CHENNAI: When Axar Patel made his debut in the second Test against England the last time they toured, it seemed like a long overdue reward. A chance that came after being on standby for the longest time to one of the most prolific left-arm spinners in the world — Ravindra Jadeja. But the thing with Axar was, when he got the chance, he grabbed it with both hands.
Having started with seven wickets in the game including a fifer, by the time the series ended, it seemed like he had ensured a place in the playing XI every time India played a home Test. After all, he had taken 27 wickets in six innings at an average of 10.59. Such was his dominance that another left-arm spinner, Kuldeep Yadav, seemed to have gone down the pecking order. However, three years and 13 home Tests since his debut, Axar might still not be a certainty with Jadeja fit and available for the third Test against England that is set to be played in Rajkot from Thursday.
Since the last time India toured England, the hosts have ten home Tests off which Axar has featured in nine. In those 17 innings, he has taken only 20 wickets, seven less than what he took in his debut series. Granted the pitches were rank turners as they were for the 2021 England series, but when the same team arrived in Hyderabad last month, a lot more was expected off Axar. In the first Test, he returned with 3/107 in 29 overs. Apart from his minimal return with the ball, the fact that Axar couldn't keep it tight became a worrisome factor. Now, to be fair, Jadeja and R Ashwin too went for runs, but they are proven performers. It's Axar's spot that Kuldeep is pushing for.
Which is why, when Jadeja missed the second Test at Visakhapatnam due to injury, it was as much of an opportunity for Axar as it was for Kuldeep. If anything, it was more crucial for the orthodox left-arm spinner. After all, if Kuldeep has a really good game and Jadeja comes back, it could be in place of Axar and not the wrist spinner. Over four days of engrossing contest, that is exactly what happened. Axar had match figures of 2/99 with an economy of 5.5 while Kuldeep returned with 4/131; his economy was 5.95. Although it might seem like Kuldeep went for more, his role in this team is as a strike bowler. He is expected to go for a few runs but take wickets.
Axar, meanwhile, hasn't been able to keep the batters quiet and also did not make an influential impact with the ball. In fact, in both the innings Rohit Sharma gave the new ball to Kuldeep before either of Ashwin or Axar was brought on. And the left-arm wrist spinner kept asking questions despite what the scorecard suggests. What also does not help Axar is his performance with the bat. Unlike Kuldeep, who despite making significant contributions with the bat in domestic cricket is being looked at as a frontline bowler, Axar is an all-rounder. He is expected to hit the spin and contribute with the bat — which he has done in the past. Despite the two 40-plus scores, it is not unfair to say that the Gujarat spinner did not make the most of the opportunity, especially in the absence of Jadeja. It was a chance to stake a claim as a spin-bowling all-rounder and pile on a big score, but he couldn't.
What this means is that, with Jadeja back for the third Test, there is a high chance that Kuldeep might keep his place. At the moment all three spinners trained in Rajkot on Tuesday. Kuldeep when asked about Jadeja's availability on Tuesday had this to say: "I think so (he might play). He's doing his routine, he had a session yesterday (Monday) as well, and he is there today. I think he's available."
What gives Kuldeep an edge is the variety he brings to the attack rather than having two left-arm orthodox spinners. But also, Jadeja covering the spot of the spin-bowling all-rounder, Kuldeep will have more freedom to be the wicket-taking bowler. Although Axar does extend the batting depth, Kuldeep's wicket-taking ability perhaps gives him the edge, especially in Rajkot where it's usually a batting-friendly surface. Kuldeep, however, said that he is not sure if he will start in the playing XI. "It's still two days out. If I get the opportunity I will be more than happy. I don't think too much about whether I am playing or not. I just enjoy my day and keep working hard, that is my process and combination matters a lot in a team game. It is as simple as that, " Kuldeep said.
While India might continue with the Vizag spin trio if Jadeja is not playing, should he play, it will be interesting to see what the team management decides to do. The stakes are high for the hosts as they would want to take the lead having levelled the series 1-1 and they would want to go in with the best combination available. And the case of Axar or Kuldeep is something they might have to ponder over in the lead-up to the third Test.
India spinners since Axar debut
Bowler M W Avg SR
Ashwin 22 113 18.6 43.1
Jadeja 18 60 24.8 58.8
Axar 14 55 19.34 46.1
Kuldeep 3 12 20.35 34.4
Jayant 2 5 19.6 39.6
Washington 2 2 15.5 35