How Rohit can resolve the Axar conundrum
You must have read about it elsewhere. So here is a bit of a recap first on the Axar Patel conundrum:
In a three-pronged spin attack, where the two leading protagonists are not only the world's two best spinners but also among India's finest ever, the third spinner is bound to remain underbowled.
The class and skill of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja is such that skipper Rohit Sharma has almost had no option but to throw the ball to them for large portions of an Indian bowling effort on what have been overly spin-friendly tracks for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
Take away a few passages here and there, and the two Indian greats have not disappointed their skipper. Ashwin would be the first to admit he hasn't been at his best but wouldn't feel too hard on himself looking at a tally of 18 wickets at 15.72.
Jadeja has looked short of his relentless control and precision, perhaps still a bit undercooked following his knee surgery, but he is the top wicket-taker of the series from either side: 21 scalps at 13.90.
In a low-scoring series, the Ashwin-Jadeja duo is the reason why India are 2-1 ahead, being the lead protagonist in triggering each Australian collapse over the past three Tests. They've bowled a collective sum of 1,208 legal deliveries in the series.
But that has had a negative influence on Axar Patel's accurate and incisive left-arm spin. After a tremendous start to his Test career, Axar has faced a bit of stagnation in the last three Tests, delivering just 39.1 overs across 11 different spells. He came into this series with 47 wickets at 14.29 from just eight Tests, primed to be one of the fastest to fifty Test wickets against Australia. Three Tests in, the 29-year-old has taken just 1 wicket at an average of 103!!
It's a chicken-and-egg problem: he hasn't had the overs under his belt to build on that rhythm and deliver at his usual best, unable to find his trademark sharp turn away from the right-handers to accentuate the the impact of his arm ball. And so when he has indeed bowled, he hasn't looked threatening, which has only forced Rohit to give the ball to opposition's two biggest nemesis.
At the wrong end of Indian spin equation, how Axar Patel can bounce back
Axar's contribution has been limited to retaining his water-tight control - going at 2.64 an over - while the leading men have gone through breaks, apart from putting his batting to great use in playing two decisive hands for the series in Nagpur and Delhi. It's these efforts that would continue bolstering the cricketer's standing in an Indian set-up approaching transition.
Why, one could feel for Axar when he was left exasperated seeing Mohammed Siraj expose his horrible game awareness at No.11 and leave the in-form man stranded at the other end in Indore in both innings. And why, India could do with batting him at No.6 or, even better, as a new-ball grafter at No.3 in Ahmedabad with his range versus spin against an opposition that doesn't bowl to left-handers with similar control and wicket-taking threat.
In Indore, on multiple occasions as a bowler, Axar Patel entered his on-field drills and warmed up to convey to his skipper he is ready to have a bowl next over. But each time Rohit went with the legend duo or his pacers, especially Umesh, who got it to move laterally against the Aussie tail.
While confronting queries to this front by the media after the game, Rohit only reinforced his challenge as a captain, having to manage a three-pronged spin attack in home conditions. It's quite unlike the challenge faced by an overseas captain when he has to sub-divide the share of overs between his pacers on seam-friendly tracks. It's much easier to rotate three pacers on a green carpet than to keep your best spinners waiting on a raging turner.
The former gets progressively better for batting, the latter goes worse: which means teams have to take quick wickets or risk giving away a session that may just decide the end outcome of a low-scoring fixture. With this in mind, India were perhaps 40 runs short with the bat and 40 runs too expensive with the ball in the first half in Indore. Take an Ashwin off, and you risked easing up the pressure and giving away control of the proceedings. Give Axar the chance to regain his best mojo, and that may not just come at the cost of vital runs but also dent some of the rhythm of your two best spinners.
"Look, Ashwin and Jadeja have bowled really well so I've to continue to make them bowl as much as possible," Rohit confessed after the Indore Test. "If you have three spinners, you know that the third spinner is always underbowled. This time it has been Axar in these two Test matches; you never know who that guy will be in the next two Test matches."
"Because if guys are getting wickets from both sides, you have to continue to bowl them, as simple as that. That's how it is. When Axar, Ash and Washington [Sundar] played in Ahmedabad against England [in 2021], Washi was the one who was underbowled. Probably didn't even bowl too many overs. That's how it is."
"When you have guys taking wickets and are in good rhythm, you can sense that they need to bowl longer spells. Like fast bowlers, they take a little bit of time to get into rhythm. You need those fingers to come good for you. So you need at least 3-4 overs to get into that rhythm. Then the spinners can bowl longer spells than the fast bowlers," he added.
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It was quite prudent of Rohit to lay bare his headache as a skipper before further questions faced about the Axar Patel problem. In admitting his trouble, the captain displayed solid pragmatism and good understanding. But here's a thing about this: there may still be something Rohit can do to resolve the Axar conundrum at hand.
The pursuit of finding a balance in allowing Axar the chance to finally enter the series with his left-arm spin without compromising on the pressure and wicket-taking nous can start off by creating a filter in relation with the new ball. The new ball that Axar can get to zip through the surface with great venom and sharp turn at his best should've compelled Rohit to reconsider his plan A for what were two low-bounced decks in Nagpur and Delhi.
The new ball fizzled across the roughed-up upper layer of the surface held together beneath only due to early-morning moisture up north, with side cutters skidding through to make life very difficult for the batters in the Delhi Test, where Australia were 91/1 on Day 1 before Ashwin came back with a fruitful old-ball spell to bring India back in the contest.
India could get back on top because of their overall spin mastery, but reversal fortunes on the morning of Day 3 and they could easily have been chasing 200-220, if not 250, which would've been a herculean task. In the post-mortem of an alternative narrative to the Delhi Test, India would've been left rueing the first couple of sessions on Day 1 when they let Australia build on a start and post 263.
They would've regretted not giving Axar the chance to make an impact when he could've made it the most, using the new ball to scramble with the Aussie footwork and rip it across to take crucial wickets. Axar did it in that England series, especially with the ever-glossier pink ball that skids through even quicker off the deck.
Memories from that series, one would've assumed, could easily have enabled Axar Patel for a specific role with the new ball on Indian tracks and for Jadeja to deliver a greater share with the old nut, using his speed and accuracy to overcome the natural ease for batting after the 30th over.
That isn't to say India should limit Jadeja's usage to the old ball in the Ahmedabad Test, but a spell right at the start of the innings when Australian batters are not yet in may not just allow Axar to rebuild his rhythm and confidence but also produce crucial breakthroughs. If the wickets don't come, you still have an accurate left-arm spinner going at just about two-and-a-half an over and Ashwin and Jadeja can still feed on that pressure.
This may only be more pertinent to what is expected to be a track better for batting than Indore. When the innings goes longer, India have a greater opportunity to exercise and assert their skill gap. When the pitch offers sharp turn and inconsistent bounce off various patches, the Australian attack can stare at their Indian counterparts on a similar footing. But on traditional Indian decks, where robustness thrives, there is only one winner down that path. On such occasions, an Axar Patel would run through the tourists and a Matthew Kuhnemann would watch in awe of the Bapu!!