"This is what dreams are made of,” Ajaz Patel said at the end of first day’s play.
In a parallel world, Ajaz Patel would have become the first pace bowler to pick a ten-wicket haul had he pursued his interest in bowling fast. If not for his 5 ft 6 inches frame, he would have been joined a long list of pace bowlers from New Zealand to stun the world.
But it wasn’t meant to be: Ajaz never accomplished his dreams as a pace bowler. Instead, he became a left-arm spinner, he followed the footsteps of his coach Dipak Patel as a spinner, he treaded cautiously on the legacy left behind by Daniel Vettori. And he had changed from a pacer to a spinner, he had to change countries.
Born in Mumbai, Ajaz’s entire career came full circle on Friday. The left-arm spinner grew up in Auckland after his parents had just shifted with him and his two sisters to the city to open a refrigerator repairing shop.
When he returned to his city of birth, he was facing the daunting task of bowling against India. Unlike his previous ten Tests, the Mumbai Test was out of the blue: he was playing for the first time in front of his extended family. Even as the Indian fans crowded at the venue, Ajaz quietly arrived at the venue, he knew Wankhede well but the question remained: did he know it well enough?
The pressure of being a left-arm spinner playing at the Wankhede was immense, he joined Monty Panesar, who had played twice in India. For the left-arm spinner, it was a real test, especially after his exploits in Kanpur. Like the long list of bowlers before him, his success could be attributed to his hard work on the domestic circuit.
From 2014-15 to 2017-18, the left-arm spinner led the wickets chart for his first-class side, Central Stags. But it wasn’t easy, he had to change base from Aukland to Taradale Club in Napier. When he did make his Test debut, it was at the expense of another left-arm spinner, Mitchell Santner, who was then deemed as Vettori’s replacement. But Ajaz stood out, he succeeded at every step of his career.
“To be out here and pick up four wickets on the first day is pretty special. At the same time the job is only half done. So we have got to make sure we turn up tomorrow and really work hard for the last six wickets,” Ajaz added after picking up four wickets on the first day.
“Tomorrow is a new day. We start fresh, and we go again. It is just about bowling in partnerships. I am sure we will turn up tomorrow,” he said.
Boy-oh-boy, did he not turn up, fresh and smart. While his failure in Kanpur could be attributed to trying a whole lot of things that didn’t work on the surface, in Mumbai, he was at his best. He stuck by his plans, he kept it simple and tight. Ajaz didn’t do it for five overs, ten overs, one spell, two spells, he did it for 48 overs.
Long spells, sweeter rewards
At most of the times, his spells were long, it was strenuous work, it was long periods of toiling in the heat, bowling in the same channels: ball after ball. Most of his success in Mumbai could be attributed to not his bowling but batting in Kanpur. Batting alongside Rachin Ravindra, he helped the BlackCaps save the Test.
It was during that crucial passage of play, he realized the importance of keeping it tight and simple in India as a bowler. And in Mumbai, he executed it, he mesmerized the Indian batters with the illusion of spin and drift. All of it would never have materialized if he had continued as a pacer, if he did not listen to Dipak Patel’s words of wisdom.
“Once he got a hang (bowling spin) of it, he was unstoppable. He would keep bowling throughout the day. Sometimes I had to force him to take a few days’ break. But he wouldn’t listen and wanted to make up for lost time. He had set an individual goal of bowling a particular number of deliveries a day,” Dipak said in the interview to New Zealand Herald.
Coming into the series against India, he was the first-choice spinner and in Mumbai, he proved why exactly he is rated high. It isn’t the complexion of spin bowling but sometimes, it is the simpler of things that are complicated.
“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple,” Steve Jobs puts it down in simple words. Ajaz lived by the same ethos, he kept it simple against India in Mumbai.
After first day’s play, the left-arm spinner’s pitch-map showed why he was successful, why he constantly drew parallel with Anil Kumble from his famous ten-wicket in an innings against Pakistan. Then, Kumble kept it simple, he hit the stumps more often than not, he planted the seed of confusion in the batter’s mind on the back of keeping it simple.
Ajaz followed the footsteps, on day one and continued that on the second day. In just his first over, the left-arm spinner set up Wriddhiman Saha brilliantly, the first two balls went away from the right-hander before he darted on that wrapped the stumps. Ravichandran Ashwin, the very next ball was in shock. He even wanted to review, that was how the left-arm spinner spun the ball.
Joining the historic club in Ajaz's fashion
Two of India’s most successful batters in Mumbai – Mayank Agarwal and Axar Patel – fell into his ‘spin-web’. In the case of Mayank, he spun the ball sharply away from the right-hander and in the case of Axar, into the left-hander.
The 33-year-old was just two wickets away from joining Jim Laker and Anil Kumble in the prestigious ten-wicket in an innings club. And he did that in some style as he walked away controlling his emotions. It was almost like his entire life unfolded in front of him, it was almost like this was all a dream.
If the four wickets that he picked on the first day was a dream come true, the six wickets that he added on day two would have been the fairytale ending to that dream. In between the New Zealand dressing room applauding and Ajaz walking back to the dressing room, there was a brilliant shot from the broadcasters, the shot that showed Ravichandran Ashwin giving him a standing ovation.
Ajaz did not make history, he joined a historic club and also became the only player in history of Test cricket to pick ten wickets in an innings away from home. In his post-match press conference on day one, he said “Bowl a lot of good balls,” and how well did he do that!
Jim Laker – July 1956, Anil Kumble – February 1999 and Ajaz Patel, December 2021: in that order.