It would not be a hyperbole to state that Axar Patel was the star of the recently concluded Test series against England. He made the entire cricketing world sit up and take notice by with his stupendous bowling performance which resulted in bagging 27 wickets in only three Tests. This included five-wicket hauls in an innings on four occasions plus a match tally of 11 scalps in only his second Test.
English batsmen were so psyched out with his bowling that Indian skipper Virat Kohli confidently gave him the new ball in the second innings of both third and fourth Tests, even though there were two fast bowlers in the playing eleven. Patel, on his part, did not let down his captain returning handsome bowling figures on both these outings.
For the record, Patel made his debut in One-Day Internationals in 2014 and has played in 38 international games in this version picking up 45 wickets. His last ODI was against New Zealand more then four years ago. His appearances in T20 Internationals have been even more sporadic, with just 12 games since his debut in 2015. Thus, he has been in the national reckoning during the last seven years but could make his Test debut only in the second Test of the series against England. It would appear from his prodigious wicket-taking in his first three Tests that Patel was in a hurry to make up for all those lost years.
Patel’s “instant” success in Test cricket makes one remember other bowlers who started off their careers with a bang. The most notable among them are Narendra Hirwani of India and Bob Massie of Australia, who both picked up 16 wickets on their first appearance in Test cricket. While Hirwani achieved this feat in the last Test of the series against the West Indies played at Chennai in 1988, Massie did this while bowling to English batsmen at Lord’s in the second match of 1972 Ashes contest. Incidentally, Hirwani conceded 136 runs for his 16 wickets (8 for 61 in the first innings and 8 for 75 in the second), while Massie gave away one run more (8 for 84 and 8 for 53), while accomplishing this feat.
Massie was a fast bowler, who could swing the ball prodigiously both ways. The conditions at Lord’s during his debut Test favoured his style of bowling and he capitalised on this to run through the England batting line-up in both innings. He was a bit of an unknown prior to this tour and England think tank was more focused on tackling the more famous ones in the Aussie ranks as Dennis Lillee and John Gleeson. However, Massie could not rework his magic during the matches that followed. He played only 6 Tests for Australia and ended up with just 31 wickets. His deteriorating form found its reflection in first-class cricket as well and he was dropped from his state side shortly thereafter.
Hirwani was a leg spin googly bowler, who worked his way up the rungs of Indian domestic first-class circuit prior to his entry into the rarefied world of Test cricket. Hailing from Indore in Madhya Pradesh, he earned a name very early for his absolute commitment to the art of leg spin bowling by clocking long hours at the nets. He would have remained a capable but little heard of leg spinner in Indian first-class cricket but for the sudden loss of form suffered by Laxman Sivaramakrishnan (Siva), a promising leggie, who failed to live up to his true potential. The dropping of Siva from the national side earned Hirwani a call to the national under-25 squad for playing against the touring West Indians led by Viv Richards in 1987-88. A tidy spell in that match led to his selection for the team for the last Test Chennai, where the groundsman had conveniently prepared a turning track, more to defang the West Indian pace battery than to help the home side. Hirwani was pressed into the attack rather late by the acting Indian captain Ravi Shastri but he struck quickly to dismiss Richie Richardson. After that, he spun a magical web around the West Indian batsmen, with the notable exception of Richards, who too finally perished to a googly bowled by the debutant. Hirwani’s brilliant spell ensured that India secured a lead of 198 runs in the first innings.
When the West Indies batted again, chasing a target of 416 runs, Hirwani ensured that the visitors were never seriously in the contention. He carried on from where he had left in the first innings and bamboozled the West Indian batsmen with his flight and turn. He did not turn the leg breaks and googly as much as Siva did, but he had better control over line and length and more importantly, appeared to know the art of bowling within himself, without attempting too many things at one go. India won the Test easily by a margin of 255 runs and Hirwani was elevated to the status of a national hero.
India’s next international assignment was against New Zealand at home in 1988, where also Hirwani came good, taking 20 wickets in three Tests. Thus, his tally of wickets stood at 36 after the first four Tests, generating expectations that he would be the true successor to Bhagwat Chandrasekhar for upholding the mantle of leg spin in Indian cricketing horizon. However, such high hopes came crashing down when it was found that Hirwani could not work his magic while bowling in pitches outside India. He could pick up only 6 wickets in three Tests during the tour of West Indies in 1989 and the visit to New Zealand next year also yielded the same number of pickings from equal number of matches. He bowled marathon spells during the tour of England in 1990, sending down 64 overs in the first innings of second Test and 59 in the second innings of third but had only a total of nine wickets in three matches to show for his efforts. Another lacklustre show during the tour of Australia in 1991-92 showed that he had reached the end of the road.
The emergence of Anil Kumble during the series against South Africa in 1992 proved to be the last nail in Hirwani’s international career. Though he was recalled for the occasional game, it was obvious that the national selectors no longer had faith in his abilities. He continued to play domestic cricket till 2004-05 season, where he picked up a huge haul of 732 wickets. But his final tally of 64 wickets from 17 Tests stand as grim testimony to his lack of success at this level after the brilliant start.
“Well begun is half done” says a famous adage. But as can be seen from the examples of Massie and Hirwani, well begun may not always be half done, and even worse, might even prove to be a bad omen in the highly competitive world of Test cricket. If Patel believes in the theory of hoodoos and jinxes, he will find comfort from the fact that his performance during the first Test was more modest (7 wickets), than his tally in the second and third Tests, where he dismissed 20 batsmen!
International cricket is a tough arena where only those possessing top technique and superb temperament find success. While early success can act as a stress reliever to some extent, one cannot afford to rest on one’s laurels and must keep improving on a continuous basis to survive at that level. Patel has set the bar high with his performances in this series and hence the onus will be on him to show that this was neither a flash in the pan nor achieved due to nature of the pitches where the games were played. This will be his real challenge as he prepares for the sterner battles ahead.
Though it is too early to predict the future course of Patel’s career in Test cricket, it can be safely said that he will not find wicket-taking to be as easy as it was during his first three matches. Dilip Doshi, another left- arm spin bowler with origins in Gujarat, had made his Test debut at the age of 32 but made light of his advancing years to take 114 wickets in a career spanning 28 Tests. Like Doshi, Patel is no spring chicken and he would be looking forward to maximising his haul of wickets in the toughest arena in the game in the shortest time possible so as to leave his imprint on the game.
Let us wish Patel good luck and Godspeed in his wicket taking endeavours in Test cricket.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)