On Thursday evening, when India announced their Test and white-ball squads for the South Africa tour, Axar Patel's name was missing from the T20I side. The selectors retained Ravi Bishnoi and Washington Sundar from the ongoing Australia series but replaced Axar with Ravindra Jadeja.
After this series, India only have six T20Is before the T20 World Cup in June 2024. So the natural question was if it was the end of the road for Axar. It felt like a double blow, as he had also missed the 2023 ODI World Cup with a quadriceps strain.
Axar is probably a better T20 batter than Jadeja but loses out when it comes to bowling. However, in the fourth T20I in Raipur, he showed he had added another string to his bowling as he and Bishnoi strangled the Australia batters to help India defend 174.
The first three T20Is were played on flat tracks in dewy conditions that rendered the bowlers ineffective. In six innings, there were five totals above 200, and the other one was 191.
On Friday, though, with the pitch assisting both seamers and spinners and with hardly any dew around, cricket once again felt like a contest between bat and ball, rather than bat and bat. So when Rinku Singh and Jitesh Sharma steered India to 174 for 9, India knew they were very much in the contest. However, Australia raced away with Travis Head smashing Deepak Chahar for 22 in the third over, taking Australia to 40 for no loss and bringing the required rate under eight.
Immediately, Suryakumar Yadav turned to Bishnoi. It was not a surprise move; both Bishnoi and Axar had bowled four overs each inside the powerplay across the first three games, and with good results. Bishnoi had picked up 3 for 28 and Axar 1 for 25. And the legspinner delivered straightaway sending back Josh Philippe with his very first ball as the batter tried to sweep a full delivery and lost his off stump.
India's nemesis this year, though, has been Head. In June, he scored a hundred in the World Test Championship final to help Australia beat India. Last month, he did the same in the ODI World Cup final. In Raipur, too, he was looking dangerous.
In the third T20I, with Australia needing 43 from the last two overs, Matthew Wade had smashed Axar for two fours and a six in a 22-run penultimate over. Australia went on to win the match.
Head also has a healthy strike rate (144.37) against left-arm fingerspin. Despite that, Suryakumar backed Axar from the other end. On the third ball Head faced from Axar, he went for a slog sweep, got a top edge, and was caught at short third.
"You cannot think that since you are a left-arm spinner, a left-hand batter will simply take you down," Axar said after the match. "If you bowl in their slot, yes, they are going to punish you. If you execute your plan, and then go for runs, you cannot do anything about that. But if you think beforehand that this batter will hit me… that's the mental switch you need. You have to be on the attack and think you have to get him out."
All of a sudden, Australia had two new, inexperienced batters, Aaron Hardie and Ben McDermott, at the crease. Axar generally bowls at a fast pace, around 90kph or higher, but in his next over, he slowed it down to 85kph. Hardie went for a slog, missed the ball and was castled.
"People watch your videos, study you, so I also have to do something," Axar said. "It's not like I will just bowl fast and get wickets, get dot balls.
"When I was injured, I was thinking what more I could include in my bowling. I cannot make any drastic changes but these little things I can add. And you get to know only when you try it in the match because in nets when you do that, batsmen are not always looking to attack you.
"I have been doing this since the last three games - one-odd ball in an over I am bowling slower, varying my speed, and then a bowl a quicker one. Line and length you obviously have to vary in T20 cricket but now I am also trying how I can play with the speed."
McDermott, meanwhile, had little clue against Bishnoi - a legspinner who rarely bowls legbreaks. He has been working on it, but for now the fast googly remains his stock ball. And he kept troubling McDermott with it. Twice the batter survived confident lbw appeals; on both occasions, India reviewed the decision, only for the ball-tracking to revert to the on-field umpire's call.
The allrounder was the Player of the Match in Raipur for his figures of 3 for 16
On the third instance, Bishnoi got the lbw decision in his favour. This time McDermott got it overturned. Eventually, Axar uprooted his off stump with the one bowled at 94.9kph.
By the end of the 13th over, both spinners had completed their quotas. Axar finished with 3 for 16, and Bishnoi had 1 for 16. They had a combined economy of 4.13, while India's seamers went for 9.92.
"Their spinners bowled really, really well," Wade said later. "They got us tied down and we couldn't really break away through in that middle period. So that was probably the biggest difference in the game.
"Bishnoi, obviously, has been great throughout the four games. He has been quite hard to get a hold of. Some of our guys with less experience will learn a lot from facing him today. Patel is a class player, he has been a class bowler for a very, very long time."
Axar said he wasn't out there to prove the selectors wrong. But he will be hoping this performance keeps him in their minds.