Scorecards in cricket often don't show you the true picture. In T20s in particular, the story narrated by scoreboards is even more distant from reality. The Delhi Capitals vs Royal Challengers Bangalore scorecard from Monday will mostly tell you that Kagiso Rabada ran through the opposition with his 4 for 24, or how Marcus Stoinis powered the Capitals to 196 with his quickfire 53 not out. Their impact on the result remains undeniable, but the real game-changer was left-arm spinner Axar Patel.
Although Patel didn't get Virat Kohli or AB de Villiers' wicket, by bowling well in the powerplay, he created dot-ball pressure on Kohli and had Aaron Finch caught behind early in the innings.
In a Capitals squad stacked with spinners, that Patel towered above the rest and kept the opposition on a leash remains testament to his USP so far in four games: a stunning economy rate of 4.57 from 14 overs, the best in the tournament yet.
"He always goes under the radar because he bowls good overs, builds the pressure for someone else to capitalise the wickets," R Ashwin said of Patel at the post-match press conference. "These are the heroes who get really appreciated inside the dressing room for us in Delhi Capitals and Ricky [Ponting] is very particular on that, and we stick to the roles, and when we get appreciated people want to hold on to their roles."
The Capitals have had a clear plan for Patel this IPL: bowl him mostly in the first 10 overs. After Patel did not concede a single boundary in their tournament opener against the Kings XI Punjab, the Capitals first used him in the powerplay against the Chennai Super Kings opener Shane Watson. In eight innings before that match, Patel had dismissed Watson five times and conceded at only 6.63 runs per over. And on that night in Dubai, Patel became the first spinner to open the bowling in the ongoing season of the IPL. He proved his efficacy almost immediately: two dots and two singles later, Watson holed out to deep midwicket and the left-arm spinner ended with 2 for 18 from four overs.
Against the Sunrisers Hyderabad he was held back until David Warner was dismissed; Patel gave away 14 runs in the two overs he bowled. In the game against the Kolkata Knight Riders, however, he was left out as soon as Ashwin regained full fitness from his shoulder injury, and against the Royal Challengers, Patel would have probably been excluded again had their veteran spinner Amit Mishra not been ruled out of the tournament.
After getting his well-deserved place back in the XI, Patel was facing arguably his biggest challenge so far this IPL: bowling to Kohli, who had just regained his touch with a half-century only two days ago.
Patel's initial plan was to be defensive, considering he was bowling the fourth over. Try anything fancy and you'll be hit for boundaries with only two fielders in the deep. After bowling his first ball too full, which Kohli dispatched with his trademark cover drive, Patel went back to his stump-to-stump line. Patel's fourth delivery, however, made him lick his lips and he raised his game to another level. The ball went slow through the air, dipped in front of Kohli, who leaned forward to defend, and turned after pitching to just beat the outside edge.
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There was a good amount of turn on offer and that helped change Patel's "gears" from being defensive to attacking, as he confirmed in the presentation after the match. Patel could afford to change his plans immediately because the Capitals batsmen had told him in the break that the ball was "gripping a bit" and the pitch "was a bit slow". What also helped him was that there was hardly any dew on Monday night.
Two balls later he bowled a beauty to Finch: a classical spinner's delivery flighted at 82.3kmh on that perfect length in front of the off stump which Finch thought of defending on the front foot but ended up edging behind. Finch was beaten so comprehensively that he didn't even bother looking at the umpire. By now Patel had found his plan to mix things up for the next three overs, especially for Kohli: aim for the stumps from around the wicket, flight the ball keeping the behavior of the pitch in mind, and vary the pace between 85 and 95kmh. Patel even placed a straight-ish midwicket for Kohli to deny the single, and soon this plan had pulled Kohli's strike rate to under 100.
By the end of his four-over spell, which Patel sealed with Moeen Ali's wicket as the asking rate surged, he had bowled 17 balls to Kohli, of which 10 were dots, for only 14 runs. No bowler has kept Kohli so quiet for 15 or more balls in a single match in the IPL since 2017.
For Ali's wicket, Patel could even afford a low full toss because the risk of getting hit with the turn by a left-hand batsmen was reduced by the fact that Ali's leg side had a bigger boundary, which is why he was caught at deep midwicket.
That dot-ball pressure eventually led to Kohli's wicket as the Royal Challengers captain went after the fast bowlers and perished against Rabada. Patel has been told of his specific role in the first 10 overs, and that Shreyas Iyer mostly keeps three of Rabada's overs for the second half of the innings sends a clear message to Patel about his role: to build pressure.
Patel may not mind that at all even if it means more wickets for his team-mates than for himself as long as he's fulfilling his role with his precision.