In his first season for Kings XI Punjab in the IPL, in 2014, Axar Patel claimed 17 wickets in as many matches and was named the Emerging Player of the league. After three-and-a-half seasons, he has become one of his team's most dynamic players. Bowl with the new ball: check. Bowl in the middle overs: check. Bowl in the end overs: check. Pinch-hitter: check. Finisher: check.
On Friday night at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, Axar produced a near-perfect all-round display to bolster Kings XI's playoff chances and possibly his chances of making India's Champions Trophy squad. On a slow surface where established names like Hashim Amla, Martin Guptill, Glenn Maxwell, Virat Kohli, Chris Gayle and Shane Watson ended up with a strike-rate of 100 or less, Axar smashed 38 off 17 balls at a strike-rate of 223.52 - his best in T20 cricket when he has faced at least 10 balls. Axar's clean striking rescued Kings XI from 78 for 5 in the 14th over to 138 for 7, of which 19 came in the last over of the innings. He then shut the doors on the chase with three wickets, including two in the 18th over.
If it wasn't for Axar's sparkling cameo, Royal Challengers Bangalore might have approached the chase differently. He did not swing wildly, like most of the RCB batsmen and some of his colleagues did, but instead picked his areas and executed well. The 19th over of Kings XI's innings - a wicket maiden from left-arm fast bowler Aniket Choudhary - did not fluster him. In the 20th, he picked Shane Watson's offcutter from his hand, maintained a stable base and nailed the ball onto the roof of the ground. He then darted around the crease, threw Watson off his length, and hit two more boundaries to give Kings XI something to bowl at.
"We decided 150 was a good total at the strategic timeout," Axar said after the game. "The way wickets were falling and there being no batsmen after me, we planned to get to 150… I think it was a slow wicket with low bounce. If one played with a straight bat, it was easier. A pull or a cut square of the wicket was not on.
"If one batsman stays in the end, anything could happen. This was the plan. When I couldn't get the strike, we thought maybe we can reach 130. It was good that we scored nearly 20 in the final over and that was the game-changer."
Axar wasn't done yet. He struck in his second over, the 11th of the chase, having Watson feather a short of a length ball behind to leave RCB at 71 for 5. This was the fifth time the left-arm spinner had dismissed Watson in five innings. In Kings XI's previous match against RCB in Indore, Axar took the new ball and had Watson, who was opening then, dragging a quick fizzer onto his stumps for 1. So, now with Watson moving to the middle order, did Glenn Maxwell tactically hold Axar back?
"No, no (laughs). It was based on the pitch behaviour," Axar said. "I think it was better to have the pace bowlers bowling as much as possible in the first six overs. The new ball was swinging a bit. Obviously Sandy [Sandeep Sharma] is our main bowler. He gets it to swing in the first six overs. The plan was that if Gayle, Mandeep and Indian batsmen were batting at the top, it would be better for me to bowl after six overs. No particular plan against Watson as such."
With RCB's chase in trouble, Pawan Negi smartly bunted the ball into the gaps and, along with Samuel Badree, helped bring the equation down to 28 off 18 balls. Enter Axar, again.
On cue, he got a delivery to stop on Negi, who played early and skied a catch. Axar's next ball was an arm ball, which slithered under Badree's bat to knock back the off stump. Kings XI's plan, he said, was to exploit the two-paced nature of the pitch.
"We knew that the wicket was not easy, especially for a new batsman," Axar said. "It the batsman plays a good shot, so be it. Like how AB [de Villiers] hit a straight drive. But length balls from the wicket were two-paced. Some kept low, some slow."
Axar also provided a glimpse into the mindset of Kings XI's other big performer on the night, Sandeep Sharma, who became the first bowler in IPL cricket to dismiss Gayle, Kohli and de Villiers in the same innings.
"His [Sandeep's] strength is that he can swing the ball. He knows when he can get it to swing, it gets difficult for the batsmen," Axar said. "Take any format, when the ball swings, batsmen find it difficult. His mindset is simple, if the ball swings then he can show his capabilities. He tells himself: 'I don't get scared of the names in the opposition. I just bowl to my strengths.'"