Kings XI Punjab allrounder Axar Patel had a late initiation to serious cricket, taking to it only when he was 16. He was a reluctant cricketer too. Academically bright, Axar was going the engineering route, but his father had a better idea and sent him to a coaching camp.
Axar, though, would slope off to join his mates for tennis-ball matches. "I would give the impression I was going for practice sessions and instead play gully-cricket," Axar has said in the past.
His father's persistence eventually caused a change of heart, and Axar started taking his cricket seriously. His rise thereafter has been swift: he won the emerging player of the IPL award, playing for Kings XI Punjab last year. Within months, he made his ODI debut, against Bangladesh, thus fulfilling his late grandmother's desire of him appearing on TV, turning out for the "blue t-shirt waale."
However, Axar soon discovered that as swift as growth could be, sustaining and furthering it could be harder. In the Carlton-Mid series, Axar managed only one run from three innings batting in the lower-middle order, and picked up two wickets. He was in the World Cup squad, but didn't get a game. His captain MS Dhoni, though, was encouraging in his appraisal after the tri-series, saying Axar would only get better with more exposure.
Axar, who regards himself as a batting allrounder, said he was putting in a lot of work at the Kings XI nets. "I concentrate more on my batting than my bowling," Axar said. "As a bowler, I do what I normally do, but when I bat in the nets I am very focused on improving my skills. I talk a lot about my batting with my coach Sanjay Bangar, and technically, too, I have been trying to work on a few things."
Axar didn't appear too flustered by the lack of match-time in the World Cup. "I look at it positively. I have made it to the team at this age, and that's very good for me. And when I spend so much time with the senior players, I keep observing what their approach is, how they plan. When I bowl to these batsmen, I set my field and ask them how they would play in such a situation and what their mindset was."
Axar has had a better time with the ball than with the bat so far in this IPL: with six scalps, he is joint-second highest on the wicket-takers' list for Kings XI. He has scored 51 runs from four innings, but his most significant contribution came against Rajasthan Royals when his last-ball boundary, off James Faulkner, took the game into a Super Over that Kings XI eventually won.
As a spinner, Axar said he needed to stay ahead of the batsman all the time. "I feel adjustment is necessary. You need to vary your pace and obviously your length. You also need to use your mind, and second guess what the batsman is thinking and planning. In the death overs, I use fuller length, and I try not to give the batsman any width. If he has any opportunity at all to open his arms, he has the upper hand."
Axar said his interactions with some of the more attacking batsmen in his side helped him figure out when a batsman lined up a bowler. "I discuss a lot with Viru paaji and Glenn Maxwell when I am bowling. Maxwell plays both sides of the wicket. So I discuss with him about how he decides which ball to go after. I show him my field and ask him which areas he would target."
Axar said keeping fresh mentally was important, considering how cramped the schedule was during the IPL. "Things are very hectic, but with these team-building activities and music, I try to switch off and relax. You remain mentally fresh and take your mind off the game."
Arun Venugopal is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo