Eight years ago, in 2013, Mumbai Indians snapped up a 19-year-old Axar Patel, but let the left-arm spinner go the very next season, without capping him once. Axar would then go on to have a breakthrough season with Kings XI Punjab, but what if the Gujarat boy had been retained by Mumbai?
We know that Kings XI Punjab purchased Axar for 75 lakh in the 2014 auction, and we also know that he enjoyed a breakthrough season with the Lions, post which he went on to represent India in limited-overs cricket. But what if the move never happened? What if Mumbai had chosen to retain the services of Axar?
Axar Patel traverses through the entirety of the 2013 season warming the bench and is also only used as a specialist substitute fielder by Mumbai for a vast majority of the 2014 season. Having not played a single game in the group stages, the 20-year-old is expected to also not feature in the playoffs, but, come the toss versus Chennai Super Kings in the playoffs, skipper Rohit Sharma drops a bombshell. Rohit reveals that young left-arm spinner Axar will be making his Mumbai Indians debut in the Eliminator, but it is who he replaces that causes a furore. Axar takes the place of Aditya Tare, who in the previous game hit a last-ball six to propel MI into the playoffs, and hence his selection does not go down too well with the loyalists.
However, it only takes the 20-year-old three balls to win the hearts of fans as he strikes twice, removing both CSK openers - Dwayne Smith and Faf du Plessis - with snorting arm-balls. With CSK boasting of four right-handers in the top five, negating the sliders of Axar on a skiddy Brabourne wicket becomes an impossible task and thus the rookie left-armer turns out to be the star of the night, finishing with figures of 3/9 off his 4 overs. The triple-strike up-top crushes CSK, who eventually slump to a 37-run defeat.
Victory versus CSK sets up a Qualifier 2 clash for Mumbai against Kings XI Punjab at the Wankhede, but a horror night for Axar sees the Blues crash out of the competition. The 20-year-old ends up conceding 68 runs off his 4 overs and is taken apart by David Miller, who ends up hitting 7 consecutive sixes off the left-armer to propel KXIP to a daunting 226. The chase proves to be too tall an ask for Mumbai who, despite the best efforts of Corey Anderson, fold for 198 to bow out of the tournament.
Axar’s morale and confidence are shattered following the night of horror at the Wankhede, but, six months later, the 20-year-old receives the biggest shock of his life, albeit a good one. Picking the squad for the tour of Australia, the Indian selectors announce that they’ve decided to pick the left-armer, who had a domineering Ranji Trophy season in 2013/14, averaging 46 with the bat and 23 with the ball.
The bigger shock, however, is reserved for the morning of the first Test in Adelaide, as stand-in skipper Virat Kohli reveals that India have opted for the left-arm spin of Axar over the off-spin of Ravichandran Ashwin. Like his IPL debut, Axar’s selection is received with outrage, but, yet again, it only takes all of 2 overs for the youngster to vindicate himself. With Varun Aaron having dismissed Watson, Axar traps Australian skipper Michael Clarke in front in just his 14th ball in Test cricket.
But it would be his next dismissal, of Steve Smith, that would end up setting a trend in the series - and in turn, change the career of both men. Axar bowls Smith with a wicked arm-ball and this turns out to be the first of many carbon-copy dismissals in the series. In 8 innings across 4 Tests, Smith perishes a staggering six times to the left-arm-spin of Axar - bowled four times - and remarkably finishes the series with an average of just 18.75. However, despite taming Smith, and despite Axar finishing as the series’ highest wicket-taker, all India could walk away with is a draw.
The man solely responsible for denying India a win? Shaun Marsh. Roped in as Michael Clarke’s replacement for the final three Tests of the series, Marsh, after a five-year wait, redeems himself and does justice to his potential. 1-0 down in the series, he strikes a match-winning 189 at the Gabba to help Australia level the series and ends the series with a remarkable 450 runs from 6 innings at an average of 75 to help the hosts salvage pride and avoid a series defeat.
Marsh’s resurgence is great news for Australia, but it turns out to be a bane for Steve Smith. Having also impressed in the 2013/14 Ryobi one-day Cup, averaging 76.00, the selectors pick an in-form Marsh for the tri-series against India and England preceding the World Cup, at the expense of Smith. And almost inevitably, the Western Australian grabs his opportunity with both hands. With 2 tons and 321 runs in 4 matches, Marsh ends the tri-series as the highest run-getter and all but fixes his spot in the starting XI for the home World Cup.
Australia are confident that, thanks to the form of Marsh, their middle-order woes will be solved but while their squad is all but settled, that is not the case with India, who are still searching for a third-spinner. After heavy pondering, the selectors spring a surprise and opt for the leg-spin of Karn Sharma. An already-capped spinner, Karn endured a successful IPL 2014 with the Sunrisers and the aggression with the ball he brings to the table - in contrast to Ashwin and Jadeja - entices the selectors.
Come the World Cup, both India and Australia breeze through to the knockouts with ease, but while India make it through to the semi-finals without breaking a sweat, Australia suffer a shock exit in the quarters, at the hands of Pakistan. Chasing a paltry 214, Australia are reduced to 59/3 in the blink of an eye, but it is the fourth wicket, six runs later, which proves to be the telling blow. A fired up Wahab Riaz bounces out Australia’s trump-card Shaun Marsh, post which the Kangaroos crumble and fold for 148 to suffer an embarrassing exit in front of their home fans.
Australia’s shock exit sets up an India-Pakistan semi-final and, come the game, India’s tactics leaves fans flummoxed. The Men in Blue, flabbergastingly, drop Ravindra Jadeja and draft in Karn Sharma and it is yet another decision that does not go down too well with the general public. The general perception counts for little though as a Dhoni masterstroke sees Karn propel India into the final of the World Cup. Chasing 285, with Shahid Afridi batting on 37*, Pakistan are 12 runs away from victory but a bold - borderline ridiculous - move from Dhoni to toss the ball to Karn leaves Pakistan stumped - literally. Seeing the tossed-up ball, Afridi’s eyes lights up, but he is deceived in the air by the leggie, who dismisses the all-rounder to ensure India a place in the final.
India take on New Zealand in the final at the Mighty G, but, chasing 240, disaster strikes as they are reduced to 5/3 by the duo of Boult and Henry. With both Kohli and Rohit dismissed, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for India, but, against all odds, the Men in Blue are rescued by Dhawan - except here, it’s not Shikhar. Rishi Dhawan, who made the final cut owing to an outstanding Vijay Hazare Trophy, was controversially picked in the final at the expense of Ashwin, but he repays the faith shown by the selectors by striking an impeccable 58. Dhawan combines with Raina, who strikes an unbeaten 85*, for a match-defining 128-run stand and the duo’s fine effort lays the platform for skipper Dhoni, who launches Boult into the stands to hand India their second consecutive World Cup title.
The Indian team are in jubilation but come April, that is not quite the emotion felt by Axar Patel, who is released by the Mumbai Indians. The Blues, instead, after terminating the contract of Axar, sign pace-bowling all-rounder Hardik Pandya, who they pocket for his base price of 10 lakh. Axar is dejected by the release, but little does he know that there are bigger and better things that await him.
The date is February 22, 2017, and the whole world is awaiting the India vs Australia battle, which is about to kick-off in just over 12 hours’ time. That is not the only battle the cricketing fraternity is looking forward to, though, for the series will see Axar Patel, who two months ago became the fastest bowler to 100 Test wickets, go toe-to-toe with the Australian captain and the number one Test batsman in the world, Shaun Marsh.