Big stage brings out best in Akshar Patel
It was early on in the 2013-14 Ranji Trophy season when Gujarat faced Delhi in Surat in a league game. Parthiv Patel, the Gujarat captain, was stunned by the confidence of a young left-arm spinner who was playing his first game of the season, and second first-class match. Aside from the miserly spell of 6 for 55 off 45 overs, Parthiv was struck by Akshar Patel's desire to bowl at the best opposition batsmen. That too against Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, who were both both fighting for India comebacks and perhaps as hungry as the youngster from Nadiad, a small town in Gujarat (about an hour's drive from Ahmedabad).
"Ever since he knew he would play, he was constantly asking me to let him bowl to Gautam and Viru as much as he could," Parthiv told ESPNcricinfo. "For a youngster who was relatively new to first-class cricket, having not cemented his place in the side to be gunning to bowl at two of the best batsmen in India, he had to be supremely confident about his abilities. And he proved that even during that match."
While Akshar, a lanky left-arm spinner who considers himself a batting allrounder, dismissed Gambhir in the first innings, he fooled Sehwag in flight and got him stumped in the second.
Almost seven months down the line, Akshar has emerged as the youngest sensation in Indian cricket, thanks to his impressive performance in the seventh edition of the IPL. His 17 wickets at a stingy economy rate of 6.17 - the best for a bowler who played more than three matches - for Kings XI Punjab helped him not only emerge as one of the leading spinners of the tournament but also be adjudged with the Emerging Player of the tournament. More importantly, just before Kings XI featured in their maiden IPL final, Akshar was named in India's squad for the three-ODI series in Bangladesh, to be played later this month.
Many would have been surprised at Akshar being preferred over the likes of Glenn Maxwell, David Miller and Mohit Sharma for that award but those who have seen his terrific surge in the last three years are not surprised. Mukund Parmar is one of them.
Parmar, a prolific run-getter in domestic cricket, was the batting consultant at National Cricket Academy and was watching Akshar shape into a "valuable allrounder" since 2010. It was in 2011-12 that as Gujarat's chief selector, Parmar thought he should be tried out at the senior level. "He is an outstanding fielder and a quick learner, so we thought he should be given a go in the limited-overs format, so we included him in the one-day team," Parmar said.
It was just before the 2011-12 zonal one-dayers when Parthiv first saw Akshar. Since Parthiv was a member of India's ODI squad, he didn't play the zonal one-dayers but trained with the team for a couple of days. "What impressed me about him right away was his accuracy and ability to extract bounce off the wicket. He was also an outstanding fielder. And when I saw him batting, I realised that he is a special talent," Parthiv recalled.
After an impressive outing in the one-dayers and Twenty20s, the teenager was straightaway drafted into the Ranji Trophy team the following season, when Parmar was the coach. But after making his first-class debut against Madhya Pradesh, Akshar had to be released for the Under-19 games. The selectors wanted to groom him in the U-19 championship, and he didn't play any more Ranji games but returned to the senior side in style for the one-dayers and Twenty20s.
Impressive performances in both the limited-overs formats not only earned him an IPL contract with Mumbai Indians but he was also shortlisted for a camp at the NCA that featured 20 cricketers who had just crossed junior cricket ranks but needed further grooming. It was in that camp, also Sanjay Bangar's maiden prominent coaching assignment, that the Kings XI coach was convinced about Akshar's ability.
Soon after, Akshar proved his bowling skills yet again by picking seven wickets in India Under-23's triumphant ACC Emerging Players' trophy campaign. When he joined Gujarat's training camp after returning from Singapore, Parthiv could see the transformation.
"I could sense he had evolved into a terrific reader of the game. That coupled with his ability to adapt to any situation of the game made him into a permanent fixture in the Ranji season. I am sure he can be a reliable allrounder at No. 7 even in the longer format. And he has shown that during the Ranji season," Parthiv said.
Akshar finished the Ranji season with 29 wickets at 23.58 and 369 runs at 46.12 from seven games. And as he displayed in his 65 against Mumbai on a turning track in Valsad, he has the ability to turn the game even with the bat, though his side fell narrowly short.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo