Are India so blessed in the pace department that they can afford to leave out their most successful active Test bowler? Or are they so carried away by their pace riches that they don’t think twice before benching R. Ashwin, the off-spinner with 413 Test wickets to his name?
Cricket aficionados grappled with this conundrum once the playing 11 for the first Test against England was announced last week. Only six weeks previously, Ashwin had figured in the World Test Championship final against New Zealand in Southampton when India matched three quality quicks with two high-class spinners. At the time, Virat Kohli had categorically insisted that his attack, manned by Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja and Ashwin, was good enough to pick up 20 wickets anywhere in the world, every day. So much so, that even when the scheduled opening day was washed out and India had the opportunity to revise their composition ahead of the coin toss, they chose to keep faith in their 3-2 balance.
Ashwin had an excellent Test in challenging (for spinners) conditions, under overcast skies and on a grassy strip. Fifteen impeccable first-innings overs yielded 2 for 28. He was also the only wicket-taker during New Zealand’s chase, briefly throwing the game open with the scalps of left-handers Tom Latham and Devon Conway on his way to 2 for 17 from 10 probing, teasing, superbly strung-together overs.
The reward was swift. And brutal. As the visitors lined up for the first of five Tests against England in Nottingham, with the overhead and underfoot milieu not too dissimilar to what the south had thrown up a month-and-a-half previously, the crafty offie was given the heave-ho, making way for swing exponent Shardul Thakur. That left Jadeja as the lone spinning option, a call that divided opinion given which side of the Ashwin-Jadeja fence one was parked on. In reality, it wasn’t a contest between the spinners; it was more between a fourth seamer and a second spinner.
Fingers might have been pointed at Ashwin in the past for his efficacy, or lack thereof, on what are cutely labelled the SENA – South Africa, England, New Zealand, and Australia – countries. Understandably, he didn’t enjoy the same success as in the sub-continent, or even in the Caribbean where tracks had changed character for a while, but India hadn’t clearly delineated his role. No one was any wiser to whether Ashwin was an attacking choice or a holding bowler who kept one end tight, and gave the quicks breathing space and the luxury to be the battering rams.
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Since January 2018, when Bumrah made his Test breakthrough, Ashwin’s record away is anything but shabby. All his 12 appearances have come in SENA land, producing 43 wickets at 28.23. Given that he is often used in a defensive role, a strike-rate of 68.5 (balls per wicket) doesn’t compare too unfavourably with a corresponding career number of 52.4.
It has befuddled millions that India can even consider leaving Ashwin out, let alone actually sacrifice him in their new-found obsession with pace. As he has shown for nearly a decade now, the engineer-offie can be effective even in the absence of assistance from the surface. His skill set is highly advanced, he has the nous and guile to do batsmen in the air, and he is unafraid to change things up and tread on the path less travelled if that’s what it takes to hunt down batsmen.
Ashwin was an influential figure in India’s epochal campaign in Australia until a back injury kept him out of the humdinger of a decider in Brisbane. His trysts with Steve Smith, by a mile Australia’s best player, in the early part of the series, were the stuff of legend. He had the ball on a string and the champion bat by the short hairs, dismissing him for first-innings scores of 1 in Adelaide and 0 in Melbourne. He did so by having Smith caught close-in behind the stumps on the off-side and on, with subtle changes in release positions not readily noticeable to the naked eye. Such was Ashwin’s hold over one of the greatest batsmen of his generation, perhaps of all time, that Smith managed a frugal 10 runs in the first four innings of the series. The early taming of the unorthodox but uber-effective New South Welshman was a pivotal factor in the destination of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
It’s precisely this trait, the ability to raise his game against the very best, which dictates that Ashwin in his current avatar should start every Test. In an otherwise fragile, brittle England line-up, the one class act is the irrepressible Joe Root. In Nottingham, India’s quicker bowlers struggled to make a dent on Root, who was allowed to plonk his left foot down the track and drive mellifluously through the covers at will. If the game plan did involve short balls aimed at the skipper’s helmet/head, it certainly went unaddressed. The final-day washout notwithstanding, India would have been sitting on a 1-0 lead if they hadn’t allowed Root to get to scores of 64 (out of 183) and 109 (303). It’s possible that Ashwin might not have tasted success, but he would have at least offered a different, more potent challenge that would have necessitated greater circumspection.
Root, and his batting group, will be delighted if India continue to bench Ashwin. They face seam and swing day in and day out in domestic cricket, it’s the diet on which they are brought up. If you were to ask them who they’d rather prefer facing, Ashwin won’t be anywhere near the top of the list.
Thakur has been ruled out of the Lord’s Test, beginning today (August 12), with a hamstring injury. The forecast for the next five days in the English capital is for warm weather, which should facilitate the pitch drying up the deeper the match goes. Everything is crying out for an Ashwin return. But…