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Axar and the Arm Ball

Ben Jones analyses how Axar mastered the speed where spin doesn’t matter.

Throughout the day, everyone kept talking about scars. Those left on English batsmen, from the carnage at Chennai, the 132 all out, the crushing defeat. 

You could see why. Today in Ahmedabad, England looked uncomfortable. They were tentative in their footwork against the spinners, nervous in their footwork and decision making in the face of quality bowling, but on a far less terrifying surface then faced them in the second Test. They crashed to 112 all out on a pitch where par was, perhaps, 200 more. At times, it felt like England were taking a second attempt at playing the deliveries which got them in Chennai, rather than playing the deliveries sent down to them today. As a group – almost as policy – they were playing outside the line, playing for spin that was not there. 

And yet – let’s leave the violent metaphors at the door. This wasn’t about scars, or wounds. 

This was about ghosts. 

England kept getting out to the balls that didn’t spin. Jonny Bairstow was the first of the day, playing down the wrong line to an Axar Patel delivery which skipped on, a relatively new ball doing its thing. Zak Crawley – who had looked beautiful up to that point, swanning around the new stadium as if he’d cut the ribbon himself – was out in much the same way shortly before lunch. After the break, Ollie Pope played down the wrong line to a Ravichandran Ashwin delivery, preparing for spin that never arrived. 

It shouldn’t be surprising that straight deliveries aren’t usually the dangerous ones for SLA bowlers. As a group bowling to right-handed batsmen – since 2006, when data is available – they average 31.48 spinning the ball away, but 71.11 when the ball goes straight on. The simple act of darting a ball through with no spin is not enough. There has to be the illusion of turn, either out of the hand or from previous deliveries, inviting batsman to reasonably assume the spin will come. Haunted by previous deliveries, they lose themselves, and play a ball that isn’t there.

Of course, speed makes a big difference. Bowl that straighter delivery below 88kph and you average 104.69. Straight, with no pace, and it’s dealt with – but get your speed up, and it’s a different story. Straight deliveries above 88kph to RHB average just 34.84.

Let’s go in a little closer to what we know to be the really threatening straight ball – the arm ball. If we look at deliveries that don’t turn (<0.5° deviation), bowled from SLA to right-handers from around the wicket, which would have gone on to hit the stumps, even then we can see that speed is vital. That delivery below 88kph averages 53; above 88kph, it averages 16. Arm balls are unsurprisingly much more effective when they are quicker. The lack of movement takes time to react to, and the speed of the delivery removes that time. Basic stuff, but worth stating.

You may have thought “that seems like a lot of conditions”, and you would be right. What is described there is the perfect arm ball, quick and angled in, targeting the stumps, at the right pace. They are rare, and tricky to execute – all the more reason why Axar’s never-ending supply was so impressive. This was high class bowling, in conditions designed to help seam, not spin.

And yet despite Axar’s excellence, this was all rather familiar, in some ways. England have found left-arm orthodox rather tricky this winter. Before Axar, they were bamboozled by Lasith Embuldinya in Sri Lanka, even amongst two relatively comfortable wins, and they don’t seem to have quite found a method that works.

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Except of course in between those two, there was Shahbaz Nadeem. Taking 4-233 in the opening Test, he struggled as England made hay. The pitches made a significant difference – it would be foolish to suggest otherwise – but the speed at which Nadeem bowled, compared to Axar, made a huge difference to how England dealt with India’s spinners. England’s primary weapon in that opening Test, particularly for Joe Root, was the sweep shot. It’s a stroke which is significantly harder to play against SLA when there is pace on the ball. They averaged 50 sweeping Nadeem; they’ve averaged 6 sweeping Axar.

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Nadeem’s average speed in this series was just above 82kph; Axar’s, just over 90kph…and Ravindra Jadeja’s is 89.3kph.

Because England weren’t just playing the ghost of Chennai. They were playing the ghost of a bowler who has taken 100 right-handed wickets in India doing exactly this. This was a cover version of Jadeja’s excellence in these conditions, Axar’s bowling so clearly in the mould of India’s first choice that it barely felt as if he was away. 

This template, bowling sharply and taking wickets with spin that was not there, is pure-Jaddu. Axar may lack the body of work, but his skills on show in typical home conditions – pink ball or no pink ball – suggested he is a more than able successor to the 32 year old.

If that sounds premature, to look ahead to the end of Jadeja’s presence in the Indian Test side, then you’re missing the point. Jadeja may come, have his time in the XI, then leave it, as many others have. But the skills, the principles of how to bowl on these surfaces, how to extract deception from nothing, they preceded him and they’ll survive him – haunting visiting teams for many, many years to come.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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