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January 10, 2001
Dipak Patel has one of the most interesting backgrounds of all New Zealand cricketers. As an import into the Kiwi team, he is often profiled purely on his international record.
But there's more to Patel than his 37 Tests and 75 One-Day Internationals. Now Central Districts (CD) coach, an outsider such as 2000/01 English import Ben Smith appreciates the true value of Patel's approach to New Zealand cricket.
"He's a very approachable coach. He makes decisions and takes it on the chin whether they're good or bad. He listens to what players have to say."
This seems to indicate experience, and toughness, developed on the seven day a week English county circuit.
One of the benefits he brings to CD is his English connection. "I've made contact through Jack Birkenshaw, Leicestershire's coach and Bill Athey, Worcestershire's coach as well. I went and watched him (Smith) play against Worcestershire and he scored some runs."
Patel says "having the right contacts" is one of the big advantages of his background in English county cricket. "It's very important you get the right player. We were going to lose some of our batters to the Black Caps."
On New Zealand's leading runscorer Smith, plucked from obscurity in England, Patel says, "If he keeps performing as well as he is he'll get the raps back home." Patel himself never received those raps in England, so turned to New Zealand for international competition.
Back in 1992, Martin Crowe and coach Warren Lees, made a star of Patel, after a long English county apprenticeship and unfortunate beginning to his international career down under. The World Cup was Crowe's arena to develop the strategy of using off spinner Patel to open the bowling in one-day matches.
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1958, Patel moved to England with his family in 1968. He made his debut for Worcestershire in 1976 as an 18-year-old. For several years in the 1980's Patel was discussed in the media as a possible England player. The spinning all-rounder role at the time was taken by Geoff Miller if anyone, while Ian Botham was definitely the No 1 all-rounder from 1978. This left Patel with no international opportunity.
Glenn Turner was the catalyst for Patel's move to New Zealand. Turner was an influence on Patel's batting in the early days at Worcester. "He certainly helped me in my younger years through some difficult times." Patel was on tour with DH Robins' team in 1979/80 to New Zealand. This was a pivotal tour for the young all-rounder. Turner also set him up with club cricket in Auckland.
He met his wife on the tour and has "very fond memories" of playing in a high standard of cricket in both the North and South Islands.
He eventually moved to New Zealand to qualify in 1986. The qualification period of four years was reduced due to Patel's six English winters in New Zealand.
As a toughened county professional, Patel initially found provincial cricket "slightly different in quality," to what he was used to.
However, he now believes "in the last four or five years the gap has closed quite a bit. I don't know whether the county scene's as strong as it used to be, but I think cricket here is getting stronger and stronger. The more cricket we play here, the younger group is getting more mature and are getting stronger as they start playing more."
Patel's 'one of the lads' persona and listening skills place him apart from the man who was a team mate from 1976-83 at Worcestershire.
As a player Patel learnt from Turner. He never had Turner's concentration or skill as a batsman, but was a good team man, always ready to fill a role.
He stands seventh in the all-time career batting list and fifth in the bowling in the New Zealand list. Patel hit 174 on his Auckland debut in 1985/86, the highest ever debut score for the province.
However, those above Patel on the record lists are mostly county pros themselves. Tom Pritchard, SG Smith, Geoff Howarth, John Wright and Patel's mentor Turner himself stand out.
Back to the international statistics. Only Daniel Vettori, John Bracewell and Hedley Howarth have more Test spinner's wickets than Patel. In fact, he is 15th on the all-time list. Add to that 29th place in the batsmen and you have a valuable all-rounder. A comparable figure, John Bracewell scored 1001 runs and took 102 wickets in 41 Tests. Patel had 1200 runs and 75 wickets in 37. Vic Pollard, another batsman/spinner, took 40 Test wickets and scored 1266 runs in 32 appearances.
So, with Patel's record reassessed, where to from here? After retirement as a player at the end of 1996/97, he became a coach. One might expect, with his Turner influence, for Patel to coach like the former New Zealand instructor.
However, as a coach, Patel differs a great deal from his batting model, Turner. What are his coaching strategies? "I'm a big believer in allowing players the time and the space to express themselves. I'm a big believer in positive cricket. We try and play attractive cricket. We allow individuals to think the game out for themselves. If I can add anything on top of that it's a bonus."
He certainly seems to have added a lot since he took over from Scott Briasco at CD before the 1997/98 season. They won the Shell Trophy the following year.
CD have been struggling this season, but with a prudent choice in overseas pro, the only one in New Zealand, Patel struck gold with Ben Smith. Last year's import, Craig White used CD as a springboard for England success, when called up as a replacement for their South African tour last season.
Mathew Sinclair is maturing into a complete batsman, willing to represent CD between internationals and becoming more consistent.
Jacob Oram has made the step up to the Black Caps and Glen Sulzberger looks close to a recall, after a Craig White like call up to NZ's SA tour. Mark Douglas has scored consistently and from experienced players like 32-year-old Douglas, to rookie left-arm seamer Ewen Thompson and Taria Robin, a fast bowler who was 17 years 182 days old when debuting last season. Patel is obviously prepared to give youngsters a chance. Greg Todd, Jamie How and Robin are all under-19 internationals and have been "given the opportunity with all the Black Cap calls," due to their "mix of potential and maturity."
Jacob Oram is the youngest skipper at provincial level.
Andrew Penn has been missed since his transfer to Wellington, but Michael Mason, Gareth West and Thompson have filled the gap. Lacking a wicket taking spinner and high scoring opening partnerships, CD are far from a complete team.
But with Patel at the helm, they seem to have the right man to regain their 1998/99 Trophy winning form as the side matures.
What's wrong with their cricket? Well, what isn't?