Ridiculously, there is a faint sense of relief on seeing Samit Patel for the first time since he last appeared on our television screens, playing for England in the final match of the disastrous series of one-day games in India last October. After years of being defined by failing to meet the standards of fitness expected of the modern international cricketer, the penny that dropped at the beginning of last season appears to have stayed dropped, and the Nottinghamshire all-rounder looks to be in pretty good shape.
"I'm not all the way there, but I'm still going in the right direction," Patel confirms when we chat in the Radcliffe Road Stand at Trent Bridge this week. "We had a holiday after coming back from India, but I've been back here for nearly three weeks, working hard, sticking to my schedule."
Showing willing, in other words, and after our interview he is, reassuringly, off to the gym again. That it has taken as long as it has is hard to understand. Some have put it down to laziness and lack of willpower: others to arrogance, a belief he was good enough without sweating the physical stuff to play for England, who announce their Test and one-day squads for the Paksitan tour in the new year on Friday with Patel hoping to be in both but expecting to be only in the latter. Whatever, the message that he is in danger of failing to make the most of his talent seems to have finally got through and, at 27, Patel is finally giving himself a chance.
In the circumstances, a disinclination to look back is probably understandable. "The past is the past, and I think people mature. What I do know is that I desperately want to play Test cricket, and that to do so I need to keep doing the right thing and impressing the selectors."
Hence, he says, his decision not to pursue a possible contract in next year's Indian Premier League. "I've had several conversations with people at the top, and performances are what will get me in the Test team and that's the way it should be. Regarding the IPL, I had a chat with [Notts director of cricket] Mick Newell, and I had a chat with [England team director] Andy Flower, and I know Mick's been speaking to [England selector] Geoff Miller, and the sense came that... well, I made that decision to not go because I'd miss seven Championship matches, and then if I was to be in the one-day squads later on in the summer I'd miss another four or five. So that's 12 games, and bearing in mind there's the Test squad and the one-day squad to India next winter, I can't justify going to the IPL. I'd love to try it one day, but now would not be the right time."
Twelve months ago, the public embarrassment of being named in the provisional squad of 30 for last year's World Cup, told that getting into reasonable shape would more or less guarantee his selection for the final squad, and then being left out for failing to achieve even that simple target, was clearly a factor in forcing Patel to have a good look in the mirror, in every respect.
Beginning the county season with his fitness much-improved paid off. In 11 championship matches, Patel scored 756 runs at an average of 42, with two centuries and five fifties, and took 31 wickets at 25.74 – a record which won him a recall to the England one-day squad. He retained it for the return in India, and could claim to be one of England's few successes, smashing 70 not out off 43 balls in the third match in Mohali, and taking four wickets.
"I honestly thought our preparation was spot-on, and we had a great lead-up in terms of having plenty of time out there before the first game. So it was disappointing not to get the results, because it was a massive series after what we did to them here, but we had a young squad and they'll have learned a lot.
"I was generally happy with my performance, though you're never satisfied, because India I find one of the hardest places to play. I could draw on having been there [in 2008], I understood a bit more what to expect with the pitches, the way they play, and the crowds, and I coped miles better."
For all that it has been an encouraging few months, it is unlikely Patel has done enough to win a place in the Test squad to play Pakistan in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, to be announced on Friday, and he knows it. "I'm not expecting to get picked. I'm hoping, of course I am, but I've probably not done enough to get a Test place yet. I have to be patient, but now I'm doing the right things I'm prepared to be, though I know there are plenty of good young batters out there, people like Alex Hales, Jos Buttler, Jonathan Bairstow."
Championship runs, rather than wickets, surely hold the key to Patel's chances of being first in line should one of England's Test regulars lose form or pick up an injury. The question of whether his left-arm spin, though effective enough in one-day cricket, will ever be of sufficient quality to justify Test selection as part of a five-man bowling attack is doubtful, though not in Patel's mind. "I see myself as a genuine all-rounder, not just a batsman who bowls occasional spin. Obviously Swanny [Graeme Swann] is the number one spinner, and I'd love to play behind him, so to speak. Off-spinner and left-arm spinner: I'd love to do that job.
"Me and Swanny bowl really well together. I do have a slight preference for batting, I'm not going to lie, but as an all-rounder I'll have to produce results in both to merit a place. It won't be easy – Monty [Panesar] is a great bowler and had a good domestic season last year, taking 60 wickets. I need to score plenty of runs, but to be taking wickets too."
Newell agrees, but stresses the need for runs first. "He needs to keep the bowling going, but it's weight of runs that will make the difference. He needs a season when he scores five centuries and an aggregate of 1,200-1,500, but he's got the ability. He's not better than any of the top six at the moment, but people like Andy Flower have never given up on him, never stopped talking to him. If he gets it right he's got every chance of going to India next winter and fulfilling his ambition."
That Patel speaks relatively warmly of Swann is another indication of his new-found maturity. In his recent autobiography, Swann revealed the two men are not particularly close following what sounds to have been a slightly childish off-field confrontation several years previously. As an example of a cricketer who, after struggling with an attitude problem, has gone on to make the most of his ability, Swann's is an example Patel, at long long last, is determined to follow.
What's eating Samit? Colleagues' criticism
"Being unfit and fat and lazy means you don't really care and you are in a comfort zone. It was right he was de-selected. It's a warning to us all"
Kevin Pietersen, March 2009
"He was told once and he hasn't taken enough notice. It's embarr-assing, from his point of view, to be left out twice for the same reason."
Nottinghamshire director of cricket Mick Newell, May 2009
"I think Samit's let himself down. He had a very recent fitness test and it was clear he hadn't improved."
Andy Flower, January 2011
"He's had much-publicised problems with the fridge. You think, 'what an idiot'. It's not just being overweight, it's the reluctance to buy into the discipline. That was his downfall."
Graeme Swann, June 2011
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