Axar Patel’s ‘critical role’ adds to depth of India’s options

India

An unsung hero of India’s win against Pakistan was the allrounder Axar Patel. Not only did he provide batting depth, he also provided flexibility in the batting order by moving up to face the moving ball and protect more-valuable batters. Not only that, he bowled a crucial 16th over and shut out a left-hand batter who had the shorter leg-side boundary and favourable wind.

Axar’s was not a conventional selection in the squad let alone the XI. He is largely similar to Ravindra Jadeja, both left-arm spinners, both handy batters. In the past India have chosen to go with an offspinner instead of both of them so as to be able play the match-ups well. This time not only did they bring both to the World Cup, they have played both of them in both starting XIs.

That India have so far bowled to only two left-hand batters in the top seven has made the call easier. Axar, though, has done his chances of continuing in the side no harm. Especially the way he batted at No. 4 against Pakistan, scoring 20 off 18 balls in a 39-run partnership with Rishabh Pant. More so because he wasn’t told to pinch-hit or pinch-anchor.

“From the first match the captain has said only the openers’ slot is fixed,” Axar said of his promotion. “He had said in the team meeting that the rest of the batting order will remain flexible. It will depend on the game situation, conditions, bowlers, combinations, match-ups. My brief was not at all to slog widly. Just to play normal cricketing shots. The more I could face of the new ball, the easier it would get for Hardik Pandya and Shivam Dube.”

What this does mean, though, is that India haven’t played someone who has the advantage of practising an extremely rare art and doing it extremely well: Kuldeep Yadav. There is only one other left-arm wristspinner in this tournament. India’s bowling coach Paras Mhambrey said Kuldeep understands and appreciates that his sitting out is not an assessment of his skill but a question of team balance.

That Kuldeep has not played is also probably down to a slightly unexpected set of circumstances. The pitches in New York have been extremely seam-friendly. It has created both a need to play all three seamers and also to add some depth to the batting. Added to that has been the abundance of right-hand batters to bowl to.

“It will depend on the opponents, it will depend on the surface,” Mhambrey said when asked what circumstance could bring Kuldeep in. “I think with Axar also, if you look at the IPL, he’s bowled very well. I think that’s an advantage that we have out here for us. In terms of the performance and the rhythm, in terms of the confidence, he’s up there.

“Dropping a seamer and playing a spinner [can happen] looking at the conditions, but also the other thing that Axar does is, he gives you that depth as well in terms of the batting, which was pretty evident in the last game. Because we had to promote someone like him, we had to take a chance. He played a very critical role for the team, got those runs at that stage, because the ball was challenging at that situation. It was seaming, swinging.”

There will likely be a time later in the tournament when Kuldeep will be called upon because Mhambrey said the batting depth is not a non-negotiable. “I don’t think so,” he said when asked if they were always going to go with a No. 8 batter. “I think it’s [the] surface. It’s purely on the opponents, purely on the surface. If you feel, maybe on a surface, you need one extra bowler. We will go with that combination.”

That does raise a question, though. Imagine if India feel they need to play three seamers but also need more penetration in the spin department or need to counter left-hand batters, which of the two left-arm spin allrounders does Kuldeep replace? Axar is a more versatile T20 batter than Jadeja, and the runs Axar scored against Pakistan only add more pressure on Jadeja.

Mhambrey, though, said the team wasn’t worried about Jadeja’s batting form. “It’s a team game, right?” he said when asked if there have been conversations around Jadeja’s batting. “It’s going to be 11 guys. You really don’t expect all of them coming into form [at the same time]. It’s a long tournament. Someone like Jadeja, who’s so vastly experienced, he just needs one game out there to just get his groove back. And we know that the skills that he has and the experience, he’s going to go ahead and he’s going to win you games.”

Axar vs Jadeja will still be a difficult call to make. If they have to make it.

Sidharth Monga is a senior writer at ESPNcricinfo

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