Left-arm spinner Axar Patel’s father was a rare parent in Nadiad town of Gujarat who let his son opt for cricket despite him being a bright student and a rank holder in school. Among the parents of meritorious kids that a top Kheda district cricket official tried to convince to let their kids play cricket, he was met with stubbornness and often rudeness.
Axar’s father, now partially paralytic after brain haemorrhage a few years ago, had wanted his son to become an engineer but once convinced by Sanjaybhai Patel, secretary and joint secretary of Kheda district cricket body between 1996-2015, he let him focus on cricket.
Patel was also the coach of the Kheda district cricket academy.
“Axar was good in studies and a rank holder. His parents wanted him to become an engineer. Every parent wants his kid to look at the future as becoming a cricketer can be risky. I spoke to his dad [employed in agricultural marketing industry] and was happy with the response. He was a rare one to let his son put cricket ahead of studies,” Patel told IANS from Nadiad.
Axar on Tuesday became only the sixth Indian to take five wickets in an innings on debut as India beat England by 317 runs in the second Test. He also dismissed England captain and batting mainstay Joe Root in both innings.
Sanjaybhai Patel started coaching Axar from the age of 13 years.
At the intra-district level at under-14 level, Axar did well to win Man of the Series, Best Batsman and Best Bowler (as left-arm pacer) awards and it was only for fun that he started bowling left-arm spin.
“Initially, he was a left-arm pace bowler at the junior level. Often when his team would be winning matches, he would turn to bowling left-arm spin just for fun. He was lean, tall for his age and had long strides too. He started getting wickets because of his accuracy. The switch happened as he graduated,” recalled Patel.
Accuracy and bowling at good speed was something Axar relied on at the MA Chidambaram Stadium pitch in Chennai.
“I try to bowl in the right places and the wicket takes care of the rest…If you are leaving it in the air and bowling slowly, then you are not getting any help from the pitch. So, you have to hit the pitch hard,” said Axar after the third day’s play on Monday.
Over a decade ago, when Axar was 17-18, he attended a 21-day camp at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bengaluru.
For coach Patel, it was a big thing. Whenever any of his wards went to even a state level camp, he would ask them to note down every instruction, from the coaches there, in a diary.
“Whenever a player from my district goes even to the state [camp], I always tell him to keep a small diary and note down what the coaches’ instructions on various subjects — what they do at the nets or at practice, physical exercises etc. It doesn’t just help the boy learn but also helps us. There are so many things at this level we aren’t aware of. It helps us learn and impart those to the wards,” he added.
But when Axar returned, he asked him to tear off a page where he had noted down the instructions to give the ball air and flight.
“His coach there (at NCA) had told him to go to his local centre and practice by keeping two poles some distance from the stumps and putting a string to connect the poles. He was told to practice bowling above the string. The ball was supposed to go above the string,” said Patel.
“I was quite enthusiastic and keen to learn this method. I did the arrangements at the nets. I also told the wicket-keeper to keep count of deliveries [that went above the string]. He bowled a few balls, and only a rare ball would go just above the string or even touch it,” added Patel who immediately told him to tear the page from the diary and focus on his natural style.
Patel then asked Axar to stick to his natural bowling.
“He looked messed up and lost while doing that. I told him to forget it and return to natural style. Told him to tear that page from the diary. I said we will find two-three stock balls with the advice of some coach. If a bowler can’t perform naturally, how will he bowl,” added the coach.
As Axar graduated to state team he began learning more and more but stuck to his strength of accuracy. With T20 format becoming important, that helped in him becoming an important bowler for India.
“There are many great coaches he met later who improved and polished him,” said Patel.
Axar debuted for Gujarat in Ranji Trophy in 2012 and made his India debut in an ODI in June 2014 in Dhaka. He made his T20I debut in July 2015.
It took Axar another half a decade to make his Test debut, due to the presence of Ravindra Jadeja, who has same skill-sets. Irrespective of the time it took for him to get the break, it was a Test debut he — and his father — would be proud of.