Every day of the Indore Test, Axar Patel showed that he was getting frustrated by throwing his head up. Two of them were because Mohammed Siraj was wandering between the wickets and running down the pitch, leaving him alone with the bat both times. The third time was on the third morning of the Test, when Australia was making the last changes. Axar started his warm-up routines right before the drink break, when the visitors were 20 runs away from winning. Rohit Sharma instead gave the ball to Umesh Yadav, and Ravichandran Ashwin kept doing the same thing until the end of the Test.
Even compared to his exciting start to Test cricket, Axar’s Border Gavaskar series has been very strange. So far, in three Tests, his batting average is 92.50 and his bowling average is 103. He has more not-outs (2) and half-centuries (2) than wickets in the series (1). The other five spinners in the series have had fun on pitches that work well for them and have taken a total of 77 wickets, with each of them taking at least one five-wicket haul.
The simple reason for those numbers is that, as the third spinner in a five-man attack, he hasn’t been bowled enough. Ravindra Jadeja has taken 21 wickets in 106.1 overs, while Ashwin has taken 18 wickets in 95.1 overs. Axar has only bowled 39 overs, which is almost a third of what India’s two best spinners have done. Most of those overs were with a softer ball, which made it easier to hit against. Before the Indore Test, the Indian captain had a reason for this.
“Look Ashwin and Jadeja have bowled really well so I’ve to continue to make them bowl as much as possible,” Rohit said. “If you have three spinners, you know that the third spinner is always underbowled. This time it has been Axar in these two Test matches, you never know who that guy will be in the next two Test matches. Because if guys are getting wickets from one side, both sides rather, you have to continue to bowl them, as simple as that. That’s how it is.
“When Axar, Ash, and Washington played against England in Ahmedabad, it was Washi who was bowled under. When people are getting wickets and are in a good rhythm, you can tell they need to bowl for longer periods of time. Like fast bowlers, it takes them a while to find their rhythm. You really need those fingers to help you out. So it takes at least three or four overs to get into that rhythm. The spinners can then bowl for longer periods of time than the fast bowlers.”
During the games, it’s been hard for Axar to find his rhythm. In his 39 overs, he has used 11 different spells. So, the average size of a spell is 3.5 overs. So, it wasn’t surprising to see him bowl on the practice wickets for almost half an hour on the second morning of the Indore Test. He was trying to find his speeds and lengths while bowling coach Paras Mhambrey kept a close eye on him.
During the next day’s play, Axar was quickly put into the attack. He bowled for four overs and only gave away four runs, but he never looked dangerous on a pitch that turned 4.1 degrees. Cricbuzz’s Ball-by-Ball records show that 16 of those balls were full length, which either Cameron Green or Peter Handscomb could easily defend against by stretching out. Throughout the series, Axar’s problem has been that he hasn’t hit enough balls past the right-handed batter to make his slider more effective. He has changed how he throws in the crease, but he hasn’t been able to get the ball to dip on a batter who lunges out to meet it. So neither LBW catches nor bat-pad catches have been in play.
Given the nature of the pitches, the value of runs, and India’s need to make the most of any help from the moisture on the second morning pitch, Rohit had to hurry to bring Ashwin back into the attack and have the master off-spinner break the innings open, which he did right away.
Even when Jadeja has been missing his lengths during different parts of this Test, no one has thought about Axar. Instead, the player who had taken the most wickets in the series bowled 18 overs before and after a break on Day 1 and sent down 32 of India’s first 70 overs. This from a player who has only played four first-class games after a very long injury break should worry a team that bowls with five bowlers.
Steve Smith, on the other hand, spread his overs among his three spinners and made them work together to become runs-dryers (Todd Murphy) or enforcers (Nathan Lyon and Matt Kuhnemann). This was an example of how to make the most of the resources you have. “I told the spinners on Day 1’s morning that they need to put their egos aside. The pitch is spinning for them, and they want to bowl. We have three of you, though. Getting kicked off doesn’t mean you’re bowling badly. Just at that time, someone else might be able to do a better job. When you have three spinners, you have to work them this way to keep them as fresh as possible. I was happy with how I dealt with the three spinners “Smith said.
With Axar’s current style and use, India may bat until nine, but when they have the ball, they are basically a two-man arrow head plus the usual burst from a quick. And that could even make people think in a different way. Couldn’t they change the balance of their team by giving one of their underused fast bowlers an extra turn at bat? If that seems impossible, they will hope that Axar, with Rohit’s help, can find his bowling touch again at the same place where he turned heads two summers ago.