This ought to have been Ajaz Patel’s day. Without qualification. After all, he had gone where only two men in the 144-year history of Test cricket had before. Yet, 4 December 2021 will remain a bitter-sweet day for the unassuming New Zealander, just the third man to take all ten wickets in a Test innings.
Before Saturday, the 33-year-old Mumbai-born Ajaz had played only 10 Tests, all but three away from home, for a modest 29 wickets. His two previous five-wicket hauls had come in Asia – against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi three years back and in Galle against Colombo in August 2019. He was a weapon of choice in the subcontinent, but not quite a household name even in New Zealand where cricket is in any case not even the most popular summer sport.
In the space of 47.5 memorable overs, Ajaz stormed the record books, making the world sit up and take notice with figures of 10 for 119 on Day 2 of the second Test against India, in the city of his birth. Only Englishman Jim Laker, in 1956 (10 for 56 against Australia) and Anil Kumble (10 for 74 against Pakistan in 1999) had previously gained membership to the most exclusive of clubs. Laker had had to wait 43 years to ease his loneliness at the top; it took half that time for Ajaz to make it a three-man club in a remarkable exhibition of skill, courage, stamina and perseverance in the unforgiving heat and humidity of Mumbai even in December.
And yet, Ajaz wasn’t on top of the world by the time the second day’s proceedings ground to a halt. Hard as that might be to believe, he almost couldn’t wait for the last ball to be sent down, to escape from the ground and be reunited with his innermost thoughts. He may not have started Saturday believing in his wildest dreams that he would finish with a 10-for; when the Indian innings folded up a little after lunch, he wouldn’t have expected in his worst nightmare to be out bowling again in the second innings. Surely, surely, he deserved better.
New Zealand are so far behind the eight-ball that even a miracle might not spare them the ignominy of a crushing defeat at some stage over the next couple of days. And as much as cricket is a sport of milestones and individual accomplishments, Ajaz will encounter that sinking feeling in his stomach at the denouement. Players harp on the futility of personal achievements if they don’t come in a winning cause. Ajaz’s extraordinary feat is unlikely to translate into a victory, but that should in no way take any gloss off the once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Like the man himself, Ajaz’s bowling doesn’t come with a lot of mystery. His life has been discussed threadbare particularly in the last week, after he and Rachin Ravindra, also of Indian origin, joined hands to thwart the hosts in the first Test with a dead-batting unbroken 52-ball last-wicket partnership. Few followers of cricket in India are unaware that he left Mumbai with his parents for New Zealand when eight, or that he was an aspiring fast bowler who realised only in his 20s that at five foot six, he wasn’t exactly cut out for higher levels if he didn’t change tack.
His bowling is as straightforward. He is a great believer in keeping things simple, in sticking to his disciplines, in maximising whatever assistance he might get from the 22-yard strip. In Mumbai, assistance wasn’t minimal, but clearly, that wasn’t the reason he was New Zealand’s solitary wicket-taker. Bowling on helpful pitches is among the hardest things in cricket. Ajaz’s magical numbers owe a lot to his calmness and composure, his propensity to not get carried away by the kind of encouragement he seldom gets back home.
Ajaz’s entry into the 10-for stratosphere means there is a spinner of every ilk in that club. Laker fired the salvo for off-spinners 65 years back, Kumble kept the wrist-spinners’ flag flying. Now that a left-arm spinner has broken the door down, the spinning fraternity owns all bragging rights.
Following his jaw-dropping exploits, Ajaz repeatedly used the words ‘special’ and ‘surreal’. He must have been pinching himself wondering if he was living out a dream, and not because of the ease with which he got wickets because he had to battle through difficult moments, not least when Mayank Agarwal was hitting his straps, first in the company of Shubman Gill, then with Shreyas Iyer, and later with Wriddhiman Saha and Axar Patel. Ajaz had to wheel away for 47.5 overs — those who think he was ‘only’ bowling spin and therefore had no reason to be tired can stop reading — teasing and tormenting and probing not with prodigious turn and magic deliveries but through sheer bloody-minded doggedness.
A couple of souvenirs for @AjazP 🏏
— BLACKCAPS (@BLACKCAPS) December 4, 2021
Heavily reliant on the stock delivery with turns away from the right-hander, Ajaz also used the one that goes with the arm to excellent effect. Even as fellow frontline spinner Will Somerville struggled for rhythm, Ajaz quickly sized up the lengths and speeds for him to be at his most effective. Showing heart when he copped punishment, he used flight and loop judiciously to keep the batsmen guessing, though in Agarwal — who made a stunning 150 — he all but found his match.
That he had to plug away single-handedly — only Tim Southee of the other bowlers brooked occasional careful watching — leant greater lustre to his wondrous spell. Ajaz was required by Tom Latham to be both the stock and the shock bowler, and he rose to his captain’s exhortations in some style.
Life won’t be the same again for Ajaz, not after Saturday. He will feel the weight of expectations, but he will also sleep soundly in the knowledge that his name has been written in golden letters in the annals of Test bowling. It won’t be a bad idea to put the state of the Test out of his mind and simply soak in the moment.
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