India were in strife in the Mirpur Test last December in Bangladesh when Axar Patel walked out at No.4 with 15 overs left in the day.
The left-handed batsman wasn’t seen as a nightwatchman by captain KL Rahul and coach Rahul Dravid. He didn’t play like one either, confidently punching off the back foot against the spinners while making 34 runs, a knock which changed the complexion of the game.
Ravichandran Ashwin would finish off with a match-winning unbeaten 49, but it was Axar who started the turnaround.
Before he went out to bat, those in the know say, Axar told the captain and the coach that he will play his shots as and when the chance presents itself. He had fallen for 4 in the first innings, caught at the boundary, but he wanted to press on in a similar fashion in the second.
Mohammad Kaif, former India batsman who was Delhi Capitals’ assistant coach, isn’t surprised by Axar’s attitude. “He is so sorted, chilled out. He doesn’t get tense whether he is batting or bowling. In a crisis situation, those who play as if there is no crisis do well. It allows the confidence in the skill set to flow through.”
There was a phase when Axar wasn’t confident about his skill set. The turnaround involves former Australian captain and Delhi Capitals coach Ricky Ponting and Kaif himself. But we shall come to it shortly.
Two shots show how talented Axar the batsman is. Both came in a rush on a tough track at the Feroz Shah Kotla ground in the second Test against Australia. The fluent drive and the horizontal cut shot. Axar is one of those rare lower-order batsmen equally adept off the front and back foot. Usually, subcontinental batsmen can play the drive and the back-foot vertical punch, rather than the horizontal cut. Axar does both.
No wonder, Australian off-spinner Nathan Lyon felt Axar, primarily selected as a left-arm orthodox spinner, can play in the top order in most teams.
Axar’s batting during the Test series at home against Australia hasn’t been one-dimensional.
When Nathan Lyon and Todd Murphy kept landing them on a length around the off-stump line, Axar pressed forward compactly to detoxify any venom.
He would pounce whenever they erred in length, by unfurling those back-foot punches and cuts. When someone as good as Pat Cummins hurled it short, Axar would arch his upper body back to wallop the stunning square-cuts. And when Cummins tried a full-length delivery from round the stumps and got it to slant away a touch, Axar wasn’t caught at the crease; instead a gorgeous off drive to right of mid-off was reeled off.
The balance at the crease and the fluid weight transfer show a not-so-common clarity of mind. Inherently, he is so natural on the off-side, very compact and decisive.
The Ponting influence
Ponting and Kaif come into the picture in the 2021 Dubai leg of the IPL. Kaif recalls Axar being keen on shrugging off the domestic player and the useful contributor tag. He wanted to win matches.
“I remember telling him that Jadeja had shown the path. How Jadeja went to the next level after the 2018 tour of England. Axar wanted to take his batting up to the next level. We had paid a hefty price for him, and were seeing him as an all-rounder, who could finish games,” Kaif told The Indian Express.
However, he had a weakness — his leg-side game which was targeted by the best of the opposition bowlers operating in the final four overs.
“They would bowl at his body, and get him caught down the leg side. At best, he was looking to tap those balls away for a single to the leg side. That full range wasn’t there.”
Axar has already talked about how chats with Ponting had helped him with his batting. The main discussion was about his shoulder.
“The front shoulder was a touch closed,” Kaif said. “Ponting felt that to open up his leg-side game, make it more fluent, the front shoulder needs to be opened up a touch. Face more of mid-on rather than be cut off completely by being too side-on.”
Axar was willing to make the change. The two, Axar and Kaif, began training more and more.
“It wasn’t as if he was reluctant in the years before, but see by the time he finished his bowling at the nets, and the top batsmen were done, the main bowlers would have finished. We decided that throwdowns would be better to get the ‘shoulder’ thing sorted. I would throw, mix up with the short stuff at the chest-high, and slip in the fuller one. I could see Axar get more and more comfortable with the on-side shots.”
Rohit Sharma would get a close-up view of the change in the IPL when he saw Axar creaming Jasprit Bumrah and co. over the leg side repeatedly. “In Dubai itself, remember the game where Axar hit Ravindra Jadeja for sixes in the final game to win against CSK?” Kaif asks. “I remember he came back from that game feeling so happy and confident about his game.”
How was the turnaround so quick? “Because it wasn’t such a big change. His off-side game was already so compact. He had the punchy shots and the drives. He has confidence in his defence. Once it went into his zehen (being), that he can actually be a good batsman, a finisher, and did the hard work, his all-round batting changed. Once, what is considered a weakness by oneself is no longer that, the confidence in other parts of the game grows a lot,” Kaif says.
The mental strength then became the key. “He is very ambitious; that desire is there now. You see him in the videos that Delhi Capitals or the Indian teams put out; that’s how he is off the field and on the field. How much he would pull Pant’s leg, his very good friend.”
A buffering Instagram video of Capitals, Axar talks about his developmental years when he wasn’t that serious about his game. Impressed with his skills in rubber-ball games, a coach had drafted him to an academy to play with a leather ball. Within days, Axar started to skip it, leaving his home to play rubber-ball cricket with his friends. His folks didn’t know. When the coach spilled the beans, his father followed him one day, and watched him play with friends.
When Axar got home, his father first questioned him about how the day went.
Axar would say, “the coach made us run five rounds.”
His father fired him for lying and not being serious about cricket.
Axar says leather-ball cricket became the priority from that day. “All my life, even at Ranji level and later, full adventure only with cricket,” he laughs.
Like his father, once Ponting made him aware that he can be a bigger batsman than he has settled for and once Kaif did the hard yards with him, his focus shifted.
As he said the other day, no longer was he satisfied with 30-40 runs.
“He now thinks like a batsman. Even with his bowling, at first sighting, you might think ‘oh what’s special, looks ordinary’ etc but he is so aware of his bowling. Don’t you worry, he knows everything that he does: the angles of release, how the ball goes straight, which one turns, and how to do both with almost the same action. And all this comes with that overall package of being chilled out,” Kaif said.
When it comes to batting, he has made huge strides. Like Lyon said the other day, Axar is no lower-order batsman.