Snubbed, but wily Ashwin keeps turning pages — and records

Snubbed, but wily Ashwin keeps turning pages — and records

August through October 2021 has to be the most demanding phase of R Ashwin’s international career. During that three-month period, he was benched for all four of India’s Tests in England and, despite making a return to the 20-over international side after four years, sidelined for crunch ties against Pakistan and New Zealand at the T20 World Cup.

The Ashwin of an earlier vintage might have reacted differently, with angst and scarcely concealed sarcasm. He would have said something in haste and may – or may not have, actually – repented at leisure. But the Ashwin of today is more philosophical, more self-contained, at least on the outside, and has taken the blows with equanimity and poise.

November, though, has a dream month for the champion off-spinner. True, it didn’t end in a blaze of collective glory, what with a spirited rearguard act from New Zealand denying India victory in the first Test in Kanpur on Monday. But at an individual level, Ashwin has reinforced his credentials – how lame does that sound? – in both white and red-ball cricket with an authority and a naturalness that doesn’t come to many.

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Since his comeback to T20 internationals in the league clash against Afghanistan on November 3, the 35-year-old has combined figures of nine for 105 from 20 overs in five matches. That translates to an economy of a shade under five an over in a format where a market average – one of his preferred phrases – of seven is excellent, an average of fewer than 12 and a strike-rate of 13.33, which means he picks up a wicket every 13 deliveries. Hard to understand what this man was doing on the outer for so long, right?

Ashwin’s exile from white-ball internationals between June 2017 and October 2021 can be attributed to the management group of captain Virat Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri plumping for ‘more attacking’ wrist spin options in Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav with an eye on the middle overs. An experiment that worked well in the early stages ran out of steam by the time of the 50-over World Cup in England two-and-a-half years ago. Intriguingly, neither Chahal nor Kuldeep figured in the T20 World Cup squad, though Ashwin’s resurgence was sparked as much by the injury that kept Washington Sundar out as the alarming lack of off-spin options that confronted the national selectors.

Even Ashwin might have been taken by surprise at his T20 resurrection because at various stages, he seemed to have made peace with the fact that he might not play in the limited-overs formats again. What must have been particularly chastening was being overlooked for the Tests in England, a format he has repeatedly excelled in but where he seems unfairly put on trial, especially every time India play outside the sub-continent.

Visions of a grand tour of England loomed in June when, in singularly unhelpful conditions, Ashwin was India’s most attacking, incisive bowling cog in the World Test Championship final against New Zealand in Southampton. It wasn’t just the wickets he picked (four in the match) but the manner which catalysed the belief that he would be a major factor in India’s quest for their first series win in England in 14 years.

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Come the first Test in Nottingham, though, and Ashwin was dumped at the altar of team combination. Kohli and Shastri plumped for four pacers, Ravindra Jadeja the preferred solitary spinning choice not only because he was a more reliable defensive weapon but also owing to his much-improved batting with the added bonus of its left-handedness and the value he brings with his electric fielding. It wasn’t hard to see the logic behind Jadeja winning the nod ahead of Ashwin; what was hard to fathom was how in a matter of one Test, the skipper had veered from his proclamation at the WTC final that the three-pacer, two-spinner combo was India’s best bet to take 20 wickets in all conditions, against all opponents.

By the start of the England series, Ashwin had played 79 Tests and snaffled 413 wickets. Pause for a moment, let those numbers sink in. At the time, only 13 bowlers in the history of Test cricket had taken more wickets than him – he now has only 12 ahead of him, after going past fellow-offie Harbhajan Singh on Monday to become India’s third-highest wicket-taker, only behind Anil Kumble (619) and Kapil Dev (434). All other things being equal, it won’t be long before he eases past Kapil and numerically lies second to his idol and role model, the leg-spinner fellow-engineer from Karnataka.

A lesser man might have allowed the slight to get to him. He might have been broken by the repeated overlooking of his exceptional skills, his remarkable acumen, his versatility and commitment, his unquestioned status as one of the greatest bowlers to emerge from his country’s shores. He might have lost touch with reality, lapsed into self-pity, taken recourse to metaphorically lashing out at the world around him.

Not Ashwin. Not by a long stretch.

Ashwin has forever considered the cricket ground a stage for his innumerable innovations to enthrall and exhilarate. The practice grounds have been his fertile, anonymous laboratories where he has toiled away hours without end, honing an old skill, developing a new one, devising a third and all the while thinking of how to unearth a fourth. In a world where even celebrated performers are happy to stay enveloped in their comfort zones, Ashwin is an adventurist, a darer who invariably finds a way to make his dreams come true. He has steadfastly refused to allow himself to be shackled by the decisions of others, however debilitating to him they might be, his conviction of character compelling him to be himself and not what others expect him to be.

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Ashwin said he ‘felt absolutely nothing’ on displacing Harbhajan from the record books. That should be taken with a pinch of a salt, because it’s impossible not to cherish a milestone moment. But knowing him, he is already plotting a new chapter in Mumbai three days hence because that, of course, is what’s quintessential Ashwin.


Anil Kumble   619

Kapil Dev        434

R Ashwin        419

Harbhajan       417

Ishant Sharma  311

Zaheer Khan     311

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