Eleven years back, Ajaz Patel arrived at Cranleigh Cricket Club in Surrey as a young cricketer in transition. The decision to totally overhaul his game was a relatively late change of plan. Patel had spent all of his childhood as a left-arm seamer but being left out of New Zealand’s Under-19 team had prompted a rethink. At five foot eight, it was clear to Patel that he had gone as far as he could bowling seam. If he was going to fulfill his dream of playing for New Zealand, he needed to do something else. That something else was bowling spin.
For Patel, a summer in England playing as much cricket as possible for Cranleigh was the ideal way of grooming his new action. For the five months before, he had spent hour after hour with former New Zealand spinner Dipak Patel standing at the crease, without a run-up, and bowling the ball, trying to build a spinner’s action from scratch. It was boring work, but essential. Even now you can perhaps see the influence of those sessions in the way Patel barely follows through, ending up behind the popping crease.
Matt Crump was the Cranleigh first team captain during Patel’s first summer with the club and his initial impressions were that the 18-year-old spun the ball big, had natural dip and “tried to give it a fizz every single delivery” but that, unsurprisingly, he lacked control. “When he bowled well, he was superb and would literally clean up,” Crump tells Cricbuzz. “He just lacked some game awareness and how to work batsmen out. He just tried to bowl the same ball all the time, the magic ball.”
Despite Patel’s new-found role, there was one game where the club needed him to return to bowling seam. “We had a couple of players missing so we needed Ajaz to open the bowling,” Crump remembers. “He bowled five overs with the new ball, had a break and then came back on to bowl spin. He got a five-for in that game.”
Patel was born in Mumbai and lived there until he was eight when his parents decided to emigrate to New Zealand. In an article he wrote for After The Whistle, Patel says the decision his parents made to move to a new country with a totally different culture was a big challenge for them. But the way they responded, for example, his father having to learn English while setting up a new business, made him feel that nothing he would ever face would be as difficult. That has sustained him through the challenges he has faced in his cricketing career.
His rise through the Auckland age groups as a seamer happened relatively quickly, although he often recalls a school trial at Avondale College when Martin Guptill hit him for the biggest six he has ever been on the end of. But the setback of not getting a place on the New Zealand U-19 squad was a significant blow. It was only a few months before that Patel and his father had been out to buy him his first-ever pair of cricket spikes, a commitment to the game that had hitherto been, in his father’s eyes at least, secondary to his education.
What followed that 2010 summer at Cranleigh was six seasons of first-class toil for Central Districts before he got an opportunity with New Zealand. It was a long time without recognition for someone who desperately wants to test himself at the international level. But with every game and every over, Patel was becoming more comfortable with his action and more understanding of the role of a spinner in first-class cricket. It was a long apprenticeship but one that ensured he was ready when he did get a chance.
In time, the wickets came, mainly thanks to the curve and turn that Patel displayed against England at Edgbaston. He was the highest wicket-taker in the Plunkett Shield for three successive seasons from 2015/16. With such a strong body of work behind him, the clamour for an international call-up was growing and it came in late 2018 when Patel was selected for the tour to the UAE to play Pakistan. He wasted no time making an impression, taking five wickets in the fourth innings of the opening Test to give New Zealand a four-run victory. He took the final wicket to fall and with it the man of the match award. It was quite the introduction.
Patel has only played eight Tests since then, however, as New Zealand have sometimes opted for an all-seam attack or preferred Mitchell Santner for his all-round abilities. When Patel has played, he has done well and arguably should have had more opportunities. Many observers of New Zealand cricket including Simon Doull, the former Kiwi quick, see him as the best red-ball spinner in the country.
Patel took four wickets in the victory at Edgbaston and bowled tidily. The make-up of Kane Williamson’s side for the World Test Championship final against India is yet to be determined but it is likely that they will want to play a spinner given the nature of the Ageas Bowl surface. If they do, Patel will be competing with Santner, who played in the first Test before a cut to his finger ruled him out of the second, for a place in the team. Patel, with a Test bowling average of 30.46 compared to Santner’s 45.63 but with less batting ability, would certainly be the more attacking option.
The 2019 summer following his Test debut in Abu Dhabi, Patel was back at Cranleigh for another season of club cricket. He wanted to be playing ahead of the tour to Sri Lanka in August of that year. During his first stint at the club, Patel was like so many young overseas cricketers, talented, hoping to make a career out of the game but unsure if he would cut it. When he returned, he was a hardened first-class and Test cricketer. The difference was like day and night.
“He was so professional nine years later,” Crump says. “He was very disciplined with diet, how he approached things like stretching. It had a massive impact on everyone else because everyone sees that and goes ‘Wow, if he’s doing that, why aren’t we?”
Patel took 56 wickets in 13 matches that season at the remarkable average of 8.43 and his performances helped the club achieve promotion. “The control he had and the tactical side of things, he just knew how he wanted to get players out,” Crump adds. “We had a rain-affected game at Valley End. We were chasing promotion and had to bowl them out. He got seven-for and bowled one of the best 12 over spells I have ever seen at club cricket level. We bowled them out in the second to last over.
“He was absolutely brilliant off the field too. If you wrote down what you want an overseas player to be, he would be exactly what every club would need. He was professional, turned up on time, did all the junior coaching. All the juniors loved him. He would do spinning classes with them. I just couldn’t speak higher of him.” Even now, Patel is still in the club’s Whatsapp groups and he briefly caught up with Crump after the first Test at Lord’s.
If Patel does get the nod for the WTC Final, there will be a neat storyline in him playing the biggest game of his career to date against the country of his birth. Rather than being daunted by the star-studded Indian batting line-up, Patel would no doubt think of his parents and the challenges they faced when they emigrated to New Zealand and remember that this cricket lark isn’t so tough after all. He might also think back to the decision he made as an 18-year-old to drop bowling fast and turn to spin. That hasn’t worked out so bad either.