The 39-km stretch between Ahmedabad and his home town in Kheda district is one that Akshar Patel is very familiar with, having endured it constantly over the last few years. On most occasions, the young Gujarat spinner has done so aboard crowded buses with his only companion on these journeys having been his trusted cricket kit.
Monday was different. There was someone waiting for him at the Ahmedabad airport as he landed there from Bangalore. And Patel was driven home in an air-conditioned car with his friend conducting a mini-inquisition about the youngster’s dreamy experiences at the IPL. But just as they approached Kheda, the 20-year-old was asked to get off the vehicle. Patel now had to board an open-roofed jeep, which would take him into town, where thousands had gathered to welcome their new hero. After all, the lanky left-arm spinner was not only returning with the Best Emerging Player of the IPL award and a berth in India squad for the ODI tour to Bangladesh in tow. The shy youngster was coming back home, having put Kheda on the cricketing map.
“The whole town was out there to greet me with flowers, bouquets and handshakes. It took a while before I could even go to my home. It was a long day. It’s night now and my house is still flooded with visitors and well-wishers. This is the first time any cricketer from this town has made such a mark,” Patel tells The Indian Express.
Patel had not played a single IPL game prior to the 2014 season — he spent the whole of last season in the Mumbai Indians dug-out. Many expected him to do the same with Kings XI Punjab with the experienced Murali Kartik having been bought as the lead spinner. But the management, coach Sanjay Bangar, had other plans. With 17 wickets at an economy rate of 6.13, the best in IPL7, Patel repaid that faith, playing an integral part in Punjab’s maiden run to the IPL final.
“Sanjay bhai had seen me during my under-19 days. Before the IPL, he had said that I could get a chance this time. But with Murali Kartik already part of the squad, I was not sure whether the team would go in with two left-arm spinners, or with me playing ahead of him,” he explains.
While his overall figures were nothing short of exceptional, what stood out even more in Patel’s outings this season were how he adapted to bowling in every situation. For starters, he seemed equally capable in sticking to his guns, both during the powerplay and the death overs. And it didn’t take long for him to become skipper George Bailey’s most trusted weapon with the ball on the field. Patel was pushed into the deep end straight up, given the new-ball in Punjab’s opening game against Chennai Super Kings. His figures of 1/34 might not have made for special reading, but in a match that saw over 400 runs scored, Patel was the most economical amongst bowlers who completed their four-over quota.
From that point on, he rarely went for more than six-an-over. Moreover, he rarely looked ruffled by any scenario that he was handed the ball in. It is a trait that was refined, says Patel, after lengthy discussions with teammate Virender Sehwag. “I just wanted to know how he remains so calm in pressure situations always. He said, he does so by trying to diffuse the pressure by thinking about something light-hearted. Or he will sing and try to keep his mind calm. There is no point in letting the pressure get to you, as that will have a bearing on your performance,” he adds.
Patel also recalls having dealt with plenty of pressure situations in his junior cricket days, especially after the time he was on the verge of being dropped from the Gujarat U-16 team. In a crunch match, the all-rounder returned with a five-wicket haul and also played a crucial knock. There has been no looking back ever since.
Along with his skills, Patel has also earned a fan-following within the Punjab dug-out for his calm demeanour and the abstinence from over-the-top wicket celebrations. His major strengths with the ball have been a consistent line and length, and clever change of pace. And he reveals that it’s helped him even control the redoubtable Glenn Maxwell in the nets.
“Maxwell always says that I’m the best bowler in the world. Even in the nets and practice games, I conceded fewer runs than anyone else,” he points out.
In a couple of weeks’ time, Patel will get a chance to expand that fan base when he turns up for his maiden tour in India colours. For now, he can be rest assured anyway that the Ahmedabad-Kheda stretch will no longer entail lonely rides.