How Mumbai-born Ajaz grew wings in New Zealand

Ajaz Patel, the fifth India-born cricketer to represent the Kiwis, turned heads on Test debut scalping a match-haul of 7/123 in the first Test against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi.

New Zealand cricketer Ajaz Patel holds the Man of the Match award after the victory over Pakistan in Abu Dhabi on Monday.   -  AFP

 

When eight-year-old Ajaz Yunus Patel moved to New Zealand from Mumbai, he did not dream of becoming a cricketer. The youngster, born in the Maximum City, would occasionally play cricket in school.

That was in 1996.

Twenty-two years later, he is New Zealand’s hero in the four-run win against Pakistan in the first Test in Abu Dhabi. The left-arm spinner claimed a fifer (5/59) in the second innings that helped the Kiwis turn the tide on Monday.

How Ajaz landed in NZ

Hailing from a Gujarati family, which has its roots in the Tankaria village in the Bharuch district, Ajaz fell in love with cricket only after shifting base.

Quite a few months later, his uncle Sayeed Patel enrolled him and his cousin at Suburbs New Lynn Cricket Club in Auckland. By then, Ajaz had started following the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne on television. At the Avondale College, he was already friends with another Indian, Jeet Ashok Raval, now his team-mate in the national side.

(From left ): Ajaz Patel, along with Tim Southee, receives greetings from Pakistan cricketers Azhar Ali and Mohammad Abbas after the victory.   -  AFP

 

Standing at five foot six inch, Ajaz initially started as a fast bowler. He decided to turn into a left-arm spinner in the mid-twenties, thanks to former New Zealand international, Dipak Patel.

Back then, Dipak was the coach of New Zealand U-19 team, and Ajaz would attend the national camps. “It’s probably going back to (a little more than) 10 years ago. He used to be a pace bowler. With the height, he was very good, but he always had that potential to be a spinner,” Dipak tells Sportstar.

After failing to make it to the New Zealand U-19 side, Dipak encouraged Ajaz to try out spin bowling. “He was very warm to it (the idea). He decided to bowl spin and for a number of years, we worked closely,” Dipak says.

But then, how did Dipak, who has played in 37 Tests and 75 ODIs for New Zealand, realise that the youngster could actually be a good spinner? The 60-year-old laughs and says, “The main quality was that he could spin the ball and that was paramount.”

“More importantly, he has got the temperament as well. He is very strong-minded and patient. Spinners don’t really run through teams, so you need to bowl a lot of overs and be accurate to be successful at the Test level. He has done that,” Dipak says.

But then, Dipak admits that when he saw Ajaz for the first time, he did not think that the youngster would actually don the Black Caps. “Ten years ago, probably not. But the work that we had done last season when he was in Auckland, I think he always had the potential. Left-arm spinner is valuable at any level and he proves it. He has broken into the New Zealand team after a lot of hard work. He has got his rewards by putting numbers up on the board,” he adds.

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Ajaz started impressing with his finger spin and also became the highest wicket-taker in the Plunket Shield for three years running — 2014-15 to 2017-18 — for his first-class side, Central Stags. “I am very pleased to see him. Hard work has paid off for him,” Dipak says.

When former New Zealand international and selector, Gavin Larsen, informed him that he has finally broken into the New Zealand side, he couldn’t believe it.

Ajaz made his debut for New Zealand in a T20I fixture against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi in October. He became the fifth India-born cricketer to play for New Zealand since Ted Badcock, Tom Puna, Ish Sodhi and his school mate, Raval.

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But the mirror-cracking Test debut is the highlight of his career so far. The spinner had claimed two wickets in the first innings as well.

In the process, Ajaz had the best bowling figures on debut by a Mumbai-born player. Earlier, India coach, Ravi Shastri had the record of scalping six wickets for 63 against New Zealand in Wellington in 1981.

On his day of being under the sun, Ajaz remembers the struggle of his family — especially his parents, Yunus and Shahnaz Patel. As a kid in Mumbai, Ajaz has fond memories of visiting the maidans with his father.

As he guided his team to victory, his wife Nilofer and sisters — Sanaa and Tanzeel — perhaps followed every moment on television.

“It is a huge inspiration for Asian origin players in the country and there is a lot coming through. There is no question about it,” he says, quickly adding: “He (Ajaz) will play a leading role in that, let’s hope that his performance encourages other players," Dipak sums up.

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