The last time England played a Test series in India, Axar Patel deflated them with his left-arm spin. 27 wickets in six innings @ 10.59 - he made the English batters look clueless and broke countless records in his debut series.
Yeah, that's how Axar announced his arrival in Test cricket.
England are in India once again, but they are now a completely different unit under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum. The two have revolutionised Test cricket in many ways, with England yet to lose a series under their management.
However, defeating India in India is almost impossible. There's a reason why no one has done that in the last 10 years. England have a point to prove, but so does Axar, whose bowling came under a bit of scrutiny in the last home series against Australia.
The southpaw could only manage three wickets in seven innings, operating at an average of 62 and a strike rate of 172. The 30-year-old would be eager to correct those numbers and couldn’t have asked for a better opponent.
Axar has been playing international cricket for almost 10 years now but has never been able to step out of Ravindra Jadeja’s shadow. He didn’t feature in the 2023 World Cup and is still unsure about his spot in the XI for this year’s T20 World Cup. What’s more, Axar is yet to play a Test outside Asia.
The only time both Jadeja and Axar can seamlessly co-exist in the XI is if India are playing Test cricket at home. Coincidentally, it was in Jadeja’s absence that Axar made his Test debut in February 2021. What happened next was nothing sort of extraordinary.
He got four five-wicket hauls and a four-fer in his first six innings, making red-ball cricket look like a joke. The likes of Zak Crawley, Joe Root, Stokes, Ben Foakes, Jonny Bairstow and Ollie Pope had a hard time against him, and all of them are part of the England squad for the five-match series, starting on Thursday (January 25) in Hyderabad.
He wasn’t going to be dropped after that sort of performance, and India decided to field both him and Jadeja, alongside R Ashwin, in the XI against New Zealand. Ever since Axar’s debut, India have played 13 Tests in Asia, and the left-arm spinner has missed only one of them, that too because of an injury.
Axar is not someone who turns the ball big and instead troubles the batters more with straighter deliveries. With his high release point, Axar constantly targets the stumps and gets a lot more bowled and lbw dismissals. This is what works perfectly for him in Asian conditions.
He produced insane numbers in his first seven games, but things haven't gone as planned in his last five Tests. In the series against Australia last year, Indian skipper Rohit Sharma didn’t show enough faith in Axar and used him much less than Ashwin and Jadeja.
While the latter two bowled more than 160 overs across four Tests, Axar got to bowl only 86 overs in seven innings. That’s hardly 50 per cent of the number of overs the two senior pros bowled.
If he was so mediocre with the ball, why did India stick with him throughout the series?
The answer is his batting. Against Australia, the left-handed batter slammed 264 runs in five innings at an average of 88, the best in the series. Batting in the lower order, Axar managed three 70-plus scores in five innings. In fact, not once he was dismissed below 74 in that series.
Usman Khawaja and Virat Kohli scored more runs in the series, but it was Axar who emerged as the best batter. In the series where spinners dictated terms, Axar got out to them only once, scoring runs at an average of 214.
Ashwin, Jadeja and Axar are match-winners with the ball, but their batting down the order makes India invincible at home.
Look at the first Test against Australia: India were 240/7 at one stage before Jadeja and Axar scored fifties and got them to 400. Even in the second Test in Delhi, Axar scored 74 and helped his team recover from 139/7 to 262. That’s what makes India so dangerous at home: having someone like Axar at No. 8.
It’s because of his batting India don’t prefer Kuldeep Yadav over him. “I believe Axar’s selection in Test matches is purely on his batting skills. At Nos. 8 or 9, he can bat, and that’s what he brings to the table,” former India spinner Harbhajan Singh recently told PTI.
Axar’s batting is once again going to be crucial, but he would want to contribute more in the bowling department. The England batters are going to be aggressive, and that could work in Axar's favour.
Crawley, Root and Ben Duckett prefer playing a lot of sweep shots, and Axar could trouble them with his pace and stump-line bowling. Stokes and Co. will try to put pressure on Axar, and it will be interesting to see how the 30-year-old reacts.
Be it with the bat or ball, don’t be surprised if Axar plays a major role in the demolition of Bazball.
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