Axar Patel has been in the form of his life, scalping 27 wickets in three Tests against England earlier this year. Subsequently, he tested positive for Covid-19 but rebounded with a decent run in the Indian Premier League for Delhi Capitals and is all set to board the flight to England. In a chat with The Indian Express, the Gujarat all-rounder spoke on his eventful last few months and the journey to get there.
What was running through your mind when you knew you were going to make your (Test) debut?
I was about to make my debut in the first Test against England in Chennai, but played the second Test. A day before that first Test, I had pain in my knee. The doctor said it could be because I was bowling after the lockdown and hadn’t bowled too much. They didn’t know for sure. I went for a scan. I was blank, I was about to make my Test debut. I called home and spoke to my mom and dad; I was very nervous. The last time I went to Chennai before this, I was injured. Once I got injured while playing football and now again for the third time. The doctor said, ‘don’t think too much, there is nothing in the scan report.’ And I will be fit for the next game. There were many things running through my mind then. When I got my Test cap, Ravibhai [head coach Ravi Shastri] was there, Virat [Kohli] and Rohit [Sharma] were there. Virat said I don’t need to prove anything. I have proven myself and that is why I’m in the team. I thought, ‘right, I will just play my normal game.’ My mindset was clear.
Has this been the best year for you?
Since the day I started to play cricket, it had been my dream to play Test cricket. Luckily, it happened this year. It was my best year as far as performance goes.
What has changed for you post the England series?
Post England, I didn’t change myself but I got recognition. People’s perception has changed and they believe that I can do well in Test matches too. I am high on confidence after that series. Even after returning from Covid, I didn’t give up my rhythm. I had the same confidence when I played in the IPL after Covid.
Could you detail how the Covid situation unravelled?
I got a call around 5 am that I had tested positive, but they (Delhi Capitals) wanted me to undergo another test again to be doubly sure. My second test also came positive. I wasn’t scared but asked myself: ‘sab sahi chal raha tha (everything was going well), I was bowling in a good rhythm. Why this now?’ I had 15 days before the IPL, I wasn’t thinking too much. However, after 15 days when my reports weren’t coming negative, I was frustrated. I hardly had any symptoms, only one day I had a headache. I was doing my workout and meditation.
What was the biggest challenge once infected with Covid?
One has to stay alone, there is no one to talk to, no one can meet you. All depends on how you pass that loneliness. It also depends on what kind of conversation one has with their families and friends. I had told whoever I was speaking to that don’t ask me how I will kill this time, how I’m feeling. Let’s have a normal chat. To ask any Covid patient the same questions like, how did it happen, where did it happen, can be very irritating. The challenge is to keep away from that loneliness. IPL team members used to call every second day, they were talking about other things. I used to watch shows, movies. At the hospital, the staff used to keep me busy by monitoring me.
You have played in England for Durham in 2018, how was that experience?
It was one of the best experiences. I had no idea about how county cricket is played or about their culture. In India, we don’t get to see our phones inside our dressing rooms but there they are allowed to watch football games. It was a different atmosphere. First few days, I was trying to mix with other players. I was a bit shy, didn’t know anyone. After the first game, I started to have conversations with teammates and then started to joke around. They have a culture that after every game they win, they will drink, I don’t drink, so I used to play music and dance! They also saw that I wasn’t opening up to them, got to know that I didn’t know much about their culture, and spent time with me. When I go now, that experience will help me, for sure.
Your teammate Barry McCarthy, the Ireland international, has spoken about two games, you hit 95, and in another game against Warwickshire, where it wasn’t a turner, you took 7 for 54. Did you have to change anything to bowl in those conditions?
Bowlers don’t get turn there but they do get bounce, and I feel consistency is key. When I took seven wickets, it wasn’t turning but I was varying my pace. On such kind of pitches, it is very important to hit one line consistently. If batsmen take chances, the chances of getting a wicket increases. I bowled 27 overs in a day in one of the games. Those experiences will help me in England.
Barry was talking about how you guys were watching India vs England game in the dressing room and he said, “That could be you, out there”. In his telling, you say, “Test cricket is too long!”
[Laughs]. I nicknamed Barry, The Sultan. I was projected as a white-ball bowler and was doing well in limited-overs matches. When Sultan said, “You should think about playing red-ball cricket,” I said, “No man, I don’t think so. IPL is there, first choice is IPL for now”. He asked whether I have thought about playing Test cricket. I told him that I don’t think I will get a chance soon (for playing red ball Test cricket). Since then, the way I have performed for India A and in domestic cricket, I knew if I get a chance I will leave a mark.
Did you find anything different when you entered the Durham dressing room, compared to the Gujarat dressing room?
It’s all about culture. We are not allowed phones inside but there, phones are allowed. Players can talk about their work from the dressing room. Or watch football on their iPads. The soccer craze is more even when their game is on. You won’t expect this back in Gujarat, coach toh bhaga dega agar koi player aisa karega toh (coach will throw you out!).
We hear there are no doors in the dressing room washrooms in England?!
It was my first experience, it’s all down to the culture. I can play only five games every year there, that’s it [laughs].
You played against England here and there too. Do you understand their mindset or their style of play?
If they are in doubt whether it’s spinning or not, they just play sweeps and reverse-sweeps. If one bowls stump-to-stump, then it gets tough for them but if the ball is pitched outside off-stump or leg-stump they go for the sweep. They don’t read the ball from my hand, instead, they go by where it’s pitched.
You were considered a limited-overs bowler. What traits did you lack in the past?
I don’t feel I was lacking anything. Unfortunately, I was injured and lost my place in the ODIs. In Tests, [Ravindra] Jadeja and [Ravichandran] Ashwin were doing well. The way Jadeja was performing, it was very hard for any other left-arm spin all-rounder to find a place. The wrist spinners – Kuldeep (Yadav) and (Yuzvendra) Chahal – were doing well. It was due to the team combination that I was out. When I got a chance, I just tried to prove myself.
How did you cope with the frustration of waiting?
I don’t get easily frustrated. I was part of the India A side and was in the scheme of things. It was about grabbing my chances. There were days when I did get frustrated; I was doing well but was not finding a place. But there are many players who are performing in domestic cricket but can’t get a break because the players in the Indian team are performing well. It is important to wait for your time and when a chance comes, just grab it.
There is a school of thought that your bowling is conditions- specific. To become an all-condition bowler, you will have to bring more variation in your bowling?
I don’t think much, I have played in all conditions. It depends on how consistent I’m. My bowling is different from others, I bowl with pace and bowl quicker ones. I can add that ball which can spin [more] and I’m practising it. Whenever I meet any senior player, be it Anilbhai (Kumble) or Ashwin, I ask them what more I can do. I take inputs and try to improve my bowling.
How tough is getting used to a bio-bubble?
It is very tough. It depends on how one trains his mind. I feel there is not much effect of bio-bubble for Indian players. Indian players are used to staying inside the hotel. Abroad, there are hardly any crowds. Everyone is aware of what has been happening for the last year. Team activities have increased, we can play Playstation, TT. The bubble is tough but it’s better not to talk about it, instead keep the focus on cricket.
One thing which you hate and want to change in a hotel room?
Gussaa aata hai, [I get angry!] I feel ‘stop the quarantine, band kar de (laughs).’ But this is for everyone’s safety. We have to stay in the room and train. Hope things change.
How has Rishabh Pant been behind the wicket?
I have a great tuning with him, we are part of the same team in the IPL. He is one of my closest friends. He maintains that lively atmosphere in the team. He will crack jokes, even from behind the wicket. Sometimes in a five-day game if there is a partnership, it’s very tough to kill that time. It’s his role that if he feels that the atmosphere is getting dull, he will crack some jokes, he will pass on comments. It suits him.
When there were difficult moments, whom did you speak to?
Difficult moments will come in everyone’s life, I have trained myself differently. I back myself in these tough times, depending on the situation. If I am not doing well, I see my old videos. If it’s with regard to selection, it’s not in my hands. I just need to follow the process, continue my hard work. Injuries are part and parcel of life. I speak to senior players, they also say the same thing, not to think too much about things which are not in our hands. These are mere excuses, instead, keep focus and keep working hard.