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Cricket: Patel finally proves point

Jeetan Patel knows he is not a saviour but is rapt to be playing test cricket again. Photo / photosport.nz
Jeetan Patel knows he is not a saviour but is rapt to be playing test cricket again. Photo / photosport.nz

Jeetan Patel's recall to the New Zealand cricket team this summer was in the best traditions of a sporting renaissance.

With an international career almost four years behind him, Patel took two wickets for 28 to help Warwickshire win the Royal London Cup one-day final by eight wickets against Surrey on September 17.

Thirteen days later, the off spinner earned his 20th test cap against India in Kolkata.

He was a logical choice, having topped the English first-class wicket table with 69 at 24.02, equal with the retiring Graham Napier of Essex. He was also the Players' Association Most Valuable Player, repeating his achievement of 2014.

Yet his international selection was not that simple. Patel had last played for New Zealand in the ill-fated tests against South Africa in January 2013, remembered as much for their dismissal for 45 in Cape Town as the 2-0 series loss.

He turned down an opportunity to tour the West Indies in 2014 due to county commitments and justified the decision with his anointment as a 2015 Wisden cricketer of the year.

His exit during the early stanzas of Mike Hesson's coaching era was tinged with pity for his batting more than his bowling. He struggled against pace, backing away towards square leg when bowlers delivered at his body. He has addressed the problem, scoring a first-class century and 12 half-centuries since.

In Patel's absence, fellow off-spinner Mark Craig seized his chance. He excelled across several series, before struggling against Australia in 2015-16, and suffering a side strain in the first test against India at Kanpur. Craig is yet to return to top level cricket.

In the parallel county universe, Patel was a tour de force for Warwickshire but appeared set to forever live in the shadow of the Daniel Vettori era. His cricketing epitaph was set to be "Exceptional New Zealand spinner penalised by a lack of turn at home".

Now, at 36, he is an integral part of the test and one-day international sides - at least until June's Champions Trophy.

New Zealand open that limited overs tournament against Australia at Edgbaston in Birmingham, Patel's home away from home, before playing Bangladesh and England at Cardiff's Sophia Gardens. The semifinals are split between those two venues, followed by a potential final at The Oval in London.

"He [Patel] is a really nice filler for us, without saying that as a derogatory term," Hesson said after the South Africa series.

"When he's with the group, he gets the best out of other spinners, and has certainly sped up their learning.

"He's probably the most consistent spinner we've got, but he's not a long-term solution. Jeets and I talk about that a lot."

Patel took 13 test wickets at an average of 42.92 in his five tests since September, including seven at 38 in three outings against South Africa. The latter was his first complete test series at home.

He played three ODIs (one against Bangladesh and two against South Africa), taking five wickets at 24.60 with an economy rate of 4.92 and strike rate of 30. Compare that to his career record of 47 wickets at 34.80, conceding 5.02 runs an over with a dismissal every 42 balls.

His signature this summer was dismissing left-handers by taking his stock ball away. Against the Proteas, six of his seven test wickets and three of his four ODI wickets came in that fashion. He removed wicketkeeper-batsman Quinton de Kock four times.

Patel's return began as New Zealand prepared to play their first test in 51 years at Kolkata's Eden Gardens. In a literal and figurative cauldron, he delivered to a host of spin-playing maestros as the locals retreated into the shade of the stands.

"I'm definitely not a saviour," Patel said on arrival. "I'm just excited to play test cricket again, and to join a bunch of lads going somewhere is pretty special.

"I want to keep it simple and enjoy it. That's such a throwaway comment in sport, but it means a lot to me to be with these guys and have as much fun as I can.

"I want to be that energy the team needs, and be a guy youngsters can talk to about the game.

"I don't know if anyone is ever 'ready' to play test cricket. Hopefully I've done enough work to execute my skills. I've spent seven years playing 11 months on the bounce and bowled a lot of overs. Hopefully those will help me."

He was as good as his word, and further warmed to his task after getting a recall to play Bangladesh on New Year's Eve in Nelson.

His guile was perhaps best felt on the fourth day of the first test in Dunedin. He took two for 72 from 36 overs to help keep New Zealand in the contest, including 28 straight overs from the northern end.

He also threw his body about in the outfield, like when Jean-Paul Duminy worked a ball towards the square leg boundary. Patel, who could have had a Greatest American Hero cape flowing out back, raced from deep mid-wicket to dive and save two runs.

He hobbled pensioner-like down two flights of pavilion stairs after the subsequent media conference.

Patel's candour was also welcome, a requisite sign a player feels comfortable in the team environment.

"I didn't plan to play for New Zealand again," Patel said. "But when the stars align, it's beautiful.

"You get an opportunity to make up for lost time. Playing 11 months of the year is taxing, but it's meant my bowling smarts are a lot better."

Patel leaves New Zealand tomorrow to resume life as a professional with Warwickshire on Friday when they open their county championship campaign against Surrey at The Oval.

The Black Caps look set to benefit from his services again in June but, if not, at least this summer enabled Patel's standing in the New Zealand game to receive due recognition.

- NZ Herald

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