In 1996, when eight-year-old Ajaz Yunus Patel moved to New Zealand from Mumbai, he did not dream of becoming a cricketer. The youngster, born in the Maximum City, would occasionally play cricket in school.
Twenty-five years later, it is an emotional moment for Patel as he gears up to play a Test match at his ‘home’ venue – the Wankhede Stadium. Even though he will play for New Zealand, members of his family who live in Mumbai will be present at the ground to cheer for Patel.
“It is emotional. I was thinking about it when we landed in Mumbai and I was coming out of the airport. I remembered how many times I have left that airport or have come down for a holiday with the family. It is a different thing this time, I am here to play cricket for New Zealand,” the left-arm spinner said.
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Patel has been to the iconic Wankhede Stadium several times in the past – thanks to his team-mate Mitchell McClenaghan, who was earlier with Mumbai Indians. “He was very kind enough to give me tickets every time I was here. I have also bowled a few times to Mumbai Indians in the nets, so it is quite nostalgic to be here. But the disappointment is due to COVID, I can’t see my family,” Ajaz said. In an ideal world, Ajaz would have visited his relatives, but with bio-bubble, that wouldn’t be possible.
“A lot of family members would come to the ground on various days. That’s the beauty of Test cricket that everyone can come on days when they are free. It’s a busy week, but a lot of family members will come,” he said. “It is very special. They have not had the chance to see me play in person. They will be watching me for the first time from the stands…”
How Ajaz landed in New Zealand
Hailing from a Gujarati family – his father worked in the refrigeration business, while my mother was a school teacher – which has its roots in the Tankaria village in the Bharuch district, Ajaz fell in love with cricket only after shifting base.
Quite a few months later, his uncle Sayeed Patel enrolled him and his cousin at Suburbs New Lynn Cricket Club in Auckland. By then, Ajaz had started following the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne on television. At the Avondale College, he was already friends with another Indian, Jeet Ashok Raval, now his team-mate in the national side.
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Although he wasn’t very tall – standing at five foot six inches – Ajaz initially started as a fast bowler. He decided to turn into a left-arm spinner in the mid-twenties, thanks to former New Zealand international, Dipak Patel.
Back then, Dipak was the coach of New Zealand U-19 team, and Ajaz would attend the national camps. “It’s probably going back to (a little more than) 10 years ago. He used to be a pace bowler. With the height, he was very good, but he always had that potential to be a spinner,” Dipak had told Sportstar earlier.
After failing to make it to the New Zealand U-19 side, Dipak encouraged Ajaz to try out spin bowling. “He was very warm to it (the idea). He decided to bowl spin and for a number of years, we worked closely,” Dipak had said.
‘Strong minded, patient’
But then, how did Dipak, who has played in 37 Tests and 75 ODIs for New Zealand, realise that the youngster could actually be a good spinner? The 60-year-old laughs and says, “The main quality was that he could spin the ball and that was paramount.”
“More importantly, he has got the temperament as well. He is very strong-minded and patient. Spinners don’t really run through teams, so you need to bowl a lot of overs and be accurate to be successful at the Test level. He has done that,” Dipak said.
However, Dipak admitted that when he saw Ajaz for the first time, he did not think that the youngster would actually play for the Black Caps. “Ten years ago, probably not. But the work that we had done last season when he was in Auckland, I think he always had the potential. Left-arm spinner is valuable at any level and he proves it. He has broken into the New Zealand team after a lot of hard work. He has got his rewards by putting numbers up on the board,” he had said earlier.
Ajaz, however, started impressing with his finger spin and also became the highest wicket-taker in the Plunket Shield for three years running — 2014-15 to 2017-18 — for his first-class side, Central Stags. When former New Zealand international and selector, Gavin Larsen, informed him that he had finally broken into the New Zealand side, he couldn’t believe it.
Ever since making his debut for New Zealand, Ajaz hasn’t looked back. And as he gears up for yet another Test outing, he is excited, emotional and also elated. After all, it’s a homecoming for the Mumbai boy.