Success in first-class cricket is Akshay Darekar's priority
The rapid rise in popularity of Twenty20 cricket has turned spinners from attacking bowlers who are willing to concede a few runs in search of a wicket into the men a captain brings on to stem the run-flow. It is refreshing then that this season's highest wicket-taker in the Ranji Trophy Plate League, Maharashtra's Akshay Darekar, has gone the other way: from a spinner who played more of a containing role last season to an attacking option. Darekar, a 23-year-old left-arm spinner, says he changed his mindset to focus on picking up more wickets.
"Last year I was just a stump-to-stump bowler," he told ESPNcricinfo. "I worked hard in the off season and improved my bowling. I changed my mindset to be more attacking and look for wickets. Before the season started I just kept telling myself that I need to be the highest wicket-taker this Ranji season. I changed my attitude to be more aggressive."
The results have been dramatic. From taking 10 wickets in six games last season, Darekar has gone to taking 32 this season at an average of 17.43, and his performance has been a major part of Maharashtra's journey to the quarter-finals. His coach Shaun Williams said Darekar had changed his mentality. "The main thing that has improved is his mentality," Williams said. "He has started thinking about taking wickets rather than just being a defensive bowler."
Darekar made his first-class debut last season after impressing in the 2009-10 under-22 tournament and the 2010-11 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, in which he took nine wickets from five games. He managed to hold his place in the Maharashtra side through the Ranji season but could not take as many wickets as he would have liked. He recognised that he needed to add variations to his bowling, and worked on that in the off-season. As if in testimony to globalisation, Darekar's idol is not a former or current India spinner but New Zealand's Daniel Vettori. The ball he worked on between seasons was a slider bowled with the same action as his normal delivery, like Vettori does.
"Usually, left-arm spinners have to change their hand position slightly when they bowl the slider or arm ball," Darekar said. "But I developed a way to bowl a slider with the same hand position as my orthodox delivery. I learned how to bowl that ball by watching Daniel Vettori on television. I saw him do it and wanted to bowl that ball, so I started practising it."
Williams had told Darekar at the beginning of the season that it was not enough to have variations but he needed to use his brains. "I told him you don't need to be the bowler with the most tricks in the tournament, it's important to know how to use those variations and be the smartest bowler in the tournament," Williams said. Darekar heeded that advice and said the match against Hyderabad, in which he took 13 wickets on a pitch that was turning square and had variable bounce, was an example of it.
"That pitch [at Uppal] was turning a lot but I bowled a lot of straighter ones and foxed the batsmen that way," Darekar said. "The batsmen were expecting huge turn but the straighter ones caught them by surprise."
In the match against Jammu and Kashmir in Ratnagiri, Darekar said he used accuracy and variations in his pace, which he says are his biggest strengths, to take a five-wicket haul in the first innings. "The pitch in Ratnagiri was flat so it was hard to pick up wickets. I had to use my variations in pace to deceive the batsman."
Darekar's next assignment will be his toughest so far as he comes up against a Tamil Nadu batting line-up boasting several players with international experience. He, however, was not intimidated at all by the challenge.
"We are more confident than them," he said. "They have only won one match this season while we have won three matches. So we are more confident."
Though he has had success in all three formats, everything Darekar said suggested that, at least for the moment, he is thinking like a four-day match bowler. When asked whether a lucrative IPL contract was appealing to him, Darekar said: "Actually, I want an India Test cap. My focus is on the four-day game right now. Success in other formats is secondary and comes automatically if you do well in first-class cricket. For now, I am just thinking about this Ranji season, winning it and finishing as highest wicket-taker."
Darekar's Test ambitions will take some work to achieve and Williams said the most important thing for him now was to just keep improving. In an age when the yorker has become a part of the spinner's repertoire, though, Darekar's focus on taking wickets in the longer format shows he is setting himself the right goals.
Dustin Silgardo is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo