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Ajaz Patel: ‘My Perfect 10 came after a lot of dramatic changes in my life and hard work’

The ace cricketer talks about transitioning, first as a child moving to New Zealand and then rising up the ranks in the game while battling racism. Still true to his origins, he feels politics is a different game but sport has glued differences and encouraged diversity. The session was moderated by Senior Editor Nihal Koshie.

Nihal Koshie: Have things changed after your historic feat of getting all 10 wickets in an innings?

Not much. We are still working hard and looking at the next series against Bangladesh, and waiting, as always, for news on selection. I guess the market for cricket is smaller in New Zealand than India, which has a billion people with a lot of them crazy about the game. In New Zealand, with four million people, it doesn’t make that kind of an impact. Besides I am still stuck in isolation, one more day before I go home. The situation might change once I get there. It gives me a lot of joy to see my family happy because they had played a part in my journey to become a cricketer. They have all made sacrifices to allow me to do what I do.

Nihal Koshie: When you were not selected for the New Zealand Under-19 team, you were shattered and had broken down on a call with your father. What had happened?

I was disappointed because as a youngster you believe that you can make it as an international cricketer only if you are part of the Under-19 team. I felt I had bowled reasonably well but still wasn’t selected or even named in the reserves. On a call with my dad, I teared up and till date his words resonate with me. He told me that there had to be a reason I wasn’t chosen, that I had to find it and probably the decision was best for me at that time. That conversation was a turning point as I made a dramatic change and became a spinner from a fast bowler. I’m fortunate because it has got me where I am now.

Nihal Koshie: How difficult was the transformation from a fast bowler to a spinner?

It took a long time. I have a great relationship with Dipak Patel. I spent seven to eight months with him just working on my action. In the initial years, he helped me learn what a spin bowler’s action could look like and how each part of my action could impact the way the ball was delivered. I remember the season was approaching in a few weeks and I told Dipak that I didn’t really have a run-up, so how would I let the ball go? I couldn’t just stand there and bowl. Luckily, the run-up came quite naturally.

I have never faced racial discrimination in the selection process. Our work is to yield results in a manner that there are no options left but to select us

Barrington Rowland, who was the head coach when I was playing club cricket, also gave me the opportunity to slow-bowl seam upfront and then come and bowl spin. It was quite raw. I’m still picking up and lack consistency. Initially, I would sort of hop and bound but that changed over time as well. The action has changed throughout my career to get to a point where I am happy with it. It has taken a lot of work, but it’s definitely a good choice. The only focus in my journey has been hard work.

Nihal Koshie: Moving to Auckland from Mumbai must have been a huge difference?

I was young when we moved, so for me, it was about chocolates, treats and sitting on a plane for the first time. I didn’t comprehend how big a shift it was for my parents to make. Now that I am 33, I can appreciate their sacrifices. My parents decided that my sisters and I could have a better lifestyle and more opportunities while growing up. We were fortunate in the initial days when my uncles, aunties and cousins supported us a lot. My uncle took my father into his workshop to help him learn the tricks of the trade and when my father opened his own workshop, the family supported him throughout. To this day, we have a very tight-knit family. Even to this day, I have dinner with my cousins every Saturday night. My wife knows that I won’t be home that night. Everyone, including my grandmother, absolutely loves cricket.

My grandmother stays up at night to watch the IPL. My uncle, who’s close to 50 now, is still playing club cricket and has his own team. Me playing cricket for New Zealand is a massive achievement for them. They have been talking to people around the world that they have got this nephew or cousin who is rising up in the ranks of cricket, asking them to look out for him, pray for him, send him duas.

Nihal Koshie: You’re from an Indian middle-class background. Did you typically face academic pressure?

Indian parents will push their children towards education and it is important. I was fortunate to get a degree in marketing and management before I got into cricket. There was a time when I was training only twice a week but my father asked me why was I training so much when I should be studying or helping out at home. I balanced both. But once I got selected for the team, the support has been unanimous.

Sandeep Dwivedi: How important is it for icons of the game to address the issue of mixing religion with sports?

To be honest, we don’t need to address it per se but we certainly need to be role models and champions of change. We lead by example. Where we come from is irrelevant because 11 players on the field work for one cause, to win a game for the country. Sport can be a champion for change and it can bring people together. Politics is a different game but our job is to show people that we can enjoy each other’s company and do well together. We need to respect one another for being culturally different.

Sandeep Dwivedi: After the terror attack on a mosque in New Zealand, your Prime Minister sent out a strong message. How important was this message for you as a New Zealander?

The Prime Minister led from the front in responding to the terrorist attack. In fact, the whole community reacted strongly. It’s one thing when you lead a team but when that spirit is reflected on the ground by every individual in society, it’s quite humbling and special. I am very fortunate that it was handled the way it was and the fact that people saw us as a part of their community. The attack was aimed at dividing society but instead it brought it back together and encouraged understanding about our culture.

It’s difficult to be a spinner in NZ. My aim is to create opportunities every time I’m out there and make an impact. I can also be good with the bat, take a catch or run somebody out

Sandip Gopal: How difficult is it to be a spinner in New Zealand where conditions favour seamers? Besides spinners don’t get a lot of overs. How do you keep yourself motivated then?

It’s no surprise that it is difficult to be a spinner in New Zealand. But my job is to take the challenges, make the most of them and show people that there is a way. My aim is to create opportunities every time I’m out there and make an impact. That doesn’t necessarily mean from a bowling perspective. I can contribute with the bat, take a special catch or run somebody out. The ball doesn’t turn here but there are still ways to get the batsman out. For example, in New Zealand, you’re targetting the pads, stumps and the inside half a lot more. To be successful in New Zealand, you need to have good control and variation in terms of being able to change speeds for the batsmen. This is different from when you bowl in the sub-continent. When we go to places where we do find the conditions, it gives us a glimmer of hope that there’s a bit of a turn, we can make something out of it. It is a different challenge but I won’t say it’s impossible. The other challenge is that we have some of the best frontline seamers in the world in our home conditions. The way they go about their work when they have the ball, it’s difficult to get it off them.

Sandip Gopal: Were you nervous during the knock that you played with Rachin Ravindra?

The pressure was high but I took the outcome out of my mind; I didn’t think if we would win or lose the game. My focus was on each individual delivery and playing each ball the best I could. Thinking of the outcome means going for a six or boundary. If you put the result out of your mind, it’s easier to control such emotions.

Shamik Chakrabarty: Did you face any kind of discrimination in your career or while growing up?

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t face racism. I think people lack understanding when it comes to different cultures and backgrounds and think what is normal in their culture applies to all. The way it unfolded recently in England is sad. Things are improving as there’s a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion now. I don’t think it’s going to be an overnight fix; it will take time. I make sure that people around me know what I value deeply so that there’s no error on their part in terms of saying or doing something that might offend me. The boys around me are very good and respectful. If I need to pray, they allow me the space and time to do so. They know I eat halal and won’t bring alcohol.

Shamik Chakrabarty: When Mohammad Siraj faced racism in Australia, would it have been right for him to walk off the field?

I think walking off the field is a very drastic action because you are not only not punishing the person who displayed offensive behaviour, you are also punishing a lot of the viewers who love the game for what it is. Of course, action needs to be taken. In Australia, the offender was evicted from the stadium. There was an incident in New Zealand as well and that person is now banned from ever entering the stadium. Such cases are being acted upon more seriously but I don’t think walking off is the right action.

Sriram Veera: Can you share an incident where you faced discrimination?

Honestly, it has happened to me once or twice but if I talk about them, the focus will shift from my game. I have never faced discrimination in the selection process, which, as far as I know, isn’t racist. Our work is to yield results in a manner that there are no options left but to select us. I faced racism on the field where an opponent had made some comments.

Sriram Veera: When you moved into a new house after the mosque attack, the neighbours had left a note…

My mother usually wears a burqa, so the neighbours knew that we are Muslims. After the attack, they kept a plant in front of our steps with a letter saying they supported us and that we were part of the community. That was quite heart-warming. I liked that the women of the neighbourhood, irrespective of their religion, left their house one day with a scarf to show they were with the Muslim community and against racism.

Devendra Pandey: You got verified on Twitter after your 10-wicket haul. How has it changed your profile?

It’s good I got verified but there’s more attention now. Earlier, I could keep doing my work without getting noticed. It was a great gesture by Ravi Ashwin to request Twitter to verify my account.

Sriram Veera: You love chicken lollipop and Schezwan sauce. Why?

During my childhood, my parents would take us out to eat Indo-Chinese food, which was my favourite. So, whenever I come to India, that is the only thing I like. India definitely is a culinary delight. As a cricketer, it is sometimes scary to tour India because you put on two or three kilograms after eating.

Sriram Veera: Even as your career bloomed later in life, you have been creating records. Has it sunk in yet?

First, it’s the will of God, my fate. Second, there are everyone’s prayers. Third, it is my hard work. Whatever I have got is by the grace of God. I am still young in my journey; I still have to do a lot of things. It will be difficult to repeat the feat of 10 wickets. I want to become a renowned spinner.

Abhishek Purohit: You hurt your finger in Kanpur. Has it healed?

My finger is still damaged but it is common for spinners. Sometimes it is due to the different balls or the seam on them. We develop calluses by bowling regularly. But new balls or seam lead to a cut and open up the callus. In Mumbai, I was taking a long time to load the ball in my hand. After that, I didn’t think about the bruise but only about releasing the ball. The more you think of the bruise, the more it will hurt you. It takes a while to heal and luckily, I have time before my next game.

Abhishek Purohit: When did it hit you that you were about to take 10 wickets?

I was just thinking that we had to bowl the Indian side out because they were scoring a lot of runs. I never thought of creating a record. I became aware when I had taken the ninth wicket. I had only four balls left in my over and all I could think was to bowl them well. God willing, I got the wicket on the fourth ball.

Abhishek Purohit: Have you watched games in the Wankhede Stadium?

I love the IPL games in Wankhede. My friend Mitchell McClenaghan would play and I would watch matches whenever I visited the country during my holidays. I enjoyed them a lot, the crowd was very noisy. I always wondered how players on the field could communicate among themselves when we in the stands couldn’t hear ourselves talking.

Tushar Bhaduri: Is being a left-arm spinner advantageous?

Most international teams have left-hand spinners who are at the top of their game. Left-arm spinners are always turning the ball away from the right-handers and many of the teams have right-handed batsmen. That gives some advantage to us (left-arm spinners). On the other hand, right-arm off-spinners have the most number of Test wickets. Both Ravichandran Ashwin and Nathan Lyon have taken 400 wickets till now. It’s definitely not a one-model-fits-all but I guess it’s just a trend at the moment. As a left-arm spinner, I have the advantage of turning the ball away and I am likely to succeed because it is definitely tougher to line up to a ball that is turning away.

Tushar Bhaduri: Do you think the Umpire Decision Review System has been a big help because now you can get more leg-before-the-wickets?

That depends on which day you ask me this question. Some days DRS helps, other days it doesn’t. But it helps in making peace with whatever decision is taken. Sometimes the players get it wrong, other times it is the umpires. We are all human.

Tushar Bhaduri: Your Hindi accent suggests that you have never left Mumbai but when you speak in English, you have a New Zealand accent.

I was eight when I moved to New Zealand, so my English-speaking automatically adapted to the way people spoke around me. We still speak Hindi at home and it is very important to me because it is part of our culture. I want to teach Hindi to my daughter too. I don’t want to lose my culture and also live in this (New Zealand) community. Both are important.

Shahid Judge: Has your travel baggage changed due to Covid?

Covid brought a different dynamic to touring. It can be quite difficult when you are in a hard quarantine, can’t leave your room, go to the team room or socialise with other people. So you have to find other things to do and I take extra books. In New Zealand, we have a huge coffee-drinking culture. I carry coffee grinders, espresso equipment and coffee beans. It has increased the luggage a little bit. At the same time, we take less clothes because we’re not moving around in public.

Sandeep Dwivedi: Where in Gujarat are your grandparents from?

They are from Bharuch. One side of my family is from Tankaria and the other side is from Kankaria. It’s been humbling to receive messages from families here.

Sandeep Dwivedi: Munaf Patel is from that area. Are you in touch with him?

When I was younger, my family managed to contact him through family friends. When they came to New Zealand, he came for dinner at my uncle’s place with Ishant Sharma and Amit Mishra. I told Ishant in Kanpur that the last time they had visited, I had just taken up spin bowling. It was quite humbling to see Ishant play international cricket when I was just beginning my journey. It’s hard to believe that I was in a game playing against them. All three of them are such genuine people.

Shahid Judge: New Zealand lost three World Cup finals. Is there pressure building up for a coveted win?

I don’t think so. The fact that we reached the finals is surprising for a lot of people outside our circle. The fact that we are fighting for the finals has shown how far our cricket has come and what kind of team we are producing at the moment. I am hoping that the coin starts flipping the other way and we can convert these finals into wins.

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