Ajaz Patel’s cricketing journey has seen many dramatic twists and turns - be it transforming himself from a promising left-arm seamer to a spinner while playing at an U-21 club game or moving his home in Auckland to Napier for better cricketing opportunities. But he would have never expected such an electrifying start to his Test career. The Mumbai-born debutant starred in a spectacular come-from-behind win for the Black Caps with a five-wicket haul in the second innings against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi.
Chasing 176 for a win in their second innings, Pakistan were comfortably placed at stumps on Day 3 needing 139 more with all their wickets intact. But Patel sparked off the batting collapse dismissing Imam-ul-Haq at start of day four and capped off his fairytale run bagging the last wicket of Azhar Ali as Pakistan choked losing the Test by four runs. Sarfraz Ahmed and his men were guilty of a suicidal run out and poor shot selections, but the 30-year-old spinner was clearly the man of the moment for New Zealand.
“It feels pretty surreal that my Test journey has taken off in such a manner. Probably it is yet to sink in that I have bagged five wickets and the man of the match award,’’ said Patel in the post-match press conference, reflecting on his heroics. “Though it was a tight game, I was not looking at the scoreboard and I was just focussing on getting each of my delivery right,’’ said the 30-year-old who was included into the Test squad because of an injury to New Zealand’s frontline left arm spinner Mitchell Santner. Though Ish Sodhi and Todd Astle were part of the initial squad, Ajaz Patel, the lone finger spinner in the line-up was expected to make his debut. Todd Astle had to return home due to issues with his troublesome knee which made Patel a certainty for the Abu Dhabi Test.
With just five runs needed by Pakistan and the last pair in the middle, the left-arm spinner deceived Azhar Ali trapping him in front of the stumps with a delivery that turned sharply. On field umpire Bruce Oxenford raised his finger and Azhar decided to review it. “My mind went blank. I stared at the big screen. It took a while for me to register that it was all over,’’ said Ajaz.
Patel has been a late bloomer but has been in reckoning with his impressive performances in the domestic circuit. Despite unfavourable conditions for the spinners, he has been the leading wicket-taker in the Plunkett Shield - New Zealand’s domestic four day tournament - for last three successive seasons. In 2017-18 season, he bagged 48 wickets from his 9 games for Central Districts which also earned him the award of the Best Domestic Cricketer.
Patel’s whose parents migrated from Mumbai when he was around six, grew up in Auckland. However the presence of the spinners Ronnie Hira and Tarun Nathula who had international experience would mean that he would get limited opportunities. Therefore he decided to move to Central Districts where he was expected to get more games. The move paid off and he was able to impress the selectors with his ability to flight the ball and also generate sharp turn.
As a youngster, Ajaz honed his skills as a promising left-arm fast bowler playing club cricket in Auckland. “I was just five feet six inches in height and I realised this will be a disadvantage if I wanted to become a frontline fast bowler. So I decided to become a spinner," Ajaz told Firstpost.
He was mentored by former New Zealand off spinner Deepak Patel from whom he picked up invaluable lessons on the craft of spin bowling. His coach Heinrich Malan at Central Districts has also been an inspirational figure who urged him to bowl long spells.
"I travel to India often and I love connecting to my roots. I still have many relatives mostly in Gujarat and Mumbai. I am not very fluent in Gujarati but we speak Hindi at home and watch Bollywood movies," he further said. Patel’s wife Nilofer who is from Mumbai was also in Abu Dhabi to witness his husband’s giant killing act with the ball.
After drubbing Australia 2-0 in the Test series, Pakistan held an upper hand coming into the series against New Zealand. And despite the spirited performances of Hasan Ali and Yasir Shah with the ball, their batsmen have let themselves down succumbing to the guile of a spinner. Exactly a year ago, they were floored by Rangana Herath in yet another thriller in Abu Dhabi, losing by 21 runs.
Despite a not so impressive track record in recent times in Asia, Patel’s performance has rekindled New Zealand’s hopes of putting up a good show against Pakistan in the remaining two Tests.