Jun 6, 2020
George DobellSenior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
Under normal circumstances, we would be two months into the English domestic season by now. And while you might expect the seamers to have dominated, you can be pretty sure that two offspinners – Essex’s Simon Harmer and Warwickshire’s Jeetan Patel – would have been up there among the top wicket-takers.
Patel’s long-term record, in particular, is extraordinary. At a time when spin bowling, in England at least, has probably never been harder, he has consistently ranked among the top wicket-takers. Nobody in the world has taken as many first-class wickets since the start of 2012. Nobody has taken as many in the Championship, either. Only once since the 2012 season has he failed to claim 50 first-class wickets in a season (and even then he still claimed 41 at an average under 30).
During his time with Warwickshire over the last eight years, Patel has claimed 450 first-class wickets. The next highest total among spinners is Simon Kerrigan (who last played in 2017) with 245.
As Patel comes towards the end of a professional playing career that started in the previous century it’s probably worth examining why he has enjoyed a level of success of which most spinners could only dream. And while he baulks a little at the characterisation of his attitude as “no excuses”, it’s clear he believes hard work is the only basis on which a career can be built.
“You can’t slip into thinking, ‘Conditions don’t suit me; there’s no point being here,'” Patel says. “Yes, sometimes your job is to let the seamers rest and rotate. Yes, sometimes your job is to build pressure and wait for the second new ball. But it’s a team game and you’re part of a bowling unit. You have to understand that and know what your role is within it.
“While we were in South Africa [where Patel was England’s spin-bowling consultant], Jack Leach asked me what I thought of pitches in county cricket. I told him I thought they were fantastic. I don’t think I’ve ever played in a first-class match in England where the pitch didn’t turn at some stage. It might only be on the first morning; it might only be on the last afternoon, but they’ve all turned at some stage. It’s our job to take advantage of it when they do.
“I think county cricket is a brilliant place to learn. You play all the time, you play in all conditions and you play against a lot of good players. One day you’re in Kent; the next you’re in Durham and the conditions are almost totally different. Is it a grind? Well, yes it is a bit. But it’s a brilliant place to learn to be a professional.
“If I had one message to young spinners, it would be this: bowl and bowl and bowl. Don’t just go to the nets and do your half-hour. Don’t think of it as getting your eight overs bowled. Try and learn from every day. Try and improve yourself. Always ask if you’re bowling enough.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever played in a first-class match in England where the pitch didn’t turn at some stage. It’s our job to take advantage of it when they do”
Patel has made this observation before. A few years ago he ruffled feathers by suggesting English spinners needed to work harder if they were going to achieve success. It did not go down terribly well.
“Ollie Rayner came back at me pretty hard,” he recalls. “And I know he made some good points. I don’t want to suggest it’s in any way easy for English spinners, and I really couldn’t praise the attitude of the guys I’ve worked with in recent months highly enough.
“But all I’d ask is this: are you going to sit around saying how tough it is? Or are you going to get out there and find a way? Because the game isn’t suddenly going to change to make life easier for spin bowlers. We either find a way to contribute or we do something else.
“It doesn’t seem hard work for me as much as it seems like an incredible opportunity. Look, I wake up for this stuff. I love bowling. And I love learning to be a better bowler. There’s a potential gap in the market in the England team, so you would hope spinners go out there and seize the chance. Sometimes I want to shake bowlers and get them to see this.”
There’s a caveat here, though. Both Harmer and Patel came to county cricket as mature bowlers. They had already gained basic skills and experience, and the grounding that is largely missing for young spinners now.
“I can see that,” Patel concedes. “I’m not saying it’s easy. And yes, I wish more sides would pick spinners and give them an opportunity. Captains have to learn how to use spinners. They have to learn to appreciate them.
“But even if you’re not playing, you can be working to improve. Even if you’re not bowling for the first team, you can be bowling. You can go to the nets and play in the seconds or in club or grade cricket.
“Warwickshire probably have seen the best of me. They gave me a fresh start, really. They gave me responsibility and they let me bowl as many overs as I wanted. I owe them a lot. But I was still learning when I started playing county cricket.”
He relates a story about the Royal London One-Day Cup final from 2014, which he says he recently watched again – revealing in itself; Durham pulled off a tense victory over Warwickshire.
“There was a bit of mizzle in the air all day,” Patel says. “So there was some grip in the surface. I really enjoy bowling in those conditions. But you have to know how to do it. And, if every time it’s been like that, you’ve left bowling to the seamers or said it was too slippery to grip the ball, you’re not going to have been in a position to take advantage.
“We play when it’s wet now. We play when it’s pretty much dark and when there’s dew. There’s no point complaining. Unless you train to bowl in those conditions, you’re not going to be able to take advantage.”
“There’s a potential gap in the market in the England team so you would hope spinners go out there and seize the chance. Sometimes I want to shake bowlers and get them to see this”
Patel has had other advantages, too. At Warwickshire, he benefited from bowling into the substantial footholes created by Keith Barker, the left-arm swing bowler, and from having a top-quality keeper, Tim Ambrose, both accepting the chances and feeding back information about how he was bowling.
“I’ve been lucky in both respects,” Patel says. “A lot of the best spinners have been able to operate in partnerships: look at Warne with Gilchrist or Swann with Prior. I’m not sure modern spinners are using the keepers enough. But some modern keepers are picked primarily because of their batting and they maybe don’t have the knowledge to tell the bowler when to slow it down or give it some flight or whatever.
“And sure, if you can use footholes without going into the danger zone, then great.”
Ambrose is better placed than most to judge Patel’s qualities. He has kept to Mushtaq Ahmed, Graeme Swann, Moeen Ali and Monty Panesar, as well as to Patel at Warwickshire for more than a decade. He also scored a Test century against an attack that included Patel.
“In some ways, he is most like Monty,” Ambrose says. “They both naturally bowl pretty quickly. That’s brilliant in some conditions, but it means the ball will slide on in others. I think they both struggled to slow it down a bit – even now, Jeets will go to that pace as a default – but whereas Monty lost a bit of control when he bowled more slowly, Jeets found a way to change. He can adapt very quickly.
“A few years ago, I bumped into Geraint Jones. He had just been keeping to Jeetan in the Masters Champions League and was amazed by how fast he bowled. ‘How on earth do you keep to him?’ he asked me. He really can be tough, because he bowls so fast but still gets the ball to turn.
“Swanny was a bit slower, but got more dip and Moeen… well, Moeen can do everything, really. But I think he’d tell you he admires Jeets’ control.
“Jeetan just kept improving, really. Not every bowler does that.”
“I probably didn’t achieve what I wanted from the first ten years of my career,” Patel says. “I realised batsmen were moving quicker. They’re trying to hit you further. I had to get pace on the ball. And it hasn’t just been me: look at Nathan Lyon. He’s definitely bowling quicker than he used to, but he’s also getting just as many revs on the ball.”
Ahead of the 2020 county season, Patel had reached the conclusion that it would be his last. It wasn’t so much that, at 40, he had decided he could no longer perform at the level to which he had become accustomed. It was more that opportunities for the next stage of his career had started to beckon.
Specifically, that meant a future in coaching. He had been used by the ECB as a mentor for young spinners for several years – typically, a county bowler would be sent to Wellington during the English winter to play club cricket under Patel’s watchful eye – and impressed in a consultancy role with the England team. With the ECB considering hiring two spin coaches – one to work with the England teams and one to tour the counties, identifying and developing talent – he and Gloucestershire’s Richard Dawson were believed to be the favoured options.
Events may have delayed that. It’s not just that Patel confesses to feeling some unfinished business as a player, but that he has not been able to complete the Level 3 coaching qualification required to be eligible for such roles.
“I haven’t completely ruled out playing for another season,” he says. “Not in New Zealand – Wellington have moved on and I don’t think it would feel right going back into that environment – but it’s possible for Warwickshire. It would be a shame not to play this season and I don’t know how I would feel about it emotionally. But I certainly haven’t conceded that is the case yet.
“It’s been really exciting working with England’s spinners. They’re all keen to learn and improve and they’re all supportive of one another. Moeen is such a talent. I hope he feels he has a few years in front of him, because I think he has a lot more to give. He really excites me as a cricketer.”
Is the prospect of claiming 1000 first-class wickets – he’s currently on 892 – a factor? “No,” he says. “A year ago it may have been. But milestones aren’t what drive me and the club has to move on. But if I can’t go down the coaching road, maybe we’ll talk about it.”
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He would appear tailor-made for coaching. Despite a long career in all formats and all conditions, he was forced to reflect on his methods after struggling in international cricket. Dropped, aged 32, in January 2013 (after 19 Tests with a bowling average of 48.46), Patel worked hard to develop into a better player. By doing so, he learned a great deal about the technique and temperament required to succeed, as well as earning another five Test caps.
“I don’t really have regrets over my Test career,” he says. “I enjoyed it. I did my best. But yes, I was probably a better player by the time it was just about over. I really enjoyed coming back into the team in 2016 and proving to myself that I could play at that level. I thought I was ready when I started, but I was still learning.
“My first taste of international cricket came as a white-ball player and it turned my action to custard. My arm got lower and lower and I was more likely to beat batsmen on the outside edge than the inside. I might as well have bowled outswing.
“I understand the idea that young players should only play red-ball cricket. But young players want to be involved in the white-ball game. It’s where the money and glamour are. So you have to accept they have to learn the skills to do both and get on with it. They have to learn the core skills and pick and choose when to apply them.
“But it all comes back to the same thing. You’ve always got to ask yourself: am I bowling enough? They can watch, they can talk, they can listen as much as they want. In the end, the only way you learn is by doing it.”
With that work ethic and that level of experience, you suspect Patel’s greatest contribution to cricket may yet be ahead of him.
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