The world around Axar Patel and Suryakumar Yadav was a mad battle. Velders rattle endlessly in their lilting tone; spectators shrieking in frustration in the gallery, some rushing out; their colleagues, one after the other, who lose their heads; the looks from the dugout wandered aimlessly, as if the embers of hope were flickering, as if every step and step brought them closer to the edge of the cliff.
But the couple was immune to all the fatalism and pessimism around them. They saw hope when none was to be found; they found life when no traces were visible. Together they completed an almost impossible feat, but fell short at the last hurdle. That India eventually lost by 16 runs to the tenacious and skillful Sri Lanka, the Asian T20 champions, should not take away from the brilliance of their comeback or the ingenuity of Patel’s underrated batting.
All hope seemed lost when Patel joined Yadav in the middle after Deepak Hooda’s departure. At 57/5 in 9.1 overs, it looked like a task beyond even Yadav’s superhuman prowess. India needed 149 runs in 65 balls.
Yadav couldn’t do this alone, maybe he needed his clone blow from the other side as well. Patel is not a clone of Yadav; he is the exact opposite. Yadav is all wrists and hands, grace and ingenuity. Patel is old school, depending more on the reach of his limbs and the power he generates from the bat swing. The contrast of styles made their collaboration all the more appealing, and both are linked by an explosiveness that makes them so valuable.
Patel’s punching prowess is not undiscovered, but seldom have they flamed as fiercely as they did in Pune. He has a neat, clean backswing, maintains his balance and form when playing the big shots, and takes full advantage of his long limbs to pitch the ball. He is not a very muscular batsman, but generates prodigious power with his bat swing.
He chose Sri Lanka’s best bowler Wanindu Hasaranga to show his hitting skills. It was only the fifth ball he faced in the innings, his team faltered at 58/4 in 9.4 overs, but swept it contemptuously across the center of the wicket.
It was a blow that Patel would repeat and make Hasaranga wince and grin. In the 14th over, he swept it twice over the ropes, the first, a semi-classic sweep, between deep midwicket and fine leg and the next, a murderous slog sweep that floated over midwicket. The third ball was brushed across the ground.
The aim was still steep – 91 required from 39 balls – but suddenly hope floated. In the next 14 balls, until Yadav perished, India ripped back into the game and scored 33 runs, to reduce the target to 58 from 24.
Fight to the end
Even after Yadav trudged dejectedly into the dugout, India clung to hope. Shivam Mavi, whose four overs had cost 53 runs earlier in the evening, scored 16 runs off the last three balls of Dilshan Madushanka’s 18th over to continue the chase, although the finish was a long way off. Twelve runs were taken from the penultimate over as another thrilling finish loomed, with India needing 21.
But Patel’s night would end tragically-heroically at the hands of Dasun Shanaka, who just an hour ago had beaten the fastest half-century by a Sri Lankan in this format. His 20-run plunder of Mavi in the final finally made the decisive difference.
However, Patel would wonder how he managed to hit a thigh-high full pitch right into the hands of a fielder. Maybe he was tired, maybe it was nerves, maybe it was the fickleness of the format. Another night it could have been Shanaka walking with the defeated eyes of a tragic hero. Those are the fine margins in this game.
It was the almost perfect night for Patel. He was India’s best batsman – did you see a thriving finisher in him? – and the most economical bowler. On a day when the Sailors’ phalanx impressed, as they leaked 151 runs in 12 overs, when their composure showed, Patel pulled India back into the game with four overs taking just 24 runs and negotiating two wickets.
His first over was remarkable. When he measured his run-up the score was 47 for 0 in four overs. Kusal Mendis was on a rampage, Pathum Nissanka wanted to unleash. But Patel put the brakes on the scoring. There was nothing remarkable or unfamiliar about the way he did it. He would slide the ball into the right-handers, modulating his pace and varying his height. It was neither drawable nor wipeable. Consequently, he conceded only a boundary and a six. Along with Yuzvendra Chahal, they arrested Sri Lanka’s progress for the Shanaka massacre.
The Indian fast bowlers have endured a day of chastisement. From the top of Mumbai, the descent into chaos was swift. Their 15 overs in Mumbai conceded 102 runs; here their 12 were sacked for 151, that is without disregarding Hardik Pandya’s superb two-over burst with the new ball, an out-swing barrage of the highest quality. Mavi’s four overs accounted for 53 runs, although the virtues of a tear in Charith Asalanka’s and Wanindu Hasaranga’s wickets of consecutive ball were seen to hamper Sri Lanka’s momentum; Arshdeep Singh was gruesome (37 from two) and Umran Malik scattergun (48/3 from four). Such nights occasionally winked under the skies of T20, where Axar Patel’s name was written as a tragic hero.