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Sunday, January 23, 2022

First Test, Day 3: India find Axar-factor

Left-arm spinner’s 5 for 62 on Day 3 of the first Test at the Green Park Stadium was vital in India taking a 49-run first innings lead.

Written by Sandip G | Kanpur |
Updated: November 28, 2021 7:53:47 am
Kanpur: Indian bowler Axar Patel celebrates the dismissal of New Zealand batsman Tom Blundell during third day of the first Test cricket match between India and New Zealand, at Green Park stadium in Kanpur, Saturday (Source: PTI)

There are days where it pays to hold the line, not panic and just wait. If India were fretful on the second day, they poured in an incredible amount of attrition and patience to reclaim the advantage on the third day, bowling out New Zealand for 296, when they looked destined to erase India’s first-innings total of 345.

For 66.1 overs and five hours, as New Zealand’s openers, Will Young and Tom Latham welded discipline to technique and temperament, thwarting India at every turn, nothing seemed to work or happen.

The strip was tormentingly sluggish, so much so some of the close-in fielders were kneeling and not crouching, edges agonisingly evading the fielders, and reviews were being misjudged. India could have easily wilted, but they laboured on, masking their frustrations, sustaining their energy and sound levels, blocking runs tigerishly, probing tight lines and lengths, barely gifting freebies and shuffling their strategies.

Perhaps, a comeback fashioned in the mould of their new coach Rahul Dravid’s ideals. One built on sweat and blood.

Then late in the first session, patience brought its dividends, as Ravi Ashwin terminated Will Young and Umesh Yadav took out Kane Williamson. Then in the second, they bolted the stable door, dislodged the obdurate Tom Latham and skinned through the middle order.

At the end of an engrossing, if old-fashioned, day of cricket in the subcontinent, New Zealand, who had begun their innings so promisingly, walked off gloomily, shrugging their heads and pondering how they squandered the advantage, even as India left the field on a pleased note, glowing in the sweat of their toil.

The Test is still on a knife-edge, India’s overall lead of 63, is not yet a match-winning proposition.

At the heart of India’s comeback narrative was Axar Patel, perceivably the most understated of their three-man spin firm. In spite of his mind-spinning entry into Test cricket, he’s judged condescendingly, often stereotyped as a conditions-reliant bowler. All of his 27 wickets might have been wrought in extremely beneficial conditions in Chennai and Ahmedabad, against a group of English batsmen allergic to spin as ghosts are to a cross. But here, his five wickets were heckled from a largely unresponsive wicket, where his most decorated partners, Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, laboured 74 overs for three wickets, showing that he could bring a third dimension to India’s spin attack.

He is not a Jadeja clone, or an inferior version of him. Rather, he is a different bowler, operating with a different bandwidth of skills, with a different perspective, and someone who is utmost comfortable in his skin. With his height, he wooed more bounce from the wicket, and on a surface with variable bounce, this attribute of him stood out. Though he has a slightly round-arm, he still generates ample bounce. Resultantly, New Zealand batsmen, who were comfortably playing Ashwin and Jadeja on their front foot, were more tentative against him, forcing them to play him a lot on their back-foot and coming out of their comfort zone.

Latham’s dismissal was a classic example. He was resolute against most spinners, but the variation of bounce was playing at the back of his mind. So to unsettle him and force him to bowl shorter or fuller—Axar was mostly hitting the spinner’s good-length—he stepped out. But the ball sped quicker after pitching, turned in a shade, and took his inside edge to be stumped.

Among the three, he turned the ball the least, but he discovered more spite from the wicket than the rest. The lighthouse was brought down, New Zealand lost their direction, even though they did fight till the end.

In that sense, he is more early-year Anil Kumble like in his methods, relying on bounce, discipline, over-spin, change of angles and pace. He might not possess too many eye-popping variations—he skids the ball in, makes it turn away a shade, bowls the hard-spun straighter one—but he knows how to maximise his gifts. There are more subtleties to his game too. He occasionally uses the scrambled seam to check if he gets more bite. He then presses the middle finger harder on the ball at release to get it to go straighter. A few deliveries were under-cut so that the ball skidded on.

Slowing the pace

Some of the other dismissals are equally illustrative of his craft. He slowed up his pace against Ross Taylor, encouraged him to the front-foot and after he conceded a false sense of security, he slipped one faster into him with a bit of inward turn. Taylor played inside the line and edged behind. Had he been on the back-foot, he could have wristed it through the leg-side. Rather than bamboozling batsmen, he dulls them into making mistakes. Taylor’s exit put India further on the front-foot.

Henry Nicholls was given a quick working over. A few balls on length stayed low, and Nicholls brought out his sweep, so that he would push the length back. Axar smartly second-guessed the intention, flung one fuller and faster, which Nicholls completely missed and was trapped in front. By this time, he had grown so much on Kiwi batsmen that doubts began to creep up, and they were increasingly and dangerously content at playing him on the back-foot.

With other bowlers, they could trust the bounce, and the turn, as it was slow. But with Axar, they were unsure of how much he would bounce and how much he would not. Tom Blundell realised the folly when he hung back to defend a good-length ball, only to see his stumps splayed by a crawler. He then fooled Tim Southee with his angle from wide of the crease to wrap up his fifth five-for in seven innings, an incredible feat irrespective of conditions.

His accomplices, Ashwin and Jadeja did their part too—Ashwin in continuously chatting with him and encouraging him, putting behind his own lack of fortune. Jadeja, though not at his deceptive best, kept his end quiet. Their chemistry was such that irrespective of the nature of the pitch, India could field three in typical subcontinental pitches in the future.

In many ways, Axar was the perfect poster boy of India’s third-day resurgence, because he held the line, did not panic and just waited. He out-willed New Zealand’s will. He might not turn the ball by much, but could surely turn the destiny of a match.

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