February 11, 2014

'Hopefully now I am beginning to peak'

Older and more mature than when he first played for England, Samit Patel hopes he can let his bat do all the talking from now on

"At times in the past I thought I had it all - but I didn't" © Getty Images

Cricket is about belief: to get down on one knee and play the Dilscoop, to flight one up after being clattered for six, to charge up the wicket and go over the top. The game is a mental examination as much as a physical one. It is a test of the brain as much as the body. For Samit Patel - the allrounder who England once deemed just too round - belief is no issue.

There are 59 caps in Patel's locker. He is now 29 - and he barely waits for me to finish before interrupting my question of how many he can end up with. "I can play 200 games for England," he says. "That's my belief. The older you get, the better you get. I haven't had my best days. Hopefully now I am beginning to peak."

The remarks are delivered with all the conviction of one of his bludgeoning drives. Patel has never been shy of a word or two, but you sense this is not just talk. He has fallen out with Graeme Swann, who alleged Patel had been spreading some none too kind words around Trent Bridge, before. That rift is now long gone. "We were both naive," Patel says.

Last year Patel remarked that Glamorgan "wouldn't come anywhere close" to his Nottinghamshire team in their big Lord's final. He was right but the comments came across as just not cricket, though Patel claims it was blown way out of proportion.

He is adamant he is not gobby. Or a wild child. "At times in the past I thought I had it all, but I didn't," he admits. Now he wants the words to stop and to let his actions - in a Three Lions shirt - do the talking.

Cricket has always been in his blood. A child prodigy, Patel represented England at Under-15, U-17 and U-19 levels. He made his Nottinghamshire 2nd XI debut at the age of 14 and was awarded the Test Match Special Young Cricketer of the Year award in 2000, all while he was still at school.

"It was tough, playing at 14, but it put me in good stead. I had to balance school with England tours and Notts matches." With an air or pride, he adds: "But I didn't do badly. I still got eight GCSEs and two A Levels."

Using those was never part of the plan.

"My attitude towards training was terrible. I thought cricket would always get me out of trouble. It didn't"

Patel was 17 when he made his Nottinghamshire debut. It was no easy bow. As he walked out to bat, off trudged Kevin Pietersen. He'd been clean-bowled by West Indies A paceman Jermaine Lawson. At the other end, Tino Best was steaming in. Patel stuck around for two and a half hours for 35.

He had to wait another year to play his first County Championship match. Patel struck a half-century against Lancashire to further show his talent - but it was in 2005 that he made the big breakthrough. The then 20-year-old became an integral part of the Notts one-day side, playing 16 games, averaging close to 40 and impressing with his economical left-arm spin. That one-day form translated into the first-class game in 2006. Big runs came and, in 2008, England came calling.

"I was shocked and surprised when Geoff Miller rang. I thought he was calling about the England Lions game against South Africa, not that I was in the full squad," Patel said. His first cap came against Scotland but taking on the might of South Africa - with Herschelle Gibbs, Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn in their ranks - was the first big test.

Patel's second one-dayer was a winning one. He justified his selection ahead of Swann and accounted for danger man Gibbs in ten tight overs. "It was a pretty good start," Patel says. "Playing with [Stuart] Broad, [James] Anderson, Freddie Flintoff, [Steve] Harmison as seamers and being picked ahead of Swanny as the spinner was massive. Swanny was a good bowler then - he's an even better bowler now."

England's faith in Patel was rewarded. His 5 for 41 in the third ODI earned him the Man-of-the-Match award and England the series. An ECB contract followed but the dream soon turned into a nightmare. The wait for an international chance may have been over - but so was his weight.

Patel, included in England's ODI and T20 squads for the tour of the West Indies in 2009, was axed. The reason: he was not fit for purpose. His fitness levels had gone downhill and he was left in the wilderness.

"Embarrassing," Patel says about it. It would be an easy subject to shy away from, but he isn't about to do that. "Being told I couldn't play was absolutely hurtful. I was good enough to play for my country but not fit enough to do the work. That's pretty bad. If you get dropped for not playing that well, fair enough. But for something else, that's pretty poor."

There was no quick fix, or at least no quick fix that worked. Despite being picked in the preliminary squad, Patel missed out on the 2009 World Twenty20 because the fitness problems hadn't been put to bed.

Patel knows he was wrong. Wrong that he was out of shape in the first place - and wrong that he didn't get back into line quick enough: "My attitude towards training was terrible. I thought fitness wasn't all that. I know what you need to do at the highest level and fitness is a key aspect of that. But I thought cricket would always get me out of trouble. It didn't."

The yo-yo, body fat and weight tests were letting him down but he had an ally. The coach, Andy Flower, publicly spoke out about Patel and said: "All we were saying was 'get into reasonable shape'."

Patel respected the approach: the honesty and the personal contact. "Andy Flower was great with me. He wanted me fitter. He was pretty blunt with me and I knew where I stood," he said. "The good thing with him was that he was always keeping in contact and getting me to do something about it." Off Patel trekked to the gym.

It wasn't until 2011, three years after his international bow, that he got another chance. The work had paid off and his international career was back on the right track. Although it was hardly a total thumbs-up from national selector Geoff Miller. "Samit Patel has taken significant steps in the right direction and he has more hard work ahead in order to make further progress," he said.

Patel became a key part of the one-day side and donned the whites for his first Test, against Sri Lanka in 2012. "I got myself fit and went from playing no formats to all formats. The Test call-up was the most surprising. I thought I was going to Sri Lanka for the experience and then I was in the side. It was satisfying but I knew I wanted more," Patel says.

This time it was poor form - on the pitch, not off it - that led to his dropping. The final straw came in a T20 in Hamilton last year where he bowled two fruitless overs for 20, and scored 6. Now, though, there is a chance for more. There is no coach, no established spinner, and question marks over all but three or four spots in the Test side. Patel doesn't need telling twice.

"I haven't been in contact with anyone. I don't know how far away from the side I am but it's a fresh start for everyone," he says. "Come the start of the season there will be a load of players believing if they get out the traps fast, they could be playing for England."

Before then, Patel could be set for an IPL payday. He pulled out of the auction back in 2011 to concentrate on his England chances. But now he has thrown his name into the hat. Not that he is too keen. There is a downbeat tone to his voice just at the mention of it. Notts will let him go if he sells for $320,000. Hopes are at a minimum.

"I probably won't follow the auction," Patel says. "I don't know what franchises are thinking but I would know now if they were interested, I'm sure. If I don't go, it's a win-win situation. There's more chance of me playing for England, which is where I want to be."