Not many England cricketers have reacted to their selection for a major tour - a tour against the No. 1 Test side in the world no less - with "a bit of a chuckle", but that is how Samit Patel says he reacted when he was summoned against expectations for the Test series in South Africa.

Assumptions that Patel had been called up for the Test series against Pakistan in the UAE, following Zafar Ansari's injury, and then would be routinely discarded had only been encouraged by a 2-0 series defeat which led to a widespread debate over the state of spin bowling in England. He did not figure in many predicted squads on the day the tour party was announced, but he was in the one that mattered.

Patel's reputation proved more robust than even he expected. He played the final Test, performed as well as his two spin partners, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, and won the vote for South Africa ahead of Rashid as England's selectors opted to give Moeen some meaningful competition with a like-for-like replacement on a tour where spin bowling is expected to play a secondary role to a diet of pace.

"I had a bit of a chuckle to myself to be honest," Patel told ESPNcricinfo at the Chance to Shine Street awards. "I'm just happy I've been given the chance to go to South Africa. I get pigeon-holed as a subcontinent cricketer which I don't really like. So hopefully I can put that right and stop people saying that because I have played all my cricket in England. So I don't really agree when people say that. I can't be because I play in this country as well.

"But it was very much a surprise to be honest. I thought they were going to go with Mo and Rash again - just continuity wise I thought that's the way they'd go - but surprisingly I got the call. I was very surprised."

Rashid will benefit from his omission. He has not been deliberately excluded to play Big Bash in Australia - as Andrew Strauss, the director England cricket, has made clear that Test cricket remains paramount - but the selectors were aware that the opportunity existed for him to join his Yorkshire coach Jason Gillespie at Adelaide Strikers and are delighted about this opportunity ahead of the World T20.

That leaves Patel only too aware of his role in South Africa: if not carrying the drinks, he begins very much Moeen's understudy, on hand in case of injury or a collapse of form with bat or ball. As a player who treated his Test series in the UAE "as though it was going to be my last Test tour" that is no hardship.

"I'd fill any role for England. If they told me to bat No. 9 or 10 I'd bat there. Whatever fits the team I'd do. I think Moeen is fantastic - a good bowler, great batsman - so I think I'm second choice definitely. I personally think just Moeen and four seamers will be the make-up of the team. I'm not talking myself out of it, I just think that's the way we'll go."

He is supremely relaxed about James Anderson's observations after the lost series in the UAE that England's spinners needed to learn quickly. "I wasn't aware what Jimmy said - it's irrelevant though because he's just trying to help the team. We do have to learn quickly. It's a Test match playing for England. We probably did get exposed but they're used to playing on wickets like that so you can't really say we bowled badly. We bowled bad balls but so did their spinners. They were just more consistent at building pressure than we were.

There is not much in his record to suggest he is about to bowl out South Africa if he gets the chance to add to his seven Tests. If he does play, expect to see two fingers of his bowling hand strapped together as a protective measure, the legacy of a dislocation suffered during his first over on his Test return in Sharjah. "I've had it checked out and it's fine, but I'll probably keep the strapping on because I don't want it slipping out again."

As a representative of England's put-upon spin-bowling collective, Patel has learned to make the best of things. In 14 years of county cricket, he has become inured to Trent Bridge's seam-friendly surfaces, averaging 200 overs a season and taking his first-class wickets at a touch over 40.

"I don't think it's correct when people say we don't have English spinners because we do. I don't think our wickets encourage spinners. When it's green in April, May, sometimes even June, why should people bowl spin? Groundsmen should make more spinning wickets if English cricket wants to see better spinners. I don't think you should do that every week - groundsmen should pick their games, probably in the middle of the year, in June, July and August. I think we need to see more spinning wickets for us to get better batting and bowling on them."

It is a trimmer, more mature Patel these days, a far cry from the player who first won England honours seven years ago. If it would be unwise to suggest he is free of his addictions (only Samit could have gazed at the canapes at The Oval as if his resolve was being tested), at least the talk of his weight issues has relented. He thinks that is partly down to his own development, partly because of a less judgemental attitude around the England squad.

"The environment does change. Hopefully I've made a better impression than when I first came in. My attitude then was poor and naïve. The criticism I got was probably fair, not wholly, but the majority. I think I've moved on from there and changed, which hopefully everyone has seen.

"I thought I was untouchable. I couldn't do anything wrong. I started well against the South Africans. Everyone thought I'd carry on but it doesn't really work like that. It was a different period but you learn as you get older what you can and can't do, and what you need to do."

Samit Patel was attending the Chance to Shine Street Awards. Lycamobile supports the programme as part of its mission to bring communities together. Chancetoshine.org/street

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps