onto the batter, or in short – he undercuts his deliveries. You can’t step down the track nor can you go rocking back.
And if you think you are very comfortable with all of this, then there come the deliveries that have a wobbled seam. Wobbled seam often comes with a completely different prospect, the ball turns according to its own whims and fancies. Neither do a bowler have utmost control over it nor the batters, and with Axar’s point of release, it is often the toughest of examinations that the batters have to pass.
Would the venues spring a surprise?
Evidently not, Australia start off at a venue which has heavily favoured the left-arm spinners. During Vidarbha’s clash against Gujarat, in Nagpur, it was obvious that every ball had the batters’ name against the left-arm spinner.
In fact, 17 wickets fell to two left-arm spinners – Sarwate and Desai – showing that this is one of those venues where the duo of Axar and Jadeja could be extremely valuable. Left-arm spinners in Test cricket have picked up 28 wickets at the venue. But Australia’s frailties against left-arm spin extends to more than that.
Across all Tests in Asia since the start of 2017, the Australian batters have succumbed to left-arm spinners 64 times, the most for a dismissal against any bowling type. Given that Axar has enjoyed an extended success in Indian conditions, expect him to be that differential factor in the clash here in Nagpur, and for the rest of the series. And, no Axar and Jadeja don't have the same modus operandi, which only makes this bowling an interesting combination.
Facing Axar is just like trying your luck out at Minesweeper, it will take time to excel it but till then, take your shot and try your luck!