Patel plays the long game
Spinner who dismissed two England selectors is in line for a Test call-up against the country of his birth; Simon O'Hagan applauds the slow progress made by a Kent bowler
But out there, beyond the quick-fifty merchants and the nagging medium- pacers, other kinds of cricketer do survive. A purer kind, one is tempted to say. Min Patel, the Kent slow left-armer, is one of the best examples - a player who counts for almost nothing in one-day terms; yet his maturing skills over four days have put him in serious contention to make his Test debut against the country of his birth.
When the selectors meet next weekend to decide the party for the First Test, which begins at Edgbaston the following Thursday, Patel's name will surely figure prominently in the discussion about who is best equipped to take on the Indians in the sphere of conflict they understand perhaps better than any other. "He wouldn't disgrace an India team," Patel's coach at Kent, Darryl Foster, said. "I think he'll certainly be an England player soon."
You cannot do much more to get yourself noticed by the selectors at the start of a season than to dismiss two of them, and Patel has managed just that in 1996, bowling Mike Atherton for 98 in Kent's win over Lancashire in their opening County Championship match, and having Graham Gooch stumped in last week's victory by an innings against Essex. But as the highest wicket-taker (among England-qualified bowlers) of the last two years, Patel has evidence for his case that goes deeper than that.
With Graeme Hick's off-spin always an option, there can only be room for one front-line spinner in the England team. The slow left-arm of Richard Illingworth has been preferred of late, but even after a respectable tour of South Africa he cannot be said to have nailed down the job, and in this coldest of springs he has struggled to make much impact for Worcestershire. Phil Tufnell's chequered past remains an obstacle to his return, and Mike Watkinson's three Tests against West Indies last year said more for his reliability than his penetration. The position thus looks very open.
Patel, aged 25, was born in Bombay and came to England when he was five. "My father wanted me and my brothers to have an English education," he said last week, sitting on the players' balcony at the St Lawrence ground, in Canterbury, after a net. The family settled in Dartford, and at school - Dartford Grammar - Patel discovered that "if you could turn the ball you'd always pick up wickets". He played club cricket for Blackheath, made his Kent debut in 1988, but after taking a degree in economics at Manchester Polytechnic and missing a season with a knee injury, he did not really come through until 1994, taking 90 first-class wickets, more than any other bowler, and earning a place on that winter's England A tour of India.
"It was a great tour," he said. "The conditions suited me and the management was really good." Patel gained experience against four of the Indians now in England - Vikram Rathore, Rahul Dravid, Paras Mhambrey and Sourav Ganguly - but the tour left an unwanted legacy when the 1995 domestic season got under way. "I think I bowled too slowly," Patel said. "I'd been able to do that in India where there was more turn."
Patel was consequently more expensive and had to settle for 66 first- class wickets last season - still an impressive figure, and it would have been more had he not missed two potentially profitable matches at Worcester and Taunton after fracturing his cheekbone while batting in a club game. Although there was no place for him on the A tour of Pakistan last winter, two five-wicket hauls already in the Championship so far this season have shown him at his delicately probing best.
Orthodox in most respects, Patel thinks his patience is his strength, and his composure over long spells and capacity to ride out rough treatment augur well for his prospects as a Test bowler. Last week's match between Kent and Essex at Ilford was a case in point, Patel bowling 88 overs and taking 10 for 225. It is unusual for a spinner to get in quite as many overs (approaching 200) as Patel already has this early in the season, but the situation has been forced on him by the absence of Alan Igglesden and Dean Headley. Patel is not complaining.
His temperament is what Foster likes about Patel. "I think he's got that above all other left-arm spinners in the country," he said. "He's always in control of himself and he'll never let you down." No discussion of Kent left-armers is complete without reference to the greatest of them all, Derek Underwood, and he has followed Patel's career closely. "His great asset is his confidence and assurance, which is rare these days," Underwood said.
Slightly built and with long, wiry fingers, Patel has a lovely loop to his bowling, making it one of the most appealing sights in the game. Underwood suggested there was a departure from the textbook in Patel's "amazingly short" delivery stride, but that it was important. "He uses his body to impart spin, and it helps to pause. He's got a nice rhythmical action and a good pivot. He bowls a good line and length and he's shown time and again that he can bowl sides out. You can't ask for more than that."
Spin bowling is a complicated art, but the thrust of Underwood's advice has always been simple: keep putting the ball in the right place and the wickets will come. Patel's time might have too.
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