Match Analysis

The secret to Axar Patel's success: go straight and undercut

What he has achieved since slotting into India's attack is to make viewers almost forget that Jadeja is out injured

The hardest ball to face on a turning pitch is the one that doesn't turn.
It's an old and overused adage, but there's a lot of truth to it. It goes a long way to explaining why England have found Axar Patel so hard to negotiate over his first three innings as a Test-match bowler: 2 for 40 and 5 for 60 in Chennai, and now, on day one of the third Test in Ahmedabad, 6 for 38.
That's 13 wickets at an average of 10.61 and a strike rate of 28.9. Some of those 13 wickets have come off balls that have turned and jumped, but most have come via that most deadly weapon, the one that goes on straight.
And Axar's straighter one is particularly tricky to negotiate because it isn't the classic arm ball, which is delivered with a vertical seam, or any other variation that can be picked out of the hand. Axar's straighter ball is delivered with pretty much the same grip and release as most other balls he bowls.
The traditional left-arm fingerspinner - Jack Leach would fit that description - usually delivers the ball with the seam pointing to a right-hand batsman's first slip, and with a certain degree of overspin. With most of Axar's deliveries, however, the seam is almost horizontal, aligned roughly from square leg to point. Because of his low, round-arm release, his palm usually faces upwards at delivery, which means he invariably undercuts the ball.
Everything combines to ensure the ball lands on the leather as often as - or more often than - it lands on the seam. When that happens, the ball doesn't grip the pitch and turn sharply, but, depending on the patch of turf it comes in contact with, either straightens ever so slightly or skids on with the angle.
And every now and then, especially on pitches like the ones he's bowled on in Chennai and Ahmedabad, one ball delivered with the same sort of release will grip and turn absolutely square. Natural variation. On Wednesday, Axar turned at least four such balls across the face of Zak Crawley's bat.
The third ball of Axar's tenth over turned in this manner to beat Crawley's defensive push by a distance. It was probably entirely reasonable, therefore, for him to play for turn when Axar bowled his next ball. An entirely reasonable but entirely inappropriate response, because the ball skidded on, kept going with Axar's inward angle from left-arm around, and brought him his second wicket of the day, and his second lbw.
If the pitch for the second Test at Chepauk, which threw up dramatic puffs of dust from beginning to end, was tailor-made for Axar's bowling, this one at Motera may have been even more to his liking. The ball wasn't leaping from a length as often to threaten the gloves or the shoulder of the bat. Instead, it was skidding through quickly, which made it more of a bowled-and-lbw pitch than a bat-pad pitch.
And it's possible that this also had something to do with the nature of the pink ball, which has more lacquer compared to the red ball.
"I feel there's a little more glare (shine) on the pink ball, because of which the ball was skidding a little more off the wicket, and I got the lbw decisions because of that," Axar said in his press conference at the end of the day's play on Wednesday. "Maybe because of this difference between the red ball and the pink ball, I was getting the ball to skid more off this pitch than the one in Chennai."
Given the skid on offer, both of India's spinners made sure they attacked the stumps as much as possible, finishing with four lbws and three bowleds among their nine wickets.
Of the 51 balls R Ashwin bowled to right-hand batsmen, he delivered 33 from around the wicket. From here, he could pitch the ball within the line of the stumps, beat either edge, and still end up within the line of the stumps. He beat Root's inside edge to get him lbw from this angle, and he beat Ollie Pope's outside edge to get him bowled.
Axar, meanwhile, simply looked to be the most extreme version of himself.
"Basically it's my usual style, but because it was skidding so much, I was undercutting it even more, and trying to bowl a little quicker than usual too," he said. "I tried to exploit [the skiddiness] as much as possible [when I came on], because the ball was new, and there was more shine. The older the ball became, the less it was skidding."
Perhaps the most impressive feature of Axar's bowling, though, and the one that's likeliest to be taken for granted, was his consistency. We're used to Ashwin bowling an immaculate length, match after match, and we're used to Ravindra Jadeja doing the same thing. What Axar has achieved since slotting into India's attack is to make viewers almost forget that Jadeja is out injured.
It's a remarkable achievement for someone who'd only played 38 first-class matches before this series, in a career that dates all the way back to November 2012. Before this series, Axar had shown he could bowl accurately in white-ball cricket, but it's an entirely different thing to bowl accurately while bowling Test-match lengths over long spells. On Wednesday, Axar bowled all his 21.4 overs in one unbroken spell.
It was like watching Jadeja bowl, or, more accurately, his 2013 version. Over his many years as a Test cricketer, Jadeja has added multiple layers to his bowling, and he now takes wickets on all kinds of pitches. In time, India will hope Axar can get there too. But for now, they'll be delighted to watch his current avatar wheel away, over after over, firing them in with his low arm, forever threatening stumps and pads.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo