5 Dec 2021

Ajaz Patel: The boy from Mumbai

2:57 pm on 5 December 2021

By Ajaz Patel

This article first appeared on the After the Whistle website and is reproduced with permission. It was written before the writer's historic achievement of capturing 10 wickets in a single test innings in Mumbai yesterday.

Look up Ajaz Patel on Google. You will probably read stories around how I'm originally from India, how I transitioned from being a fast bowler to a spinner, or how it took me over 10 years to finally play international cricket.

Black Caps spinner Ajaz Patel.

Switching from pace bowling to spin was "the best decision I ever made", Ajaz Patel says. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

But when I think of Ajaz Patel, I think of the little boy who grew up in Mumbai.

Who watched his parents work tirelessly, every single day, so that he could have a better life with better opportunities.

A boy that ran around the cricket pitch in sneakers, when everyone else was wearing spikes. Who played with borrowed bats and pads, and who learned how to challenge adversity, be patient, and keep his faith.

What I remember is the son of immigrant parents, who never gave up on a dream to one day play for New Zealand.

Life in Mumbai

I grew up in a middle-class Indian family. My Dad worked in refrigeration and my Mum was a schoolteacher. They were constantly working - around the clock.

For a kid, that meant life was very much focused on study and education.

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.

To be honest, you have to. The children coming out of school are so well educated, people don't even get a look in at good jobs if they don't have a high qualification.

It's such a competitive environment and you're competing not only against people within your class but the entire school and district.

I think there's a lot of pressure on children to fit into that system and get high marks, so in that respect things like sport become a bit of an escape.

Despite the arduous nature of it however, you still had a lot of free time as a kid.

The way the schooling system works over there is you have different school hours depending on your age - so the older kids go early in the morning and the younger kids start around midday.

I'd go to school in the morning and come home around 1pm. When you get back in the afternoon, you'd have a lot of time to muck around before getting into your study.

There was a lot of time spent outdoors playing all sorts of sports - cricket, volleyball, badminton.

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.

But it wasn't anything serious and I suppose our financial background at the time didn't allow me to be able to play for a club or pursue cricket outside of just being social - like going out on a Saturday as they do here in New Zealand.

It's only in certain areas of India that you get clubs that allow for more formal cricket. We were quite far from those centres, so for me to have access to those would have always been difficult.

When I think back on that, it probably is quite surprising that I sit here in New Zealand as an international cricketer knowing where I've come from.

That's what makes it quite special as well and makes you realise how fortunate you are.

'Yes, more chocolate'

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Ajaz Patel Photo: Supplied / After the Whistle/ Ajaz Patel

In 1996, my parents told us that we were moving to New Zealand.

They decided that they wanted us to have a better lifestyle than what they had growing up - most of my Indian family were working from the age of 16.

We had a lot of family living here, so I knew a little bit about the country but the best part was the packages we used to receive.

They'd be filled with Kiwi chocolates and lollies, and as a kid used to Indian sweets it was a real novelty. We'd have stacks of them in the fridge and I remember always being "wow'd" by what I could find.

When it was talked about that we might come to New Zealand, I remember my first thought was just, "Yes! More chocolate!"

I was still a bit young to understand the whole dynamic of the shift and what it really meant and I guess I figured that out as I got a bit older and more mature.

When I was young, it was just the possibility of getting more chocolate which is funny because now I sit in New Zealand and I get excited about returning to India for the Indian food.

We turned up to Auckland Airport, and I was dressed in this little suit, blazer, and top hat.

When we walked outside, the first thing that hit me about New Zealand was that everything felt a lot fresher.

The colour was brighter, and it was obviously a lot cooler than India.

I was put straight into schooling here. My initiation into the education system was going with my little cousin to his kindergarten classes.

I was about seven or eight asking what on earth was going on and why these kids couldn't do multiplication.

But there were still things to learn. I had a very strong accent. I was young enough to let go of it pretty quickly and now I don't sound like I was born in India at all. But when I first arrived, even though I spoke fluent English, no one could understand me - it was thick!

From a cultural aspect we had - and still have - 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.

From there on it was getting used to New Zealand life. We were still very much lower-middle class. An immigrant family, and from my parents' perspective, they had put everything into coming over here, so once we arrived it was sort of like starting fresh.

Initially, my Dad helped my uncle at his automotive shop and he learnt the trade there before eventually opening his own shop in West Auckland.

That was a big challenge for him. I look back on that - the challenges my parents went through - and think to myself, "Well, no challenge is too big when I think about what they went through."

Not just immigrating into a foreign country, but also a foreign language. 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. That was a big challenge for him to take on initially.

He worked crazy hours - on weekends, in the pouring rain. It was a small workshop, nothing flash, but he made it work.

I was old enough to understand what was going on and for me, watching them go through those challenges and overcome the adversity they faced, I realised exactly what they went through to put us in the position we're in.

Sometimes I don't feel like I'm doing enough when I look at what they went through, 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.

A beginning in cricket

I 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.

We'd have all sorts of competitions - older cousins vs younger cousins, Test matches, one-dayers, etc. That kind of stuff drove my passion for the game early on.

I guess for most youngsters, spin bowling is more of a craft and takes a little bit more time and maturity to get the grasp of, but fast bowling is a lot easier to get a hold of.

I was a left-handed slogger who tried to hit everything through mid-wicket. I don't think too much has changed to be fair, but I try and think of myself as a more skilled batsman nowadays - I know that's probably questionable at times!

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.

That's where I really started to enjoy it.

I had a coach at under 15s who was very much about performance and being professional - working on our catching, our fielding, our skill work - rather than just going out and playing.

That's where the game became a lot more competitive and a lot more structured and I think that's why I began to enjoy it a lot more.

When I got to high school, I managed to get a trial for Western Districts. I made the B team for the tournament and the coach from that side was also the coach of the First XI at Avondale College.

He said to me, "We're going to hold some trials at school, why don't you come along?"

At this point I didn't really know how it all worked and didn't really know about trials and what they were all about.

But I still remember it vividly. I showed up, the coach gave me a new ball, and I was tasked with bowling to one Martin Guptill.

I had no idea who he was, had never seen him before, but heard he had played for a while and was a good player.

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."

So in the middle of my over, I had to run over and around the classrooms to try and find this ball that Guppy absolutely wrecked.

He 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."

Which is probably pretty fair if I look back on it now, but that was my intro to school cricket.

A dream and a pair of spikes

I started getting selected for under 17s tournaments for Western Districts, and I remember I had a really good tournament one year at Te Atatu where I bowled well.

The following day was a Sunday. I was asleep, and I got this call at 10.30am.

It was the manager of the Auckland under 19s and he said one of the boys had picked up an injury, and would I be interested in trialling.

I really wanted to say yes, but I told him I didn't have anyone to drop me off.

The manager asked where I lived and ended up coming all the way from the North Shore to pick me up in Blockhouse Bay.

I was nervous as anything. This was the Auckland under 19s, something I had wanted to do for a long time, something I had aspired to do.

But I hadn't even played for Auckland under 17s yet.

The trial was in front of Dipak Patel - the coach - with guys like Guppy, Colin Munro, and a few other really good cricketers.

Colin Munro and Martin Guptill walk from the field.

Colin Munro, left, and Martin Guptill Photo: PHOTOSPORT

I got to the ground, put my shoes on, literally went straight out into the field and they handed me the ball.

Colin came up to me and said, "All you have to is bowl straight, don't worry about wickets, just don't go for runs and you'll be sweet."

That seemed simple enough and took all the pressure off. I didn't pick up any wickets, but I didn't go for many runs.

At lunchtime, Dipak called me over and said, "Look we've had a bowler go down and we need another seamer to go away for the tournament. Would you be interested?"

I knew what kind of players were playing in that under 19 tournament - some of New Zealand's best young talent - and there was a lot I could learn, so it was a no brainer.

In a way, I think making those rep teams was where the dream really started for me. That was the point for me when I thought, "This is something I really want to pursue."

At that stage, I was training a lot and my Dad was really busy at the workshop, while Mum was looking after three kids and the house.

I remember early on Dad saying, "There's no pathway in this, there's no career in this. Why are you pushing for it so much? Don't waste your time, focus on your studies."

Which I think is just that typical Indian culture. As an immigrant family it's more about working hard, getting something underneath you, and working for your future - because they didn't have that when they moved over.

When I made my first rep team though, everything kind of flipped.

We were still very much lower-middle class. We didn't have a lot of money and we didn't spend excessively on anything. At the time, I was still using my sneakers on grass wickets and using either borrowed gear or bats I had received from family over in India.

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.

I got the old Asics that were really popular back then. I remember unscrewing the plastic caps and tying in the spikes for the first time and putting them on.

I walked around the house with them for about four hours - on the carpet and everything.

You ask anyone in sport, whether they are professionals or not, any time they get new gear it's exciting.

Even to this day, as a sponsored cricketer, every time gear turns up I turn into that little kid again.

But nothing will ever come close to the joy that first pair of cricket spikes gave me.

That moment for me is like the starting point of my cricket journey. That's where it turned from a game that I enjoyed playing, to something that I actually wanted to pursue and be really good at - and I wanted to play for New Zealand.

My first disappointment

In my second year with the under 19s, they weren't too happy about the fact I wasn't hitting the deck hard enough.

My argument was, "Well at 5'8", I'm not really going to be hitting the deck that hard."

I prided myself on being more of a swing bowler, so if I tried to throw too much at the deck, I'd lose out on the swing. But I conceded that it was what they wanted.

After finishing my second tournament as the joint-leading wicket taker with Tim Southee, I went away and focused all winter on what they had asked.

When I came back, I was hitting the deck harder, and I was still bowling reasonably well, but I didn't quite make the New Zealand under 19 squad.

They said my pace was down on the previous year and I felt a little disappointed, given I had sacrificed pace to hit the deck harder - like they told me to.

But without making any excuses I kind of realised that my height possibly wasn't helping me in being selected for these teams.

I definitely felt like I was being hard done by at the time but I look back at it now and see what a blessing that was.

I remember very vividly sitting at Lincoln, after the NZ under 19 team had been announced, giving my Dad a call. I was literally in tears telling him I hadn't been selected.

"I did everything I could Dad. I performed well, I trained well, but I didn't make it."

He could sense the disappointment, and he said something to me that's always stuck.

"Whatever happens, happens for a reason. Trust in Allah's plan, you need to see what the good is out of this."

I obviously come from quite a religious background and being quite strong with faith is very important to me and my family.

I remember sitting down again realising I did everything I could to put myself in a position to be selected, and the rest was all up to God and destiny.

I thought about it for a while before coming to the conclusion, "I still want to play cricket, and if my height is going to be a problem, then there's nothing I can do about that. What else can I change?"

From seam to spin

At training, batters are always looking for guys to give them something to hit, so after I got tired of bowling seam, I would always bowl a bit of spin.

I just had this epiphany-like moment, and I thank God for that as well, because I felt like that was the light I was looking for and the light to take out of that negative situation..

I discussed the idea with my club coach and said, "Look, I'm obviously not getting the opportunities being a fast bowler, and I've been thinking about trying spin. What are your thoughts?"

It all sounded great in theory - turning from a fast bowler to a spin bowler, thinking everything just switches over - but the reality was, I almost had to learn from scratch.

Dipak Patel

Dipak Patel Photo: Photosport

I was lucky that Dipak - a former New Zealand spinner - was the coach of the under 19s, and guys like Barrington Rowland were there to guide me through that transitioning phase.

I went to Dipak and he said he was happy to help, but that I would have to work hard. Only I could make it work and I had to commit fully to it - no one else would do it for me.

I turned up to my first session with Dipak and he said, "What do you know?"

I said, "What do I know? I don't really know how to answer that? What do I know about what?"

Throughout the period where he was coaching me, and even to this day when I speak to him, he asks me that question and I still don't know how to answer it.

As I got older I started to understand just how that question breaks barriers in terms of getting you to realise and understand that you don't know everything and there's still more to do.

Dipak was a tough coach. He was very particular, very meticulous, around what he gave and he would know if I hadn't put the work in.

I would see him once every few weeks, and he would give me one little thing to work on. That's it.

That was where Dipak really helped me. He would make me understand the reason why I was learning something new.

In the space of four or five months, we broke down the whole action of a spinner, moved from my fast bowling rhythms over to spin, and started developing an action of my own.

It wasn't easy. By the time I got to the end of it, all I had done for five months was stand at the crease and let a ball go. Over and over and over again.

It was really mundane and boring, but understanding that every time I did it, and the reason why I was doing it, helped get me closer towards my goal.

Black Caps spinner Ajaz Patel

Ajaz Patel spent hundreds of hours perfecting the art of spin bowling. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

As the next season was about to kick off, Barrington and Dipak encouraged me not to throw away my pace bowling entirely, but to keep working away at spin on the side.

Once I had really mastered it, then I could decide one way or the other.

The reality was I was still a good seamer and I didn't want to go and throw that away and put all my eggs in one basket.

So in my first year of Premier grade at Suburbs, I opened the bowling with seam, then came back and bowled spin at the back end.

I enjoyed it enough that at the end of the year I decided I'd commit to spin fulltime.

It was the best decision I ever made. I know if I was still a fast bowler today, there's no way I would have ever played for New Zealand.

Keeping faith - the next 10 years

Once I finished university, I had a bit more freedom and I asked Auckland Cricket what the likelihood of me playing for them was.

At that time, they had two quality spinners in Bupinder Singh and Bruce Martin and I was basically told that the chances were very low.

I decided I needed to move elsewhere.

They were good about it and helped me eventually land with Central Districts where I'd spend all of my domestic cricketing career.

I remember my debut game for them against Wellington at Maclean Park.

I found out literally 20 minutes before it was about to start that I was playing. I was absolutely bricking it and it was a televised game.

I remember looking at the wicket, and I had not seen a wicket like it ever before, it just had this sheen - almost like glass. I just thought, "Oh my God."

I knew it was going to be a tough wicket, and I had never experienced T20 cricket at that level before.

Jesse Ryder was playing for Wellington, and he was just on another level that day. He came out and just started smacking us around the park.

In one of the overs, he cut this ball and I was down at third man. Matthew Sinclair was at point, and this ball just went sky high.

At Maclean Park, at a certain time, the light can be really bad. I was literally looking straight into the sun and had absolutely no idea where the ball was.

I'm looking at Matthew Sinclair, who is looking at me, before realising the ball was coming my way.

I started charging in, and I just started picking it up late. I dived forward, got a fingertip to it, and it rolled past me down the boundary for four.

That was my first taste of domestic T20 cricket.

I got given the ball a few overs later, still really nervous. I think my first over would have gone for 20-odd.

Jesse hit me out of the stadium on two occasions throughout my first three overs.

I remember thinking after the game, "That's it. I'm done. That's the only game I'm ever going to play."

But I got lucky, in that the player I had replaced was still injured and we had to play a four-dayer in a few days' time, so I was picked for that.

I picked up my first wicket - Grant Elliott - and things just kicked off from there.

I wanted to become an established member of the team and become the frontline spinner, so I had to commit myself to just learning and getting better.

Despite enjoying success with Central Districts over the next few seasons, however, my dreams and aspirations were always to play for New Zealand - that's what drove me.

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Ajaz Patel turning out for Central Districts. Photo: CD Cricket

I began to perform well and started to turn a few heads in the domestic competitions - picking up the most wickets in both the 2015-16, and 2016-17 Plunket Shield seasons.

In terms of Blackcaps selection, the chat about me began to swell around.

On the inside, as a player, you obviously want to get picked and you're hopeful you will get picked. There was definitely a sense of disappointment when another tour rolled around and I didn't get an opportunity.

I never looked at myself and said, "I'm going to be selected for this tour" or "I should be selected following this season".

I was just enjoying my cricket, taking wickets, and loving my team.

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 and whatever is best for me, whenever it's best for me, will happen.

People often look at that time of my career and think, "It must have been a frustrating time. You were playing so well but you were never getting picked."

But I never saw it like that. I just loved the game.

I figured I had no control over whether or not I got picked. The only thing I could control were the results I was putting on the board, and at some point, someone had to notice.

Of course, there were times when it was challenging. Times when I'd think, "Hold on, I've taken 10 five-wicket bags in the last two years, but I'm not even getting looked at here."

And I think as time goes on, it can become a lot easier to be bitter about the fact you're not getting those opportunities, and you're not getting any further even though you're performing well.

But the funny thing about cricket is only 11 players can take the field.

Generally in New Zealand, only one spinner is going to play, so you're fighting for one spot in the entire country. The reality is, there are going to be times when there are guys who are just better.

And you might be great, but because they're in there, and they're doing well, you won't even get the opportunity to show how good you are.

I think about all the great Australian spinners around during Shane Warne's era. There were some amazing spinners around, but they never even got a look in because Warney was so dominant.

It is a lot about timing - being in the right place at the right time. And I'll tell you now, I wouldn't change my journey for anything.

When I finally got that call, after 10 long years, and had the debut that I had… if you said to me, "We'll take away that debut game, but you can play two years earlier," there's no way I'd ever take it.

Ajaz Patel celebrates taking the wicket of Olly Stone, 2021.

Playing for the Blackcaps. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The call

It was 2018 and I was 30 years old. I had received two or three calls from the Blackcaps selectors over the previous few seasons - they were all negative.

Always along the lines of, "Sorry you haven't been picked because we feel this is a better option, etc."

I knew there was going to be a selection for the New Zealand A team coming up, but to be honest, at the time I had no hopes of being in that squad.

I get this call, and I see the name come up on my phone. Because of the previous calls I just thought, "Here we go again."

He started talking and it just took forever for him to get it out, which obviously made it worse.

It went along the lines of, "Look Ajaz, we've got this tour going away to the UAE" and he mentioned everything other than selection.

Eventually he said, "By the way, you've been picked for the New Zealand A team."

It was unbelievable. I had never been picked for the New Zealand A team and at that point I knew if I told my family, they'd be jumping all through the house.

My heart was already racing, and he says, "But I've got some better news for you."

I remember I was driving at the time and I basically just stopped in the middle of the road. "You've been picked for the New Zealand Test squad to tour the UAE as well."

My response was, "Mate… are you serious?! You're having me on."

"I'm serious," he said.

I didn't ring anyone, instead I went to a cake shop on my way home, bought a cake, and got a little label made that said, "I'm a Blackcap."

I came home and put the cake on the table, and we got all the family around.

When I opened it up, they all had this look on their face like, "No chance, this isn't happening."

I had to convince them I had just got the call and that I was going over to play Pakistan in the UAE.

Then they went ballistic. I was getting hugs from aunties, uncles, cousins. There was shouting, screaming, and a whole lot of jumping.

I think what that really showed to me was just how invested everyone was in my journey and how happy they all were when I finally made it.

Remembering the little boy friom Mumbai

When we travelled to the UAE, I debuted in the T20s first, getting my cap presented to me by Ish [Sodhi] who had seen me go through the whole journey - that was a special moment and quite heartfelt.

But knowing I had always wanted to play Test cricket, getting my baggy cap for the first time, that was the real feeling of accomplishment.

Not in a vain kind of way, but more so in the fact that here I was, remembering this little immigrant boy that walked in from Auckland airport in that little blazer, who ran around the field in his sneakers, who switched from being a seam bowler to a spinner, who toiled away for 10 years before finally getting selected.

The flashback of the journey that I had been on to get to that point in time, and the accomplishment around that and how big that was for a young immigrant kid to come up from where we started, to be able to get to a position to play for New Zealand, that's what made it all hit me.

If you go out on a Saturday and go to any cricket park, you will see about 60 percent of the people out there are of Asian decent.

When I think about how many people are passionate about the game in this country, to not only represent them, but also those Asian players - that culture and that tradition - that is something that I hold dear to my heart.

In life, adversity is a given. But it's about confronting it in the right way.

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 10-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.

This article first appeared on the After the Whistle website, where New Zealand sportspeople share their stories.

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