When Ajaz Patel became only the third bowler in Test cricket's history to take all 10 wickets in an innings, it was no overnight success, but the result of many years of a long, hard slog.
His remarkable feat was even more dramatic as he was playing against the country of his birth. Ajaz grew up in Mumbai and arrived with his family at Auckland Airport aged eight, and they now live in Blockhouse Bay.
He says, “I grew up in a middle-class Indian family. My Dad [Yunus Patel] worked in refrigeration and my Mum [Nilofer] was a schoolteacher. There’s a big middle-class society in India and parents are constantly working while the kids are thrown into this cycle of study, study, study.”
“Despite the arduous nature of it however, you still had a lot of free time as a kid. With cricket, we would all just play to pass the time. Everyone would go outside and join in a game where you could. Generally, the older kids were in charge, so you’d go in and do some fielding and you’d be lucky if you got an opportunity to bat or bowl.
In 1996, Ajaz’s parents told him that the family was immigrating to NZ for a better life.
“From a cultural aspect we had quite a tight knit family and extended family, so for me I had a lot of cousins who were all pretty close in age and I spent a lot of time with them, so being able to integrate with them and being comfortable with that also flowed into school,” says Ajaz. “My Mum could speak English quite fluently because she was a teacher, but my Dad wasn’t as good. He went out on a limb to start a business without being able to speak English very well”.
“Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m doing enough when I look at what they went through”, he says, “but I’ll always be thankful and grateful to them for teaching me those lessons. It helped me be grateful for any opportunity I did get, and at the same time, any adversity that I faced, I realised how small it was compared to what a lot of people are probably facing”.
Ajaz always had a passion for cricket having played so much of it in India.
“In New Zealand, it wasn’t as common in the streets but within our family we used to play a lot in the backyard” he says. “I was a left-handed slogger who tried to hit everything through mid-wicket. After playing in my school team for fun, my Aunty and Uncle signed me up for the local club and I got my first taste of competitive club cricket playing for the under 15s”.
When Ajaz got to high school, he trialled for Western Districts, and made the B team. He was invited to a trial for Avondale College First XI, where he was tasked with bowling to Martin Guptill. “I bowled him a couple, then tried to throw in a bouncer. He hit me, to this day, for one of the longest sixes I’ve ever seen. It went over the set of classrooms on the boundary. I turned around and the coach just looked at me and said, “You better go get that ball.” He [Guptill] didn’t say anything to me at the time, but he probably just thought, ‘Who is this little Indian kid who thinks he can bowl quick.’”
While still in the under 17s, Ajaz got the opportunity to play for the Auckland under 19s. He got selected to replace an injured player. His dad asked him why he was pushing so hard with cricket instead of just focussing on his studies, thinking that there was no career pathway in the game.
Ajaz recalls, “When I got picked for my first age-group rep team I remember going up to dad and saying, “Dad, I really need some new cricket shoes. I can’t play without shoes; we’re going to be playing on grass and everyone else will have spikes.” Dad said, “OK, let’s go and get some spikes.” I still remember that feeling of elation and jubilation. It was the best day ever. Even to this day, as a sponsored cricketer, every time gear turns up, I turn into that little kid again.”
In his second year with the under 19s, he was told that his pace was slower which led to him not being selected. In tears, he told his dad he hadn’t been selected. His dad Yunus told him “Whatever happens, happens for a reason. Trust in Allah’s plan, you need to see what the good is out of this.” “When Dad said that to me, it put me at ease straight away.”
This led him to make the transition to being a spin bowler. Eventually, he played for Central Districts. He began to perform well, picking up the most wickets in both the 2015-16, and 2016-17 Plunket Shield seasons. From this, Ajaz aspired to be selected for the Blackcaps.
“There was definitely a sense of disappointment when another tour rolled around, and I didn’t get an opportunity. From a faith perspective, for me it was always about doing the hard work, turning every stone I could turn, then leaving the rest up to destiny.”
It was 2018 and he was 30 years old when Ajaz eventually got the call that he had been selected for the New Zealand A Team and the Test squad to tour the UAE as well. He says on hearing the news of his selection, his family went ballistic! “I was getting hugs from aunties, uncles, cousins. There was shouting, screaming, and a whole lot of jumping”.
“My cricketing journey has been that, really – challenging adversity. Going towards something that others probably thought was unattainable, but I believed I could. And that faith has been repaid to me ten-fold. I couldn’t have dreamt at the age of 30 being selected for the Blackcaps. I couldn’t have dreamt of taking five wickets on debut, leading to a dramatic win away from home. I couldn’t have dreamt of seeing the words ‘Ajaz Patel – Blackcap’. But here I am, the boy from Mumbai. Blackcap #274.”
Ajaz wrote these comments before his spectacular feat of taking all 10 wickets in the later test innings against India, which really propelled his fame. His family in Blockhouse Bay were delirious with joy. "I’m very proud ... he's got very, very big wish to play against in India. Ajaz was born in Mumbai, not far from the stadium," Yunus Patel said. Nilofer said "Our hearts basically stopped ... when he made that amazing catch, we were all screaming and jumping for joy. Mum, dad, grandma, were all jumping. We still couldn't believe it".
The rollercoaster ride continued to test Ajaz’s faith when after that historic accomplishment, he was not selected to play in the tests at home against Bangladesh in 2022 because NZ conditions do not suit spin bowlers.
Ajaz has the last word “That’s kind of somewhat been what my career’s been all about – every time I’ve faced a setback or a disappointment, I guess the hunger grows and the fire in the belly gets bigger. So, for me it’s really about just going back and knuckling down and improving my game, and all facets of my game.”
Based on an article written by Ajaz Patel for the website “After The Whistle” www.afterthewhistle.co.nz Quotes used with permission.
The highs and lows of Ajaz's career
By Michael Wagener, Cricket writer and statistician
Ajaz Patel’s start in cricket was as a left arm fast bowler. In his Avondale College school team he was not the spinner – that was Jeet Raval, who went on to play as a batsman for New Zealand. He was the joint top wicket taker at the NZ domestic under 19 tournament (along with Tim Southee). But fast bowling is generally a tall man’s game, and at 5 foot 6, Patel’s future prospects were dim. So he switched to bowling spin.
It took a couple of years work with former NZ spinner Dipak Patel to master the basics, but he eventually got to the point where he was regularly taking wickets for his club. Professional cricket opportunities soon followed, and he secured a spot playing first class cricket for Central Districts. It did not take long before he started picking up wickets regularly. He had 3 years in a row where he took more than 40 wickets. Only 3 other bowlers have managed to do that once in the last 7 years, doing it 3 times was extraordinary.
That led to his international selection. In 2018, he was given a chance to play in a test series in UAE against Pakistan. That is not an easy opposition to start against as a spinner. In the last 10 years, Pakistan have been the hardest team for spinners to dismiss. It is certainly not an ideal place to debut. But he showed his worth, winning the man of the match award in his debut test, and helping New Zealand to beat Pakistan in a series in UAE.
What followed, however, was a sudden crash to earth. His first test on home soil was against Sri Lanka in Wellington. He did manage to get some deliveries to trouble the Sri Lankan batsman, but they managed to see him off, and he bowled 31 overs without picking up a single wicket. Part of the lot of spinners in New Zealand is that the pitches are not often very helpful for them. Spin generally relies on the pitch being dry, and the grass cover being patchy. However, as our large agriculture industry attests to, it rains a lot here, meaning New Zealand is pretty much the best place in the world for growing grass.
Patel’s career has developed accordingly. Despite not having taken a wicket in a home test, he has a world class record in away matches, cumulating in his incredible 10 wickets against India in Mumbai. That puts him in very special company. There have only been two other bowlers take 10 wickets in an innings in the 144 year history of test cricket. Since the start of 2018 (his debut year), only one spin bowler has more wickets at a better average in Asia than Ajaz Patel, and that’s the Indian maestro Ravi Ashwin. Patel is ahead of all the other Asian spinners, in their own conditions.
His career has certainly come a long way from being a short fast bowler from Avondale College!