It is likely that Ajaz Patel would have had time for calm contemplation on that long flight back to New Zealand. It was a few dizzy days for the left-arm spinner in Mumbai, his city of birth. Some homecoming as he became only the third bowler in Test cricket to take all 10 wickets in an innings.
Praise poured in from the cricket world as he was assured of cricketing immortality, joining a club of two. To understand how rare his feat was, consider this: It has happened only once in around 1,000 Tests since Jim Laker delivered the first “Perfect 10”. The England off-spinner achieved the batting equivalent of Don Bradman, claiming 19 wickets (9/37 & 10/53) in the 1956 Old Trafford Test against Australia.
The Don’s Test batting average of 99.94 is a must-know for every student of cricket. It is likely that most also know Bradman’s first-class average (95.14). Less widely known is that Laker’s ten-in-an-innings would not have surprised many of his contemporaries. The English bowler is the only person to have taken two first-class 10-wicket innings hauls in a season. His 10/88 for Surrey against the Australians, in the first innings, was a warm-up for Old Trafford.
So, how long does one have to wait for a Test innings 10-for? It took 428 Tests for Laker’s feat to happen. Anil Kumble emulated him – 10/74 against Pakistan at Delhi’s Ferozeshah Kotla ground in February, 1999 – in Test No. 1443, after almost 33 years. Ajaz’s Test was No. 2,438, lightning striking a third time after 995 matches and almost 23 years.
Back to Ajaz. While he has the slice of history, it will be interesting to see how his Test future unfolds. A great batting average is mostly in the hands of a batsman. Not so the ultimate bowling feat.
In a sense, Ajaz is cricket’s far more accidental No. 10 than Laker or Kumble were.
Taking nothing away from his remarkable achievement, few would have dreamt of a spinner seizing New Zealand’s most exalted bowling record. It is Richard Hadlee territory. The Sultan of Swing had owned that mark with his 9/52 against Australia at Brisbane in 1985. Hadlee, in fact, was on course to all 10, and had eight when Vaughan Brown took his only Test wicket, Geoff Lawson. The off-spinner wasn’t entirely to blame. Hadlee himself took that catch!
Muttiah Muralitharan too had missed out. The Sri Lanka spin great took nine wickets versus Zimbabwe at Kandy in 2002, but ended the day with torn ligaments in his ring finger. He still almost took the 10th the next morning but for Russell Arnold fumbling the catch. But last-man Henry Olonga nicked Chaminda Vaas at the other end, and Kumar Sangakkara showed a ‘keeper’s reflex to catch before realising he had “let down” his teammate.
It is no fault of Ajaz’s that his fellow bowlers, especially Tim Southee who didn’t cash in on the swing afforded by the Wankhede Stadium pitch, couldn’t take a wicket.
Ajaz was a picture of humility – India completed a big win; he pointed out that there was no plan for the other bowlers to help him get to 10 once he had nine because the objective was to bowl out the hosts. It still came out of the blue because New Zealand at home has been all about pace and swing as spinners – Daniel Vettori is an exception with 361 wickets in 112 Tests – have been the outliers.
Anyone who has sat through a Test at the cold and windy Basin Reserve in Wellington cannot but wonder how Ajaz’s Test career could have blossomed. The picturesque, open ground – people walk through the road skirting the ground daily – is a perfect playground for pacers.
The Basin Reserve museum though may get to display one of the two match balls Ajaz was handed – he donated the other to the Wankhede – but at a venue where the ball swings all day, even one spinner can be excess to requirement.
Patel is 33, and has played only 11 Tests. If one considers New Zealand’s drop-in pitches where spinners get little purchase, their new star may have to really battle to be a Test regular.
No Kiwi spinner, other than Vettori during his 17-year career, has played 50 Tests. John Bracewell got 41 (102 wickets). Only 14 Kiwi bowlers have taken 100 wickets, only seven of them have played 50 Tests. It points to a lack of longevity among fast bowlers, who often break down, and the struggle of spinners in unhelpful conditions.
There is a strong social aspect too. Those migrating from Australia or South Africa have mostly been batters. From India or the sub-continent, it is a search for better life first and then using the excellent coaching system and a small pool of talent in a sparsely populated nation to rise in sport.
And pace has not been an ally for Indian origin players. Patel gave up bowling seam only in his late teens (Wisden Almanack says Laker too bowled seam at school in Yorkshire and was advised by County player and coach, BB Wilson, to switch to off-spin and then honed his skills while serving in the British Army). Kumble too started as a pacer but switched to bowling spin due to his quirky action after being called for chucking. Ajaz made a switch on the advice of Dipak Patel, the former Kiwi spinner famous for opening the bowling in the 1991-2 ODI World Cup.
his amazing bond between Test cricket’s three of a kind notwithstanding, the careers of Kumble and Laker will be hard to emulate in any way. Kumble had played 50 Tests and taken 120 wickets before Kotla. He ended up with 131 games and 619 scalps. Laker had 106 wickets from 27 Tests when he ran through the Aussie batting. He played 46 Tests and took 193 wickets in the next three years in an era of fewer Tests.
Ajaz’s 29 wickets from nine Tests coming into India was boosted to 43 from 11 at an average of 27.13. He was the highest first-class wicket-taker for three years before being picked for New Zealand (69 FC games, 265 wickets). Other Indian origin spinners have been more white-ball bowlers for New Zealand. Ish Sodhi (17 Tests, 41 wickets @ 48.58), Jeetan Patel (24 Tests, 65 wickets @ 47.35), Dipak Patel (37 Tests, 75 wickets @ 47.05), and even Mitchell Santner (24 Tests, 41 wickets @ 45.63), have followed the same trajectory.
Numbers thus don’t promise him Test longevity, but New Zealand is known for its spirit of adventure