Spin sensation talks to mid-day about fulfilling his late grandmother's wish to play for India
One would hardly expect a teenager, who bunks practice sessions, spends a lot of time on Playstation or watching movies and relishes eating junk food to go on to play cricket for India. And more so, given the cut-throat competition for a place in the playing XI of a world champion outfit.
West Zone's Axar Patel during the Deodhar Trophy semi-final against South at the Wankhede Stadium yesterday. Pic/Suresh KK
But Axar Patel was destined to wear the coveted India cap, and ironically, cricket for him, was a mere coincidence. "I come from a middle-class family. I never wanted to be a cricketer. I wanted to be an engineer," twenty-year-old Patel tells mid-day on the sidelines of the Deodhar Trophy, where he is representing defending champions West Zone at the Wankhede Stadium.
After studying till Class VII in Sharda Mandir in Nadiad (a small town 55kms from Ahmedabad), Patel shifted to Basundi Wala Public High School where one of his friends — Dhiren Kansara — urged him to form a school team.
"I thought it would be a tennis-ball tournament, so I brought along six friends and he (Kansara) got four. We included one more player as he was close to our principal and helped us get his approval to form the team. The next day, Dhiren told me to come for practice as it was a season ball tournament. I was surprised and scolded him saying that playing with a season ball is dangerous and that we could get hurt," recalls Patel, who initially refused to play, but later relented when they were told the school could be banned for three years if they failed to show up.
"I thought that other kids should not be deprived of the opportunity because of us, so we decided to play. And that's how I started playing cricket at the age of 15… just because of my friends." The first match though was not short of drama. Patel was clean bowled in the first innings, but refused to leave claiming the bowler chucked. "We always used to do that in tennis-ball cricket. So, I did not know that here we just had to leave once the umpire declared you out," he says.
Patel kept arguing with the umpire and had to be eventually dragged out of the field. "In the second innings, I was so angry that I smashed that bowler for five consecutive fours," he says with pride. His power-hitting impressed the tournament secretary of Kheda district, who decided to draft him into the district squad. But having no cricket ambition, Patel was irregular for practice sessions.
"They complained to my father (Rajesh), but I somehow found different ways to avoid the net sessions. I would leave the house with my kit bag, go to a friend's house and play gully-cricket there. I would purposely dirty my clothes to give the impression at home that I had been to practice," reveals Axar bursting into laughter.
However, he could not get away with his mischief for long. Somehow his father got to know about it and decided to personally drop him to the ground. But despite being a regular now, Patel was still not serious about cricket. Patel was soon selected for the Gujarat U-19 team in 2010. His good showing prompted the selectors to pick him for the state's first-class team.
Thoughts of quitting
But here, tragedy struck. Patel hurt his leg at home during the Diwali break that ruled him out for the entire season. "I needed around eight to 10 stitches on my leg. I cried a lot and wanted to quit the game because I feared I would have to start all over again and I didn't want to do that," he says. It took another tragedy — the passing away of his grandmother Kamlabai (in 2012) — that finally made Patel take his cricket seriously.
"I was in my second year in the U-19 category. I was playing a match at Gandhinagar when my grandmother passed away back home. However, my family decided not to inform me about it. But one of my friends gave me the news late in the night. But by then her last rites were over. "I continued playing as I was batting the next day and also had to field. I went home after the match.
That's when my father told me that it was my grandmother's last wish to see me in the India jersey. It was then that I decided to start taking my cricket seriously. I couldn't be there for her last rites so the least I could do was fulfill her last wish," he says. Patel won the Board of Control for Cricket in India's (BCCI) U-19 cricketer of the year award for his performance in the 2012-13 season.
His consistent all-round show for Gujarat also earned him a place in Indian Premier League's Kings XI Punjab team last year, where he finished with 16 wickets at an economy rate of 6.22. In fact, Patel was one of the key players to help Punjab reach the final where they lost to KKR.
Patel was rewarded with the India cap for the ODI series in Bangladesh in June. He claimed three wickets in two matches. "It was a very emotional moment when I got a call for the India camp and when I got my India jersey. My father and I cried a lot. I had succeeded in fulfilling my grandmother's wish. She was my inspiration," he says.
World Cup contention
Patel, who claimed the most number of wickets (11 in five matches) in the last ODI series against Sri Lanka, is now in contention for a spot in the World Cup squad, according to stand-in skipper Virat Kohli "It's a big thing. I treat every game as my last. I am in good flow right now, but I'm not thinking about the World Cup team at the moment. I have to continue doing well in the domestic season," he signs off.