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Jeetan Patel: 'If I had one message to young spinners it would be this: bowl and bowl and bowl'

The New Zealand and Warwickshire offspinner looks back at his successful first-class career as he prepares to move into its next phase: coaching

George Dobell
George Dobell
Patel has taken 643 first-class wickets since 2012, the most for any bowler  •  Getty Images

Patel has taken 643 first-class wickets since 2012, the most for any bowler  •  Getty Images

Under normal circumstances, we would be two months into the English domestic season by now. And while you might expect the seamers to have dominated, you can be pretty sure that two offspinners - Essex's Simon Harmer and Warwickshire's Jeetan Patel - would have been up there among the top wicket-takers.
Patel's long-term record, in particular, is extraordinary. At a time when spin bowling, in England at least, has probably never been harder, he has consistently ranked among the top wicket-takers. Nobody in the world has taken as many first-class wickets since the start of 2012. Nobody has taken as many in the Championship, either. Only once since the 2012 season has he failed to claim 50 first-class wickets in a season (and even then he still claimed 41 at an average under 30).
During his time with Warwickshire over the last eight years, Patel has claimed 450 first-class wickets. The next highest total among spinners is Simon Kerrigan (who last played in 2017) with 245.
"I can see that," Patel concedes. "I'm not saying it's easy. And yes, I wish more sides would pick spinners and give them an opportunity. Captains have to learn how to use spinners. They have to learn to appreciate them.
"But even if you're not playing, you can be working to improve. Even if you're not bowling for the first team, you can be bowling. You can go to the nets and play in the seconds or in club or grade cricket.
"Warwickshire probably have seen the best of me. They gave me a fresh start, really. They gave me responsibility and they let me bowl as many overs as I wanted. I owe them a lot. But I was still learning when I started playing county cricket."
He relates a story about the Royal London One-Day Cup final from 2014, which he says he recently watched again - revealing in itself; Durham pulled off a tense victory over Warwickshire.
"There was a bit of mizzle in the air all day," Patel says. "So there was some grip in the surface. I really enjoy bowling in those conditions. But you have to know how to do it. And, if every time it's been like that, you've left bowling to the seamers or said it was too slippery to grip the ball, you're not going to have been in a position to take advantage.
"We play when it's wet now. We play when it's pretty much dark and when there's dew. There's no point complaining. Unless you train to bowl in those conditions, you're not going to be able to take advantage."
"There's a potential gap in the market in the England team so you would hope spinners go out there and seize the chance. Sometimes I want to shake bowlers and get them to see this"
Patel has had other advantages, too. At Warwickshire, he benefited from bowling into the substantial footholes created by Keith Barker, the left-arm swing bowler, and from having a top-quality keeper, Tim Ambrose, both accepting the chances and feeding back information about how he was bowling.
"I've been lucky in both respects," Patel says. "A lot of the best spinners have been able to operate in partnerships: look at Warne with Gilchrist or Swann with Prior. I'm not sure modern spinners are using the keepers enough. But some modern keepers are picked primarily because of their batting and they maybe don't have the knowledge to tell the bowler when to slow it down or give it some flight or whatever.
"And sure, if you can use footholes without going into the danger zone, then great."
Ambrose is better placed than most to judge Patel's qualities. He has kept to Mushtaq Ahmed, Graeme Swann, Moeen Ali and Monty Panesar, as well as to Patel at Warwickshire for more than a decade. He also scored a Test century against an attack that included Patel.
"In some ways, he is most like Monty," Ambrose says. "They both naturally bowl pretty quickly. That's brilliant in some conditions, but it means the ball will slide on in others. I think they both struggled to slow it down a bit - even now, Jeets will go to that pace as a default - but whereas Monty lost a bit of control when he bowled more slowly, Jeets found a way to change. He can adapt very quickly.
"A few years ago, I bumped into Geraint Jones. He had just been keeping to Jeetan in the Masters Champions League and was amazed by how fast he bowled. 'How on earth do you keep to him?' he asked me. He really can be tough, because he bowls so fast but still gets the ball to turn.
"Swanny was a bit slower, but got more dip and Moeen… well, Moeen can do everything, really. But I think he'd tell you he admires Jeets' control.
"Jeetan just kept improving, really. Not every bowler does that."
"I probably didn't achieve what I wanted from the first ten years of my career," Patel says. "I realised batsmen were moving quicker. They're trying to hit you further. I had to get pace on the ball. And it hasn't just been me: look at Nathan Lyon. He's definitely bowling quicker than he used to, but he's also getting just as many revs on the ball."
Ahead of the 2020 county season, Patel had reached the conclusion that it would be his last. It wasn't so much that, at 40, he had decided he could no longer perform at the level to which he had become accustomed. It was more that opportunities for the next stage of his career had started to beckon.
Specifically, that meant a future in coaching. He had been used by the ECB as a mentor for young spinners for several years - typically, a county bowler would be sent to Wellington during the English winter to play club cricket under Patel's watchful eye - and impressed in a consultancy role with the England team. With the ECB considering hiring two spin coaches - one to work with the England teams and one to tour the counties, identifying and developing talent - he and Gloucestershire's Richard Dawson were believed to be the favoured options.
Events may have delayed that. It's not just that Patel confesses to feeling some unfinished business as a player, but that he has not been able to complete the Level 3 coaching qualification required to be eligible for such roles.
"I don't really have regrets over my Test career," he says. "I enjoyed it. I did my best. But yes, I was probably a better player by the time it was just about over. I really enjoyed coming back into the team in 2016 and proving to myself that I could play at that level. I thought I was ready when I started, but I was still learning.
"My first taste of international cricket came as a white-ball player and it turned my action to custard. My arm got lower and lower and I was more likely to beat batsmen on the outside edge than the inside. I might as well have bowled outswing.
"I understand the idea that young players should only play red-ball cricket. But young players want to be involved in the white-ball game. It's where the money and glamour are. So you have to accept they have to learn the skills to do both and get on with it. They have to learn the core skills and pick and choose when to apply them.
"But it all comes back to the same thing. You've always got to ask yourself: am I bowling enough? They can watch, they can talk, they can listen as much as they want. In the end, the only way you learn is by doing it."
With that work ethic and that level of experience, you suspect Patel's greatest contribution to cricket may yet be ahead of him.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo