Axar Patel doesn’t answer questions on how an oversight by an officer ended up with his name changing from Akshar to Axar in his passport and bringing him luck any more. It made for a good story when he first burst on to the scene by winning the emerging player award in the Indian Premier League 2014. An integral member of Kings XI Punjab since then, Axar’s steady progress has earned him 37 international caps so far.
His 176 runs at a strike rate of 149.15 and 13 wickets at an average of 20.30 have kept Punjab’s aspirations for a place in the playoffs this IPL season alive. He spoke to Wisden India about his progress as an allrounder, learning from Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the frustration of missing out being a part of Gujarat’s playing XI in the 2016-17 Ranji Trophy final among other things. Excerpts:
You tore a ligament on your right thumb while trying to catch Liam Dawson during the Chennai Test against England in December last year. Is the thumb completely fine now?
It’s 90% alright, but will take another 15-20 days to get into normal rhythm. It’s not bending completely to touch the palm near the little finger unlike the left thumb.
“I have learnt a lot playing for the same franchise over four years. Also, I have been playing for India for two years now, so I have got some idea on how to bowl to a batsman, and read what a batsman can do in certain situations. Obviously, there is still a lot to learn, but my game-reading skills have improved a lot from the past. My maturity level has improved and I am now more ready to deliver for the team in different situations, and win games on my own.”
Going back to the Ranji Trophy, soon after Gujarat beat Mumbai to win their first title, you ran out to celebrate with your teammates. How frustrating was it to miss out three knockout games because of the injury?
It was quite frustrating that I went for one Test (as a cover for Ravindra Jadeja) and returned injured. You can say, woh teen mahine mere zindagi ka sabse ghatiya din thhey (those were the three worst months of my life). As a cricketer you play almost everyday, so when you don’t get to work for a day you get frustrated, thinking what to do. As cricketers you are always so busy doing different things that you get bored when there is nothing to do. I made sure that I was travelling with the Ranji team and discussing plans with the players in order to not get bored. I have become stronger from that experience.
How much have you evolved as a bowler since IPL 2014?
I have learnt a lot playing for the same franchise over four years. Also, I have been playing for India for two years now, so I have got some idea on how to bowl to a batsman, and read what a batsman can do in certain situations. Obviously, there is still a lot to learn, but my game-reading skills have improved a lot from the past. My maturity level has improved and I am now more ready to deliver for the team in different situations, and win games on my own. In this IPL, I have bowled quite well. I have not bowled all over the place, and have found my rhythm.
Who has helped you the most in this phase?
Mostly, I learn from my own experiences. I believe that if a cricketer has to learn most, he can only learn by watching his and others’ bowling. It has to come from within that I want to do this. The coach and other support staff will tell you do this and that, but it is up to you to adapt based on what suits you. Obviously when you are with the Indian team you talk to a senior player like Mahi bhai (Dhoni), Anil (Kumble) bhai and Bharat Arun sir before that. Then there is Viru (Virender Sehwag) paaji here at Kings XI. They all tell what my strengths are, advise on how to give loop or bowl a bit slowly.
The best thing is that no one has asked me to change anything because I played for India based on what I have done in the past. So they told me that you can’t think that you can give flight like Amit Mishra or bowl like R Ashwin for six balls in an over. They made me realise that their strengths are different to mine. My strength is that I can bowl consistently in one area at good pace. So they asked me to bowl to my strength for four balls in an over, and if you want you can experiment with the other two balls. I kept learning slowly and implemented them while with the Indian team. It has helped me.
Would you say spin bowling is like puppetry where you control the string?
I think so. The secret of a good bowler is he is able to bowl wherever he wants to – may it be a yorker or a quicker one or into the pads. If you are able to execute 99% of your plans then your success rate goes up. Practice is the secret. The ball should always be in your control; then you become a top bowler.
You did well at the age-group level, been a part of a title-winning Gujarat team across three formats, and also had success in IPL and at international level. How much have all these added to your confidence and made you feel like a complete bowler?
If you have proved yourself in Ranji Trophy and come to IPL, in your head you know why you are here. And if you perform well in one match here then you open up. When a batsman takes strike, he starts by taking singles and doubles but the moment he hits a four and a six in one over, he starts believing that he can do that more.
Toughest batsman to bowl to
“Chris Gayle. I have dismissed him twice, but obviously the way he stands, I find it tough to bowl to him. He hits to his strength. When there is no assistance from the pitch, he hits you bindaas. He does clean hitting. When as a left-arm spinner you are bowling to a left-hander, you have to think a lot before bowling. I think he reads me the best because he picks up my best balls and hits them for sixes.”
Similarly, a bowler’s confidence level goes up when he comes into a game with performances. Then he starts thinking I have done similar things in the same situation, so I can do it again. Once you win a game for your team at this level – like against Royal Challengers Bangalore in the second match in Indore I took 1 for 12 in four overs and got Man of the Match – and particularly at the start of the season, then you carry that confidence with you. If you have achieved good figures in a small ground then you start telling yourself that I can obviously be more successful in a bigger ground. All these things matter to keep your confidence high. Once you perform you get into a rhythm, but when negativity comes in – like I am getting hit, I am getting read well – then you start looking like a different bowler. But if you perform for nine-ten matches in a row, your confidence level is high and when you go into the ground, you go with a different energy, that no matter who the batsman is main match nikaal doonga (I will win the game). It’s all about rhythm.
It’s also mostly in the mind, isn’t it?
Obviously. You talk to any big player and they say this is 90% a mind game, and rest is skill. The faster your mind adapts to situation the better it is. The earlier the mind finds out how to bowl to a good batsman in a specific situation, the better it is. The more you use your mind, the better bowler you become.
Can you share an example from this season where you read the mind of the batsman and got him out?
The first match against Rising Pune Supergiant, when I came to bowl the 18th over to Ben Stokes. I knew that he is going to hit me because it’s the 18th over, and I am a left-arm spinner bowling to a left-hander. I started with two wides – one on the off side and one on the leg side. Even then I stuck to my plan. Then I bowled one on leg stump, which went for a single (leg bye). Then when he came on strike he was thinking I will either bowl a faster one or will bowl on the middle stump. But then I bowled one outside the off stump, and he went to hit me and was caught and bowled. I was able to read him right.
Dismissing someone who was bought for Rs 14.5 crore must have given you some satisfaction?
(Laughs) Woh toh alag hi baat hai (It’s a different feeling).
Who has been the toughest batsman to bowl to in your career so far?
Chris Gayle. I have dismissed him twice, but obviously the way he stands, I find it tough to bowl to him. He hits to his strength. When there is no assistance from the pitch, he hits you bindaas. He does clean hitting. When as a left-arm spinner you are bowling to a left-hander, you have to think a lot before bowling. I have tried bowling yorkers, outside the off stump, on middle stump. I think he reads me the best because he picks up my best balls and hits them for sixes.
So are you mentally a step behind when you bowl to Gayle?
If you think from the beginning that you are going to get hit then you will be hit for six sixes in an over. But the mindset is that, is there a way to get him off strike or if the wicket is helpful can I get him out? I bowl as per the wicket and try to get him as much off strike as possible. It is dependent on how the pitch is and what the situation is.
What did you learn from the final over you bowled to Dhoni in IPL 2016, where he hit you for 23 runs to give Pune a win in the wooden spoon clash?
For two to three days, I kept thinking what did I do wrong and what I could have done. But immediately after that we had the tour of Zimbabwe, and I forgot about that over. In Zimbabwe, Mahi bhai spoke to me about that over and said those were not bad balls. He said that I bowled to my strength, it was just a good day for him that he hit them well. He also said that he was able to read me because he plays me regularly in the nets and ‘I know what you want to do and what your capabilities are’. He said instead of bowling all the six balls at one speed, I could have bowled a couple of balls at a slower pace. Then he said that I must have thought that by bowling slow, I would have made things easier for him. He then revealed that he was prepared for faster balls, and slower balls might have troubled him. He said other than that it was a good over based on my strengths, and just that it was a good day for him. He asked me not to think much about all that because then I would not be able to proceed further in my career. He said that it was good that the over happened to me so early in my career, so that in the future if I face a similar situation I will know what to do. I learnt a lot from that over. When India’s best finisher tells you such things, your confidence goes up.
On learning from MS Dhoni
“He talks to everyone based on what their strengths are. He gives me inputs based on my bowling style, and how I can benefit from it. Also, from a batting perspective, he tells how to play at No. 7. His biggest message is to take the game deep into the innings. He says the more you absorb the pressure at the start and release it towards the end, the more the opponent will be under pressure. He shares all these things. There are a lot of people who will tell you a lot of things, but it is up to you how much you learn.”
What else have you learnt from Dhoni?
He talks to everyone based on what their strengths are. He gives me inputs based on my bowling style, and how I can benefit from it. Also, from a batting perspective, he tells how to play at No. 7. His biggest message is to take the game deep into the innings. He says the more you absorb the pressure at the start and release it towards the end, the more the opponent will be under pressure. He shares all these things. There are a lot of people who will tell you a lot of things, but it is up to you how much you learn.
Virat Kohli has spoken highly of your confidence. What does it mean to have the national captain’s backing?
Obviously when you are with Team India, everyone knows about everyone’s game. I bowl to him at nets and I bat also. In the last (One-Day International) series against New Zealand, I was batting well but unfortunately got injured. If the captain has trust in you then it gives a different level of confidence. He tells me different things. As a batsman I go at No. 7, and he encourages me to play my game instead of trying to force a shot. He always says to take the game as close as possible. Mahi bhai also tells us a lot about how to play at No. 7. He knows batting at No. 7 is not easy. Everyone thinks that (our job is to come and hit), but we know we will get batting for either four overs or 20 overs. Either everything would have got over at the start or we have to provide the finish. So it’s about how fast you learn and adapt. That decides how big a player you will become.
Since you spoke about batting at No. 7, the game that comes to mind is the 2014-15 Deodhar Trophy semifinal between West Zone and South Zone. You made an unbeaten 38-ball 64 coming at No. 8 to complete a successful chase of 315. Would you say that knock marked your arrival as someone who could be trusted with the bat?
I was not clicking till then. I had played similar knocks at the Under-19 level, but I was not clicking at the senior level. To play that knock against South Zone, who had international bowlers in their line-up, after we were 150 (174) for 6 and win it for the team was a confidence booster. It is about clicking in that one game, and then everything opens up and your confidence goes high. I was trying hard to get into the Indian team, but because of certain situations I was unable to make it and a few times I did not take my chances. That game changed it. When I go out to bat now, I am a different person. I play according to the situation and don’t hurry things. As I said earlier, my maturity level has increased since then.
When you flew to Australia for the 2014-15 Test series as a replacement for Jadeja, experts, including Sunil Gavaskar, felt that you are not yet ready for Test cricket. In hindsight, do you think it was a good thing that you did not make your Test debut then and you are more ready for all formats now than before?
Yes. When a player achieves everything in one go, he starts to think that he is ready, which is not always the right thing. I am glad I did not get my chance then. I think I am more prepared in the last two years. Now I know what to do in any situation. I play with some big names like Glenn Maxwell and Hashim Amla here. I share my ideas with them and ask them for their thoughts on a particular situation. As batsmen, they give their inputs, which I take in as a bowler. The idea is to not bowl to batsman’s strength and create trouble for him. The more you play, the more experience you gain.
(With inputs from Saurabh Somani)