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As Kiwis turn to Indian spin, Mumbai welcomes home Ajaz Patel and Rachin Ravindra

New Zealand's Ajaz Patel and Rachin Ravindra, both in their first year of Test cricket, will see a homecoming like no other when they come to Mumbai for the Test match.

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If you haven’t lived in Mumbai, you won’t quite get it. If you have, you can’t ever get over it.

It is a city that has more heart and soul per square foot than space for feet. Its train commute sucks the breath away from your compressed lungs while its warm embrace fills you with hope and endless possibilities. Just as the city’s relentless demands threaten to suck your resolve dry, the breaking monsoon waves on Marine Drive drench you with exhilaration.

And then it finds out you have a thing for cricket.

Azad. Oval. Shivaji. Or a thousand other maidans. Just walk onto one and a game will find you. There is always room for one more player, space for one more match, a vantage point for one more lover of the sport. With that step, you have crossed the rubicon, the point of no return. London may engage you, New York may intoxicate you, but Mumbai will always own you.

Cricket in Mumbai makes friends of strangers, binds millionaires to the destitute, creates Tendulkars out of tiny tots with outsized bats and overpowering dreams, and transforms friendlies in gullys to World Cups at the Wankhede.

Also read: India’s red-ball woes against New Zealand continue as Rachin Ravindra’s dogged resistance forces draw

Kiwis turn to Indian spin

Such is the city to which a flight from Kanpur will deliver two Kiwis — one who took his first steps on the very soil that Mumba Devi blessed, and another whose parents named him after the city’s greatest cricketing son.

Ajaz Patel and Rachin Ravindra, both in their first year of Test cricket, the latter making his debut in the current India-New Zealand Test match, held fort for 91 interminably long deliveries against the wiles of their fellow tweakers (who just happened to be their namesakes), with their team nine wickets down. The two boys stood on the steadily burning Kiwi deck at the Green Park in Kanpur, long after hope had fled Captain Kane Williamson’s stoic face. Their obduracy lasted long enough to get the boat safely to the shore.

A visibly relieved Ravindra admitted after the stonewalling: “It was quite nerve-wrecking. I guess we somehow managed our nerves together. It’s a moment I will never forget.” The two bravehearts could not change the fact that the Kiwi couldn’t fly, but they ensured neither would the Indian flag of victory.

Ajaz Patel was born in Mumbai and grew up in the city until his parents moved to New Zealand with the eight-year-old. He dreamt of being a left-arm pace bowler but realised quickly that his 5’6” frame was more suited to emulating the magic of Bishan Bedi’s fingers than delivering the trademark yorkers of Zaheer Khan.

Before the tour began, 33-year old Patel had never played in India as a professional cricketer. His pre-tour interview signaled his excitement at returning to his land of birth as a purveyor of its most admired craft: “India is India, you’ve got to experience it. It’s one of those places which words can’t describe.” If he picks up a few Indian scalps at the very stadium where he saw his first Test match as a wide-eyed young boy, it will indeed have been an experience for the ages – for him and his adopted countrymen.

Trundling in at the other end of the 22-yards will be Rachin Ravindra. The 22-year-old cannot lay claim to origins in the Maximum City (his parents hail from Bengaluru), but his cricketing connection to the land of his forefathers rests deeper than his spin partner’s.

Also read: Sachin Tendulkar + Rahul Dravid equals New Zealand’s latest cricket debutant, Rachin Ravindra

Rachin (Rahul-Sachin) Ravindra is named after two of Indian cricket’s most celebrated sons. As a spinner, he may not have set Kanpur alight, but his effort with the bat would surely have brought an appreciative smile from the two greats whose combined names adorn his birth certificate. Understandably, the one from the Wall in the opposition dressing room at the Green Park would also have reflected despair in equal measure.

Unlike Patel, Ravindra is a man familiar with Indian pitches. He has spent many months of his young life playing cricket for his techie father Ravi Krishnamurthy’s specially constituted off-season touring squad – Hutt Hawks Club – that visits India every year to give experience to age-group cricketers from New Zealand. The squad has been training for the past four summers (Kiwi winters) at the Rural Development Trust at Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh and has given valuable experience to not just Rachin, but also players like Jimmy Neesham and Tom Blundell, two key personnel for the world-beating Kiwi sides of today.

New Zealand has had top-quality spinners in the past like Dipak Patel and Daniel Vettori, who have played important roles in previous tours of India. But reflective of their newly minted confidence as the World Test Champions, is the fact that not only for the first time in their history have the selectors have picked five tweakers for a Test series abroad, but at Kanpur, they played three of them.

Also read: How spin kings India became a pace cavalry: Data shows Gabba, Oval miracles a decade in making

A homecoming at Mumbai

Notwithstanding the brave last-wicket stand from the Indian spin-twins adorned in Kiwi feather, one might argue that Ajinkya Rahane’s defensive and unimaginative captaincy at Kanpur allowed them to get away with a draw. This is a two-Test series and returning Indian captain Virat Kohli, smarting from the loss at the World Test Championship final and the recent embarrassment at the World T20 to Kane Williamson’s side, will be keen to turn the tables. With the world’s leading spinner Ravichandran Ashwin at India’s disposal, complemented superbly by the duo of Axar Patel and Ravindra Jadeja, it would be no surprise if the track at the Wankhede were to turn from Day 1.

Kane Williamson will be well aware of this, and it should surprise no one if an unchanged Kiwi eleven shows up in Mumbai. If this is indeed the case, the vociferous North Stand at the Wankhede, known for their partiality to anything connected to their hero Sachin, will reserve the power of their vocal cords not just for cheering the Indian heroes. Every time the ball is thrown to Rachin Ravindra or Ajaz Patel, the noise cloud rising from the stand will be enough to damage the delicate ears of unwary spectators sitting nearby and television viewers around the world.

Whatever the result of the match, the duo will never have felt more at home than they will over the next five days at the Wankhede. It won’t just be because the Kiwis have turned to Indian spin, but it will be for a homecoming like no other, the cheers of Mumbai calling Mumbai.

Anindya Dutta @Cric_Writer is a sports columnist and author of Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling, and Advantage India: The Story of Indian Tennis. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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