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Akshar Patel is a skinny, shy boy from Anand, a small town of Gujarat, the state he also plays cricket for. This left-arm spinning all-rounder, who created a quite the reputation for himself in the 2013-14 Indian domestic season, was awarded the Best U-19 Cricketer of the Year by BCCI. But he was still an unknown entity when it came to the masses.
Not anymore. With 14 wickets in as many matches at a parsimonious economy rate of 6.48 in the group stage of Pepsi IPL 2014, Akshar has been a big contributor to Kings XI Punjab’s journey to the Playoffs.
After yet another fine performance (4-0-28-2), in KXIP’s last league game, against Delhi Daredevils, Akshar reflected on his recent success in a chat with IPLT20.com. He spoke about his bowling game plan that has earned him the kind of success that has surpassed everyone’s expectations. Here are excerpts from his interview:
This season has been a dream for you. What’s the secret?
It has. I accept my limitations and work on my strengths. My coaches and captain have given me complete freedom, which has been a very strong platform for me to perform. Last year, when I was with Mumbai Indians, I didn’t get a chance to play. This year, it’s good to get so many chances and me proving that I deserved them. You had a great domestic season coming into the IPL that culminated with the BCCI award for the best U-19 cricketer.
It is the best phase of my career. The performances I put up at the domestic level gave me so much confidence, which I carried into this IPL. The way I have performed here has added to that confidence, mainly because I have also been able to maintain a good economy rate, which is a tough thing to do for a spinner in this format.
How have you maintained such great economy rate (6.60)?
There is always that fear of getting hit for long sixes. But I mainly try to stick to my strength of bowling the arm-ball and the quicker one. I don’t look to spin the ball or try different variations; I only concentrate on bowling a good arm-ball.
How different is your use of the arm-ball in T20s and first-class cricket?
There is a difference. In T20, the focus is more on bowling dot-balls and that’s why I use the arm-ball more often. In four-day matches, I have to try different variations, bowl slower and try to spin the ball more often, probably slipping on one arm-ball in an over. In a T20 game, since I have only four overs, I want to use my best ball as often as I can so I don’t give away too many runs. Once I do that, the wickets will come.
As a spinner, how do you react when you’re hit for a couple of big shots? Do you stick to plan A or jump to plan B?
I speak a lot to Joe Dawes about this. With him, I make a plan and a backup plan for each batsman. If I get hit for a six, I’ll see if it was a bad ball from me or a good shot from him. If I know I bowled according to the plan, I won’t bother too much and stick to it. In any format, if the batsman plays a good shot, he will get runs and you have to accept that.
How fierce is the competition in the KXIP camp for the Pepsi Emerging Player of the year award? You, Maxwell, Sandeep and Miller – all are nominated.
There is tough competition for the award, yes. I believe this little competition has helped us build a strong camaraderie within the team. The fact that we have so many young players in the race for the emerging player award also adds to the confidence of our team. After all, it shows how well and consistently we have been performing. Who is winning it right now?
Yusuf Pathan conjured up a 22-ball 72 to ensure the Kolkata Knight Riders a second-place finish in the Pepsi Indian Premier League 2014 points table. With the hosts requiring to attain the 161-run target in 15.2 overs, Pathan wielded his willow like a magic wand and decimated the Sunrisers Hyderabad attack to take his team across the line in 14.2 overs.
Robin Uthappa had once again helped set the tone of the innings, with a 30-ball 41. The opener, who had scripted a string of victories for KKR to take them to the Playoffs, was at a loss for words to describe the big-hitting Pathan’s blitzkrieg, which ensured that KKR play their Playoff match on their home ground.
While reflecting on the win, a visibly pleased Uthappa said, “Emotions would supersede the words, given how happy I feel for him today. He was striking the ball so cleanly and scoring those runs for us, getting us a victory that was so crucial.”
Excerpts from his interview:
Was finishing in second place at the back of your minds?
It wasn’t at the back of our minds; it was at the top of our heads, frankly speaking. There was an immense belief within the team that we would make it to the second spot and we knew that we were going to play here in Kolkata. In fact, even Danny Morrison asked me during the warm-ups if we would make it, and I told him that we are going to qualify in the second place. And he said, ‘Wow! I love that belief.’ It’s just something that is going around in this team. There is immense belief in this unit and it’s great. The atmosphere right now is absolutely fantastic.
How would you sum up your batting effort?
I think we batted extremely well; there is no doubt about that. We got the start that we needed. We laid a solid foundation and then Yusuf just ... oh man! There are no words to explain what a knock that was. When a couple wickets fell quickly, was there some nervousness?
No, we knew that we had to take that chance. We knew that we had to go after the bowling. And we also knew that even if we lost the game, we would still qualify for the Playoffs. We didn’t have much to lose. We just backed ourselves and started to go after the bowling, and it just worked for us. Like I said, the belief was there.
Knowing that there are big-hitters coming down the line-up, how does it help?
It definitely helps. And it is good that a lot of the boys got a hit before the Playoffs, and that was important as well. We are glad that everyone is striking the ball well and that is the most important thing getting into the business end of the tournament. In the most important phase of the tournament, you want your players in good nick. All of us are in superb nick, which is good, and we are grateful and looking forward to the next game.
While there were some brilliant pieces of fielding, there were a few lapses as well. Will that be an area that needs to be worked on?
I think we fielded brilliantly. Teams tend to have an off day and we are glad that the off day happened today. And I think we will pick up our fielding, and the energy will be up. And the momentum that this kind of victory has created will only boost our confidence in a big way.
You anchoring the innings has been one of the key factors in the team's success. Tells us about the responsibility you have assumed.
It is my job and responsibility as an opening batsman to get the team off to a good start and I am fulfilling it. I don’t look at it as anything more than that. I am doing my job. How do you do it differently when you are chasing and when you are setting a target?
It depends on the score that you are going after and how you feel on that particular day. On certain days, you need to work extra hard and on certain days runs come easily, so it depends on that. As long as you know your responsibility towards the team, I think you find your way through.
Sunrisers have defended lesser totals. So how had KKR prepared to counter the Dale Steyn-led attack?
I think we didn’t focus so much on their team. We focused on our strengths and what was required of us today. We knew that whatever score they got, we have to get it in 15.2 overs, and it came off.
What has been the key to KKR turning things around?
I think the team as fallen in place. The combination has fallen in place as well. Everyone in the team understands that we are a flexible unit. And our batting order has fallen in place, our bowling has been flexible and we are fielding well. Everyone understands each other. The camaraderie in the team has been good.
Morne Morkel and Sunil Narine play vital roles in the bowling unit. How do you manage their overs?
Gauti (Gambhir) has led the team fantastically by rotating the bowlers; and he is a very good captain. Credit must be given to him for managing the bowlers so well. I think he even eggs the bowlers on when it is not going well. It is important to have someone like him to guide the team, and he is guiding the team beautifully.
What was the feeling when Yusuf was batting?
For me, it was immense joy. I was extremely happy for him. And that is just putting it mildly. I was so happy for him, I can’t explain in words. Emotions would supersede the words, given how happy I feel for him today. He was striking the ball so cleanly and scoring those runs for us, getting us a victory that was so crucial.
What was your advice to him?
Mine was just simple: Keep your head still and watch the ball. You can smash it as hard as you want.