Being a frontline spinner in New Zealand is a thankless job. Just ask Ajaz Patel. He has by far been the best spinner in the Plunket Shield in recent times, but he needed three successive chart-topping seasons - and an injury to Mitchell Santner, who had transformed himself into a batting allrounder in Tests during Mike Hesson's stint as coach - to break into the New Zealand side, at the age of 30.
Patel grabbed 5 for 59 on debut in November 2018, as New Zealand successfully defended 175 in Abu Dhabi for one of their most memorable Test victories. Then, next month, Patel went wicketless in the Wellington and Christchurch Tests against Sri Lanka. His specialist left-arm fingerspin was later needed in Sri Lanka, where New Zealand launched a remarkable comeback to level the series 1-1.
Although Patel was not picked for the Australia tour, and then went wicketless at Basin Reserve against India, he was rewarded with a first central contract by mid-2020, with New Zealand leaning towards a spin overhaul. Patel's accuracy and versatility were valued over Santner's batting and more defensive left-arm fingerspin. However, a calf injury meant Patel was relegated to the sidelines again and lost his contract, in a T20 World Cup year, without playing a single Test.
After having proven his fitness and form in the domestic competitions, Patel worked his way back into New Zealand's enlarged squad for the England tour, with the World Test Championship final against India thrown in. Upon arrival at Ageas Bowl, the venue for that WTC final, Patel outlined the challenges faced by a New Zealand frontline spinner.
"As a spinner, you thrive on situations where you have an opportunity to contribute to the team and contribute to the environment, especially as a New Zealand spinner, knowing how few opportunities we get," Patel had said.
"No I try not to put any [added] pressure on myself," he said when asked about his limited opportunities during a separate media interaction later in Birmingham. "I still just try to enjoy my cricket and you know obviously faith is a big factor for me, which allows me to stay grounded and back my abilities and be comfortable with whatever's thrown towards me. So, I mean, I just make sure I'm still working hard and developing my game and continue to grow so that when the opportunity does come, I try and make the most of it.
"But, I think there's no real added pressure. Every time I put the cap on, I look at it as a privilege and try and make the most of the opportunity and try and have fun because at the end of the day, that's why we play cricket. We play it because we enjoy the game and I suppose it's still reliving a childhood dream. Representing New Zealand and putting that black baggy on… we take a lot of pride and privilege in that. So, for me, every time I get an opportunity, I go out there, try and have a bit of fun and really put my skills out there and put out there what I've been working on while I've been away really."
When Patel was recovering from injury last home summer, the team management had recalled Santner, who helped close out the Mount Maunganui Test against Pakistan last home summer. Santner started the England tour as New Zealand's first-choice spin option at Lord's and it needed another injury to him to make room for Patel in the team.
Patel marked his return with a match haul of four wickets, including that of Joe Root, at Edgbaston, with the old-school virtues of spot bowling on the stumps or finding just enough turn outside off. That has been his formula for success in the Plunket Shield and even in his brief Test career, where he has particularly flourished away from home.
Most recently, at Edgbaston, Patel struck in his sixth over to have Ollie Pope nicking off and then pinned Olly Stone with a slider. He backed it up in the second innings by bowling James Bracey and besting Root with extra bounce and fizz.
"I guess it would be quite rewarding to play against India out there and I hope I can sit back and kind of look back at something like that in the future and go: 'what! that was an amazing time in my career' and something that any cricketer would cherish for as long as I live. It would be a hell of a story to tell later on." Ajaz Patel
According to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, 56 of his 138 balls pitched on the stumps, resulting in two wickets. All told, nearly 45% of the deliveries he has bowled in Test cricket have threatened the stumps, fetching him 11 of his 26 wickets. He's usually mindful of not wanting to go searching for the magic ball or the rough.
Patel, however, doesn't quite have the pinpoint accuracy or the vast experience of Ravindra Jadeja, or R Ashwin for that matter, but he's the best that New Zealand have got right now in Test cricket. From being one among six changes in an under-strength New Zealand XI in the second Test against England, Patel has now regained the lone spin-bowling slot from Santner for the WTC final. If the Southampton track plays true to its nature of aiding spin, Patel could well get the nod ahead of seam-bowling allrounder Colin de Grandhomme, with Kyle Jamieson poised to slot in at No. 7.
From emigrating to New Zealand in 1996, facing omissions at the Under-19 level, moving to Central Districts after not finding a spot in Auckland, then facing further omissions with the national side, Patel is now on the verge of featuring in one of the biggest games for New Zealand, against the country of his birth. That will be "a hell of a story", right?
"I just got goosebumps thinking about it [WTC final against India] to be honest - from where I started my journey in terms of emigrating to New Zealand to then be in a position where you are in the home of cricket, England, to be playing against India, one of the best nations when it comes to cricket, but also I guess your birth country… but representing New Zealand, which I now call home; it's kind of going full circle, but that's my cricketing journey," Patel had said after arriving at the Ageas Bowl earlier this May.
"I guess it would be quite rewarding to play against India out there and I hope I can sit back and kind of look back at something like that in the future and go: 'what! that was an amazing time in my career' and something that any cricketer would cherish for as long as I live. It would be a hell of a story to tell later on."