From outsider to contender, Axar Patel is on the move

He has overtaken the likes of Washington Sundar and Krunal Pandya as the next 50-over World Cup approaches

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Had Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja been available, and India been at full strength, there would have been no space for Axar Patel in the XI for the ODI series in the Caribbean, his first in nearly five years.
But, to deal with the changed times in international cricket, India have moved towards a model of keeping a large pool of 40-45 players, who are match-ready at all times. The challenge has been to identify back-ups for each role, but the task of finding a No. 2 for Jadeja has been made that much easier by Axar.
With India's backs to the wall in the second ODI on Sunday, Axar delivered a fine exhibition of range-hitting, tactical smarts and calmness - all at once. The end result: an unbeaten 35-ball 64, including a last-over six, MS Dhoni style, to seal a win that looked distant when he walked out to bat with India needing 107 off 68 balls.
Axar has done it in the IPL. Rohit Sharma, who couldn't contain his excitement at Sunday's result, would know. In Delhi Capitals' opening game this year, Axar had walked in to bat when they needed 74 off 40, with only four wickets remaining. He waltzed an unbeaten 17-ball 38 to take them home against Mumbai Indians.
It was a game where he also outsmarted Daniel Sams, known for his back-of-the-hand slower one, and yorker king Jasprit Bumrah in the death overs. During the knock, he showed his batting wasn't only based on premeditation, but one aided by a strong base, decisive feet movement, improved technique, and game smarts, too.
These weren't the only ones in recent times that he has done it with the bat. Nearly two years ago, Axar made a mockery of Dhoni's gut feel when he launched into Jadeja to hit him for three sixes in the final over to seal a win for Capitals over Chennai Super Kings in Sharjah.
Then, in a Test against New Zealand last December in Mumbai, Axar constructed a 128-ball 52 in the first innings. There, he hit Ajaz Patel repeatedly with and against the turn with ease by using his long reach to get to the pitch and then uncorking his wrists to pick gaps on either side. In the second innings of the same Test, he brought out the basher in him to make 41 not out off 26 balls with India looking for a declaration.
On the basis of what he did on Sunday, it would be hard to believe this was his first ODI half-century in 22 innings. Axar's clean hitting down the ground, effortlessly peppering the arc between deep midwicket and long-off, stood out.
"Hundred-odd is chased in the last ten overs in the IPL. So I went in with the intent that we could do it here as well, and not let it get to us that we have to get so many runs still," Axar told the BCCI website when discussing the chase. "Our thinking was that we would take at least one chance every over."
This "thinking" like a batter has come about recently. Priyank Panchal, Axar's captain at Gujarat, has seen visible changes in Axar's thought process over the past four years, and believes the confidence of having done it a few times is finally unlocking the batter in Axar. His county stint with Durham in 2019, where Axar had to learn to add more strings to his bow, also played a part.
"When your role is that of a bowling allrounder, there is a tendency to focus on one discipline more than the other, and that was what was happening with Axar," Panchal told ESPNcricinfo. "The moment he started putting a price on his wicket, he finally began to realise what he was missing out on. His technique started to get tighter, he started thinking like a batter, he would analyse deeply about where he was going wrong, and work towards getting better.
"And then once he started becoming more confident in his set-up, he started working on his power game. He was always powerful, but when he combined his smarts with his improved power game, you could see the balance shift. At Gujarat, he has consistently won matches at No. 5. It was always a question of self-belief. He'd often joke, 'I'll win this game for you' and when he actually started doing it, he began to realise his potential more."
That is making Axar a key component of any team he is a part of - Gujarat, Capitals, now India. This is because his bowling stocks have also been on the rise for a while now, as he has moved on from being the one-dimensional darts bowler who looked to only restrict.
A clever use of the crease, variations in pace, developing a loop and deceiving batters in the air have all given his bowling a new dimension. His roaring start to Test cricket - 39 wickets in six games - is proof of that, even though it would be fair to argue that sterner tests may only come when he plays on less favourable surfaces.
And Axar 2.0 has given India options. At the start of the year, Washington Sundar was firmly in India's white-ball plans. An organised batting technique and the ability to bowl thrifty offspin made him jump the queue Axar had once been a part of. Then there was Krunal Pandya, who broke through on the back of delivering consistently for Mumbai Indians in the IPL.
From being a quiet understudy who would get games only when Jadeja was injured or rested, Axar is now a contender to be a strike force in India's ODI spin arsenal alongwith Yuzvendra Chahal. With next year's 50-overs World Cup at home, this heated race for the spin-allrounder's spot can't be a bad thing for Indian cricket.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo