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Super-sub Axar makes an impact

Jadeja’s injury was feared to be a big setback for the T20 World Cup, but his replacement seems more than equal to the task.

India's Axar Patel celebrates the dismissal of Australia's Glenn Maxwell during the second T20 cricket match between India and Australia, in Nagpur, India, Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

At the end of Yuzvendra Chahal’s interview with Axar Patel after the Nagpur game against Australia, the leg-spinner hands out a new nickname to his left-arm colleague. The dandiya king. Axar looks slightly bemused, before he regathers his smile. Then Chahal explains the reason behind the moniker: “Dandiya bahut famous hain Gujarat mein, aur jis hisaab se dandiya khelta hain, waise stump to stump dalte hain aap.” Effectively translated as: Axar bowls stump to stump with the ease of performing the dandiya, a folk-dance famous in Gujarat, Patel’s home state, during the Navratri festival.

Before Chahal’s reference, Axar explains why he bowled stump to stump in that particular game, a rain-reduced eight-over-a-side match. “This was like death overs from the start and batsmen would look to hit every ball out of the ground. So, the best way to bowl is wicket-to-wicket, keep it straight and simple,” he elaborates.

Though he was explaining his strategy in that particular game, this is the soul of Axar’s craft in white-ball cricket distilled. Bowl wicket to wicket. Keep it tight and simple. It’s a line he has uttered thousand times, in interviews and press conferences, and fundamentally true as his self-assessment is, he was over-simplifying his bowling. Axar’s bowling is not just about flinging the ball from one set of stumps to the other. There are more layers to his bowling that made him the man of the series in the Australia series and has generated a school of thought that he is, in recent form, a better bowler than Ravindra Jadeja, whose injury in the Asia Cup paved the way for his comeback.

Within the stump-to-stump framework, Axar seamlessly blends other elements. The action comes first. His arm speed is not as quick as those of staple left-arm spinners. The run-up is smooth and there is no last-second strain in release. So, batsmen are taken aback by his pace. But eventually, they get used to it. But where they tend to struggle is that there is hardly any change in action or release points when he rips out his variations. Some bowlers go round-arm to purchase more spin, or release from a higher point when they are looking for over-spin. They adopt a wider release if they want to get the ball really full, almost yorker length. The arm-speed too quickens up when they want to bowl faster.

Not so simple

But Axar, often, has the same arm-speed, action and release points. To complicate the judgement of batsmen, the grips for his armer and stock ball are difficult to distinguish (for the arm-ball, the middle-finger seems to push the ball harder). This is facilitated by his adeptness at bowling the scrambled seam. So, batsmen cannot decode his variations by observing the standard left-arm spinner’s seam position alone (seam pointed to the slips for the orthodox ball, while for the arm-ball the seam is straighter.) They have to play him off the pitch.

This is when another hurdle surfaces. Some of his balls skid through; some bounce more than expected. Numerous times in the series against Australia, batsmen would assume that the ball is short enough to be cut, but then it climbs onto them. At the same time, they think he could be swept out of the attack, but then he would spear in the fast yorker. Some batsmen line him up like they would a medium pacer, but then he suddenly reduces his speed.

Little wonder then that many pundits consider him a better bowler than Jadeja. The latter has been prone to fluctuations of form in recent times. Since the last T20 World Cup, he has nabbed just five wickets in nine, conceding 7.40 an over. In the same timeframe, Axar has picked up 21 wickets in 18 games, at an economy of 7.15. So, in the build-up to the World Cup, he has played more games, eked out more wickets and clocked a better economy rate than Jadeja.

The dandiya analogy seems apt too. The dance looks simple on the eye, but requires considerable rhythm sense, nimble feet, telepathic coordination with partners, and energy. Likewise, Axar’s bowling looks simple, but is not.

There are other virtues too — he is cat-like on the field, stealthy and agile, with a killer throw from the deep. Watch the runout of Glenn Maxwell in Hyderabad — he swooped the ball from a few centimetres from the boundary rope on square-leg and flung in a flat throw that blasted the stumps. Besides, he brings flexibility to the bowling line-up. “Axar can bowl at any stage, which gives me an advantage of using the other bowlers in different situations too, maybe use the pacers in the middle overs if he bowls in the Powerplay,” skipper Rohit Sharma had waxed eloquently. In the IPL, he has bowled several times at the death too. He, thus, is a bowling floater, whose utility is cruelly understated.

Bat can talk too

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But the question that has always loomed on picking between the two is whether Axar is as good a batsman as Jadeja. Even Sharma wonders: “I would like to see his (Axar) batting as well.”

Jadeja has been in rollicking touch with the bat — averaging 50 in his eight innings and jetting at a strike rate of 141. Axar’s corresponding numbers are 15 at 141 in five innings. But the comparison is flawed as Axar has mostly batted at No. 7, whereas many of Jadeja’s substantial knocks have arrived at Nos. 4 or 5.

But when one compares their T20 stats, the difference is not gasp-worthy. Jadeja has 3,169 runs in 208 innings at an average of 25 and strike rate of 128, Axar has 2,002 in 141 outings at 21.7 at a strike rate of 131.

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Axar, in fact, was a hard-hitting batsman at the start of his career, so the still lingering moniker “Jayasuriya” that Rishabh Pant often keeps reminding of. For more faith in his batting, watch his 35-ball 66 against the West Indies in an ODI in August or just type Axar versus Bumrah on YouTube, which would take one to a humongous six he struck off the ace speedster in his 17-ball 38 not out to wrap up a four-wicket win.

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Of course, unlike Jadeja, he has not proved his batting mettle at the international level. But the injury-enforced absence of Jadeja does not look as grim as it was feared. Axar may not be in the league of Jadeja yet, but is not distant from there either. The dandiya king, the stump-to-stump artist.

First published on: 30-09-2022 at 08:34:17 pm
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