Ajaz Patel disappointed, but not surprised with his exclusion from home Tests
"The reality is that they are looking for more batting at home and that is one aspect I am working on"
December 2021 has been a month of highs and lows for Ajaz Patel. Less than three weeks ago, he became the third man in 144 years of Test cricket to take ten wickets in an innings. Patel has now failed to make the cut for the Bangladesh Test series at home, which begins with the first match at Bay Oval on New Year's Day.
New Zealand head coach Gary Stead has said that Patel's exclusion is collateral damage to the team's 'horses for courses' approach in home conditions. Patel was left disappointed, but not surprised with the call.
Patel said that the enormous success for the current New Zealand quicks at home has indirectly diminished the value of a frontline spin bowler in the XI. In the last three years, New Zealand's spinners have bowled 152.3 overs at home and taken only seven wickets at a strike rate of 130.7. Of those overs, Mitchell Santner, who fulfils two roles in the XI, has delivered more than 100.
In comparison, New Zealand's quicks have delivered ten times more overs (1565.3) and taken wickets at a factor of more than 28 (196 wickets) at a strike rate that is almost three times better (47.9). In the only three Tests that Patel has played at home, he has been wicketless across 49 overs.
"The reality is that they are looking for more batting at home and that is one aspect I am working on," Patel, who has a Test batting average of 10, said. "Hopefully, there are a few opportunities to play some good knocks, and I will make sure that hunger is there.
"Right now, we've got some of the best proper fast bowlers we've ever had in New Zealand. That's not disrespecting any other era but, that's the reality now. In the future, it may be different where a specialist spinner becomes more valuable in that environment."
I'm still going to fight the fight to make spin bowling a part of the big picture in New Zealand cricket. At the moment, it is difficult with the strength of our seam attack.Ajaz Patel
Patel believed that for him and other New Zealand spinners looking to break into the Test squad, a change is needed in what surfaces are offered by curators in the country.
"My job as a spinner is to show the groundsmen that something is possible here. And it's up to the groundsmen to then turn around and say, 'we want to see some spin bowling in New Zealand'," Patel said. "It's about trying to drive that change.
"At the same time, it's difficult to do that in the home conditions. Mount Maunganui is the main ground at the moment when it comes to spin bowling in New Zealand. I'd love to see a few more wickets that offer something. Even in domestic cricket, there is space for groundsmen to experiment a little bit and give players a different challenge. Even from a batting perspective, it allows players to learn how to cope."
Patel hoped that the latest squad announcement, which features a solitary spin-bowling option in allrounder Rachin Ravindra, would not scare off youngsters looking to become spinners in New Zealand.
"My thing about being a spinner in New Zealand is to inspire a generation to take up the art," Patel said. "I want nothing more than for someone to come along in 10-20 years and say, 'I remember watching Ajaz bowl and I wanted to become a spinner.' I hope this doesn't deter anyone [to be a spinner] because it hasn't deterred me. I know I can play a part. I'm still going to fight the fight to make spin bowling a part of the big picture in New Zealand cricket. At the moment, it is difficult with the strength of our seam attack."
Even though he was gutted when Stead informed him about the selectors' decision, Patel said that he did not hold back on the call to express his disappointment. According to Patel, Stead and he are both honest communicators and he said it was important for him to pass along the message that despite the exclusion, he remains "passionate about playing Test cricket at home."
For now, though, Patel wants to dig in for the Central Stags. He says that the "hunger within" has grown even more and the "fire in his belly" has gotten even bigger.
Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @sreshthx