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T20 World Cup 2024 – Axar Patel’s ‘key role’ adds to India’s depth options

The unsung hero of India’s win against Pakistan was all-rounder Axar Patel. Not only did he provide batting depth, he also provided flexibility to the batting order by moving up to face the swinging ball and protect the most important hitters. Not only that, he bowled the crucial 16th over to cover the left-hander with a leg-side edge and a favorable wind.

Axar’s was not the norm in the squad let alone the XI. He is very similar to Ravindra Jadeja, both left-arm batsmen, both active batsmen. In the past, India chose to go with an offspinner instead of both to be able to play games well. This time they not only brought both to the World Cup, they have played both in the starting XI.

That India have so far bowled only two left-handed batsmen out of seven made the call easy. However, Axar has made his chances of continuing with the club not hurt. Especially the way he batted at number 4 against Pakistan, scoring 20 off 18 balls in a partnership of 39 runs with Rishabh Pant. Especially because he was not told to pinch or pinch the anchor.

“From the first game, the captain said that only the opener’s opportunity was fixed,” said Axar about his promotion. “He had said in the team meeting that some batting will always be flexible. It will depend on the situation of the game, the conditions, the bowlers, the combinations, the match-ups. My report was not to back down too much. Just playing normal cricket shots. If I face a new ball, it would be easy for Hardik Pandya and Shivam Dube.”

What this means, however, is that India did not play someone who has the advantage of practicing a very rare art and doing it very well: Kuldeep Yadav. There is only one other left-handed speaker in this competition. India’s bowling coach Paras Mhambrey said Kuldeep understands and appreciates that his sitting out is not a test of his ability but a question of team balance.

That Kuldeep didn’t play could also be a set of unforeseen circumstances. New York’s stadiums were ready for more texture. It created both the need to play all three seamers and to add some depth to the batting. Added to that was the abundance of right-handed hitters to throw to.

“It will depend on the opponents, it will depend on the face,” said Mhambrey when asked what situation could put Kuldeep. “I think Axar too, if you look at the IPL, he bowled very well. The advantage we have here for us. In terms of performance and rhythm, in terms of confidence, he is there.

“Dropping the seamer and playing the spinner [can happen] you look at situations, but also another thing that Axar does, it gives you that depth and in terms of batting, which was very evident in the last game. Because we had to promote someone like him, we had to take a chance. He played a very important role in the team, he got those runs at that time, because the ball was a challenge in that situation. It was sewing, swinging.”

Kuldeep will probably be called later in the tournament because Mhambrey said the batting depth is not something that can be discussed. “I don’t think so,” he said when asked if they would always go with the No. 8 batter. “I think so [the] up. It is only on his opponents, just outside. If you feel, maybe at the top, you need one more bowler. We’ll go with that combination.”

However, that begs the question. Imagine if India felt that they needed to play three seamers but also needed more penetration in the spin department or needed to fight left-handed batsmen, which of the two left-handed all-rounders would replace Kuldeep? Axar is a more versatile T20 batsman than Jadeja, and the runs Axar scored against Pakistan added pressure on Jadeja.

Mambrey, however, said the team is not worried about Jadeja’s batting. “It’s a team sport, right?” he said when asked if there were any discussions about Jadeja’s beating. “There will be 11 boys. You really don’t expect them all to get in shape [at the same time]. A long tournament. Someone like Jadeja, who is already very experienced, only needs one game to find his groove. And we know that with the skills he has and the experience, he’s going to go on and win games for you.”

Axar vs Jadeja will still be a tough call to make. If they have to do it.

Siddharth Monga is a senior writer at ESPNcricinfo

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