When Axar Patel was in class nine, his friend persuaded him to take part in an inter-school cricket tournament. Up to that point Axar had had no cricketing aspirations. He consistently topped the class, and like many academically bright students in India, wanted to pursue an engineering degree. But, with his school team falling short of the required number of players, Axar not only put his name down but also brought his friends on board.
Axar, however, was furious with his friend when he came to know the tournament was going to be played with a cricket ball. He was scared of the hard ball, but couldn't bail out. Axar knew his team's withdrawal would result in the school being barred from participation in the tournament for the next three years. And so, he rocked up and cobbled up a fine performance that caught the eye of a local cricket administrator. In a few years' time, Axar would be a part of the victorious India Under-23 team in the Emerging Teams Cup. A year later, in 2014, he would make his international debut for India. The ad hoc cricketer had turned full-time pro.
The trajectory of Axar's international career so far hasn't been all that dissimilar. He has been the perennial stop-gap left-arm spinner, stepping into the breach when required and receding into the background after doing his job. A large chunk of his 34 ODI caps has come in the absence of fellow Gujarati Ravindra Jadeja with whom he has played only five ODIs together. While Axar has done himself no discredit in the opportunities he has got - he has accounted for 41 wickets at an economy rate of 4.30 - he has had to vacate his position when Jadeja returned.
The sequence of events lately, though, has given Axar the opportunity to be the lead left-arm spinner for the first time in his fledgling career. Firstly, Jadeja suffered a form slump: he picked up only four wickets from five games at an average of 62.25 in the Champions Trophy and went wicketless in the two games he played in the West Indies.
Subsequently, Jadeja and R Ashwin, who had a lukewarm run in the Champions Trophy as well, were rotated out for the Sri Lanka ODIs during which a young spin-combine comprising Axar, legspinner Yuzvendra Chahal and left-arm wristspinner Kuldeep Yadav was tried out. All the three impressed, with Axar claiming six wickets in four games at an economy rate of 3.85 in India's 5-0 hammering of Sri Lanka. Subsequently, they have been rewarded with selections for the first three ODIs against Australia, beginning in Chennai on Sunday.
So, what makes Axar an attractive proposition? Firstly, he fulfills, more or less, the selectors' vision of a like-for-like replacement: he is economical in the Jadeja mould by rarely gives the batsmen any breathing space, and an athletic fielder even if not in the same class as Jadeja. Secondly, he has made up for his lack of big turn with subtle smarts. It's this quality that has stood out for captain Virat Kohli.
"Axar, being a conventional spinner, varied his pace and I think it was outstanding," he said at the end of the Sri Lanka tour. "He didn't let the batsmen get on top of him. That's a remarkable thing - when you don't have any variation in your bowling and you still don't let guys score. I think it's the height that really helps him get that extra bounce and the extra pace he can generate. He's got a very strong shoulder and people find it difficult to sweep him."
Two of his dismissals in the first ODI against Sri Lanka in Dambulla provide a useful illustration of how he varied his pace to telling effect. While he breached a charging Kusal Mendis with a 105kph darter, he trapped Lakshan Sandakan lbw with a loopy delivery that was markedly slower at 81 kph. What is also noteworthy is Axar has had more game time in ODIs than Ashwin, Jadeja and Amit Mishra in the last two years. Since the World Cup in 2015, where Axar didn't play a single game, he has turned out in 21 ODIs, while Jadeja and Ashwin have played 17 and 15 respectively. While it probably underscores the need to play Ashwin and Jadeja more often, it also drives home Axar's effectiveness.
Where Axar pales in comparison to Jadeja is in the batting department. Jadeja may not have always delivered the big hits in the lower-middle order, but has done enough to score 10 half-centuries at a decent strike-rate of 85.29. Axar, on the other hand, has a meagre average of 13.53, and is yet to transfer his lusty striking in the IPL onto the international stage. The arc, though, could yet be completed, if he manages to string together a few handy knocks against Australia. Should he manage that, he would not only enjoy a longer stay in the team but also crank up the pressure on Jadeja and Ashwin. The selectors won't mind that one bit.