Axe of Axar and Ashwin grinds on Trescothick.
As the focus once again moves back to red ball cricket, Axar Patel will be exhilarated at the thought of having the red cherry in his hand again. Coming on the back of a total decimation of the English batting in the third Test, the 27-year-old will be looking to continue his incredible run.
This time he doesn’t want to miss out. I remember Axar bowling with the white ball, while present in the stands in the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru in 2017 against the Aussie batters. This lanky and tall bowler knew his strength; using his height to create deceiving lengths. Some of the balls delivered almost yorked the batsman and so many others released from the same height were thrown slow to fall shorter even when they seemed to be reaching the toes. The line was tight; on the stumps, only the white ball didn’t spin much. But that is how the Chinnaswamy pitch plays. More often than not it is a high scoring pitch, rolled flat where the spinner’s biggest armoury comes out to be the combo of skidders and length variation caused by difference in the speed of release, keeping the release point the same. And that is what Axar did so well in that match too. But it was again a moment when Ravindra Jadeja was not playing and Axar filled in the gap and then had to make way for the senior Gujarati pro. And what a repeat for Axar. Back again in absence of Jadeja and with conditions favourable in presence of a red ball and turning pitches, he is bowling like a man possessed, on certain occasions turning the ball prodigiously, and on other occasions skidding it straight through with no spin whatsoever. It was this disquietude and ambivalence that the England batsmen succumbed to.
Both Axar and Ashwin regularly bowled deliveries that evaded the batsman’s bat and made contact with their pad or stumps instead. On a track providing such vicious turn, it is only natural for a batsman to expect every ball to change trajectory after pitching. But when it comes to negotiating deliveries that don’t spin when the batsman has prepared for spin, it gets tricky. The straighter one, or the arm ball, is a potent weapon for spinners to have in their arsenal to flummox the batsman. But the batsman, if focussing hard enough, more often than not picks the ball out of the spinner’s hand at the time of delivery, and adjusts accordingly. This is made possible because a finger spinner, left or right handed, has to slightly alter his grip and seam position in order to bowl the arm ball, and it is this alteration that catches the batman’s eye. But in the case of Axar Patel, this privilege is robbed off of the batsmen. There is hardly any change in Axar’s method of delivering his usual off-spinners and delivering the arm ball. Zak Crawley’s second innings dismissal would be a classic example of the struggles batsmen are having playing the straighter one. Facing the very first ball of the innings, bowled by Axar, Crawley played for the turn, as he did in the first innings, but was cleaned up by one that held its line with the angle. Both Axar and Ashwin made phenomenal use of this surprise element several times during the match, with Axar enjoying tremendous success, finishing with a match haul of 11/70.
However, the straight ball is not unplayable. There was considerable criticism of the general manner in which both the teams batted, regardless of whether the ball spun or not. While the controversy surrounding the pitch rages on, Virat Kohli was unabashed while stating that the batting was way below the expected standard by both sides. Former England batsman Kevin Pietersen also labelled the batting display by both nations as ‘dreadful’ and ‘awful’. Axar was again at his destructive best as he picked up 5/32 and toyed with the clueless batters. What would have brought him absolute mirth would have been the continuous state of non learning from the English batsmen; they were a ditto of the first innings; waiting for the ball to turn when it won’t and displaying anathema to shuffling up to the length of the ball. Ashwin picked up four of his own while Washington Sundar, who wasn’t given a bowl in the first innings, snaffled up the last English wicket in his very first over. Though there is no doubt that the pitch could have been significantly better, Rohit Sharma and Zak Crawley made it evident that it was not impossible to bat on it either. Getting to the pitch of the ball is the only option left in conditions like these, either the footwork has to be impeccable or the sweep shot has to be played to good effect. As tiresome as it is to shuffle up and down the pitch to play each ball, or go down on the knees and back up again, it is the safest way to keep one’s boat afloat in a sea of uncertainty.
Three spinners in a Test are encouraging signs for Indian spin bowling. After the age of the famous Indian spin quartet comprising Erapalli Prasanna, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, Bhagwat Chandrashekhar and Bishan Singh Bedi, spin bowling in India seemed to be on the downfall. While that quartet single handedly decimated oppositions in the subcontinent, in the years to follow there was an increasing need for such a combination to emerge again. Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh largely carried Indian spin bowling through the 1990s and 2000s, but they were unable to find a quality spinner to give them support. Murali Kartik, Amit Mishra and Piyush Chawla among others were tried out to support the two mainstream bowlers, but none really had an impact. By the time Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja arrived, Harbhajan and Kumble were well past their prime, and the problem arose again. There was no solid solution to the problem throughout the 2010s either, but now there finally seems to be an answer in the form of Axar Patel. Axar, Ashwin and Jadeja, could well be on their way to form a new spin trio that instills fear in the opposition the way only some can.
Axar’s tremendous success has been unprecedented and is an unexpected but welcome happening. If Axar can continue the good work in the years to come, he could be a lethal weapon for India in all formats for the game, and could also cement his currently vulnerable position in limited overs internationals. The Englishman will surely be wary of the threat Axar poses as the pitch for the final Test is expected to be a turner as well, and if a strategy to counter Axar is not in place, India could be on their way to the World Test Championship finals already. Let’s see what the new batting coach Marcus Trescothick has in his hat to pull out and save the English batsmen.