Much like the Sri Lanka seam bowler, the New Zealand spinner is a second-class citizen. If you’re not bowling with the seam upright and at at least 120kph, the place is practically designed to make you feel insecure.
Early in the summer, pitches can be virtually indistinguishable from the outfield. In the stereotype of New Zealand, cows and sheep in neighbouring paddocks line up at edge of grounds and bleat longingly at the unused grazing opportunity that is the pitch block. A specialist spinner may sometimes not get a game at all, but if he does, he will be subjected to the gross indignity commonly known as the token “over before lunch”. This is the practice wherein a spinner is granted the final over of the session, to get it over with quickly, while all his teammates have switched off and begun thinking about food.
Over the last 15 years, there has been an attempt to make New Zealand domestic pitches less seam-friendly, but this has only helped breed properly quick bowlers – Adam Milne, Lockie Ferguson, etc – instead of the military-medium operators New Zealand used to be infamous for. No Test spinner has made a serious attempt to pick up the retired Daniel Vettori’s slack. Partly as a result, New Zealand’s Test pitches are as lush as ever. If you’ve got Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner in your ranks – i.e. the greatest pace attack New Zealand have ever likely assembled – why prepare anything else?
So imagine you’re Ajaz Patel. Yes, you have a good haul of domestic five-fors, but you’re also nursing a first-class bowling average over 31. Which, you know, are the kinds of numbers a Sri Lankan spinner (operating on domestic dustbowls) could put up if he bowled with his off-hand while balancing a kit bag on his head. You’re sent to Asia, given precious little time to acclimatise (the modern international schedule is unforgiving), and expected to essentially lead the attack. But, incredibly, for the second time in two Asian tours, Ajaz is doing it in remarkable style.
“He looked to attack the sticks and keep them in play the whole time, and allow the batters to make decisions around off stump”
Ajaz Patel on Rangana Herath
His performance on debut in Abu Dhabi – the best Test of 2018 – was extraordinary. He had claimed 2 for 64 in the first innings, which is a middling return. But then when faced with defending a low score in the fourth innings, on a track that is taking turn (i.e. exactly the type of situation when the great spinners distinguish themselves from the mediocre ones), Ajaz took 5 for 59 – trapping Imam-ul-Haq in front, having Sarfaraz Ahmed caught behind, before spectacularly clinching victory with Pakistan needing only four to draw level by getting Azhar Ali lbw on 65. He would go on to play a strong role in New Zealand’s second win of that series as well, and finished with 13 wickets for the tour.
And then he went home. He took no wickets for 60 on a greentop that turned into a road in Wellington. He bowled only 12 overs on another seaming deck in Christchurch. Then he went unrequired for the rest of the Test season.
Now, in Galle, the pitch of a spinner’s dreams laid out before him, Ajaz has made big moves in a Test again. He was too quick through the air to begin with, by his own admission, but quickly discerned the appropriate pace, and soon was gaining wicked turn. Crucially, he wasn’t so enamoured of the rip he was getting off the surface, that he began to chase those magic pitch-on-leg-hit-top-of-off type balls. Instead, bowling those Herathian lengths, slipping in the occasional quicker one in Herathian fashion – though, of course, looking cooler than Herath, shades on, beard in a state of manly fullness – he set Sri Lanka’s dramatic middle-order nosedive in motion, and finished with 5 for 76 for the day.
At stumps, he gave the most Herathian summary of his bowling he could possibly have given. “I think with surfaces that offer you something, you’ve got to stay patient and ask good questions of the batsman,” he said. “We know Sri Lankans are good players of spin, so you’ve got to respect that and make sure you put balls in good areas for long periods.”
This should come as no surprise to anyone who watched him bowl today, but it turns out he has in fact intentionally taken cues from the great old waddler himself. “Bowling in the UAE there was a lot more bounce. Over here there’s not so much bounce, so you try and keep the stumps in play,” he said. “One of the greats, Rangana, who has got 100  wickets in Galle – if you see the template that he set out when bowling on this wicket, he looked to attack the sticks and keep them in play the whole time, and allow the batters to make decisions around off stump. You’ve got to keep hanging in and play the long game.”
Sri Lanka are not bowled out yet, so it is possible they will establish a first-innings lead. A slim one might not help them much, though – the highest successful fourth-innings chase at Galle remains 99. So long as New Zealand bat competently in the second innings, they will feel the more comfortable side. If they win a third successive Test in Asia in four attempts, they might reflect on the period either side of tea on day two as the definitive passage of play. Sri Lanka had a big lead in sight at 143 for 2. Then Ajaz, doing his Herath impression, took three wickets for ten runs. He changed the outlook of the game.