A surreal, bittersweet day for Mumbai’s Ajaz Patel

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Ajaz Patel arrived in New Zealand in an oversized double-breasted blazer, matching loose suit pants and a hat. He was eight years old, and his parents from Mumbai were looking for a better life. Like Indian parents who put a lot of stock in education because of the high level of competition for a livelihood in India, the first thing they did was put young Ajaz in a school. And he went in and wondered why the New Zealand kids his age couldn’t do multiplications.

Back in Mumbai for a Test match 25 years later, while Ajaz might be slightly thankful for it, New Zealand must be wondering why the other kids can’t hold their length. It is a bittersweet feat. Only the third man to take all 10 wickets in a Test innings in 144 years of Test cricket, Ajaz wheeled away for 47.5 overs in the first innings of the match, but he is likely to be the only one of the three to be on the losing side.

While Ajaz took 10 wickets for 119 runs at his end, the other end leaked 188 runs for no wicket in 62 overs. You look at the overall chances created by New Zealand, and you would think this Test was being played on a flat track. At 88.1%, India batted with much better control than any of the innings in the Kanpur draw. However, against Ajaz, their control percentage dropped to 81.46. While Ajaz drew a mistake once every 5.39 balls, the others troubled India once every 13.8 balls.

Taking 10 wickets in an innings is a freak effort, which takes either big amount of luck to deny others or this kind of difference in the quality of bowling between one bowler and the rest. And Ajaz’s quality was superlative, his endurance remarkable.

After the New Zealand seamers kept them alive in the first Test, Kane Williamson was asked if it was better to pick their best bowlers and not two specialist spinners just because the match was in India. Williamson’s defence for his spinners was that they had hardly bowled in the lead-up to the Tests because they had been locked up in their houses in Auckland.

Come Mumbai, and the difference showed. Now Ajaz didn’t miss his length as often as he did in Kanpur. He got the ball to drift in and dip too. The revs were on, the pitch helped him. Some balls turned from even the good part of the pitch, some went straight on.

Unlike his multiplications, spin bowling is not something Ajaz took with him from India. He started out as a left-arm swing bowler, and even finished an Under-19s season in Auckland as the joint-highest wicket-taker along with Tim Southee. At 5’8″, though, Ajaz lost pace when he looked to hit the deck, and soon realised he was never going to get selected for any high level of cricket if he kept bowling pace.

In a touching piece Ajaz wrote for After the Whistle, he details how much persistence and hard work it took. Former New Zealand Test cricketer, Dipak Patel, guided him through the transition. At the start of every coaching session, Dipak would ask Ajaz, “What do you know?” Every time Ajaz realised he didn’t know enough. Hour after hour of getting every little aspect of spin bowling right, and not moving to the next step until he did so, Ajaz knows what Test bowling is all about.

Put high revs, vary angles and lines, vary how you hold the ball in your hand, vary the release, get varying degrees of turn from the pitch, but never miss your length. Keep doing it ball after ball for long enough periods. In a spot interview, Star Sports asked him to pick one of the wickets as the most special. Like a true spinner, Ajaz said it is not about the wicket balls, it is about the good balls. And he bowled enough of them.

Ajaz did all that in a city that his extended family wouldn’t give them a fair break. The Patels are quite a religious family who believe in destiny. Twenty-five years after they left Mumbai to build a dream, the city of dreams asks them, “What do you know?”

Not enough, it turns out. Not enough.



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