Axar Patel’s prolific run in Test matches begs the question: why wasn’t he tried out in the red-ball format earlier? Now in his fourth Test, Axar took his fifth five-wicket haul on Saturday here to now possess 32 wickets already, just four behind Narendra Hirwani, the Indian leg-spinner who likewise hit a purple patch in 1988. No Indian bowler has taken more than 36 wickets after four Tests.
After two sessions of luckless toil on Day Two, when New Zealand’s opening pair were laying anchor, it wasn’t clear that Axar would be the one to make the most impact with the ball. R. Ashwin tried hard to obtain something from a mostly placid track, experimenting endlessly with his release points, his trajectories, the side of the wicket to bowl from, the pace, and his variations. It wasn’t until his 22nd over that he finally had his reward in the form of the wicket of Will Young.
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Axar went wicketless on Day Two but perhaps he had some things going for him as he was given an extended spell after lunch on Day Three. Although both are finger spinners, Axar is quite unlike Ashwin in that he mostly adopts a flatter trajectory, bowls faster, and has a more round-arm action. And when he started to use the crease well to experiment with release points, he started to find success. Perhaps his tall height worked in his favour as well.
The batters were perhaps more hurried when they faced Axar, and when he bowled from wide of the crease from around the wicket to right handers, they were invariably looking out for the straighter ball that went on with the angle. Earlier this year, in the Test series against England, Axar trapped batters by deliveries that went straight on with the angle after pitching, but here, it was the opposite: the ball that turned or straightened did the damage.
Ross Taylor edged behind to one such delivery that straightened – he hung his bat out forward quite uncertainly, and if the ball had been his arm ball, he would have defended it quite adequately. Tim Southee was the other batter who fell to this type of delivery.
The other left-arm spinner in the side – Ravindra Jadeja – was the least successful of the three spinners. Unlike Axar, Jadeja doesn’t have a round-arm action to create those angles and that probably impeded him, although he did manage to fool debutant Rachin Ravindra, who attempted a drive at a full, turning delivery and was bowled.
Axar is now turning out to be a trump card in home Tests. Can he be the preferred left-arm spinner in the team in the future? Maybe. But Jadeja is still miles ahead of him in the pecking order because of his experience, record, and his batting skills.
And even if it is true that Axar had the ingredients for success on the particular day that the others did not, it is also true that the strain in handling Ashwin and Jadeja may have contributed to his rich haul, as often happens in Test cricket. He conveyed this much when he spoke to the media at the end of the day’s play.
It remains to be seen who takes most wickets in the second innings, but Axar’s performance definitely does suggest he is among the best contemporary Indian spinners.