In a conversation with India’s fielding coach R Sridhar, Ravichandran Ashwin revealed that he was set to feature in the playing XI for the Lord’s Test, especially considering the heat wave in the country. However, it rained on his parade, which meant that his chances were folded as India went ahead with four pacers. Now that pertinently raised a question in the larger scheme of things – does the off-spinner get himself back on the playing XI before India take off from the English Channel?
As weird as it may sound in 2021, Ashwin’s appearance in an overseas Test is always determined by two things – his bowling averages in South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia (SENA) and his batting displays. While his bowling in the past has cost him a place, his batting in the recent years or rather, Ravindra Jadeja’s consistent show with the willow has tilted the selection in the left-arm spinner’s way.
It is definitely crazy how we are discussing the contention, in a year where Ashwin has continually broken multiple records, against Australia and England, away and at home. Not just that, over the two tours, the right-hander also earned his all-rounder tag back, on the back of his batting displays in Sydney and more notably, a century in Chennai, both against the odds.
So, what has forced Ashwin out of this playing XI? Well to simply put it in words, the conditions thus far in the Test series has been on the side of pace bowlers, with the pitches assisting them heavily, as England learnt the hard way.
The pace quartet – Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj – have ran riots against the English batting pack. More than just the riot part, they have made their presence felt all over the pitch, with the bat and the ball, into the ears and off the mouths. While physically their impacts are vividly visible, mentally they have scarred the hosts with their impeccable channels.
Pitches and conditions are not the only things that have hurt the off-spinner, the presence of Ravindra Jadeja – as the all-rounder – has definitely played a loud role in the 34-year-old staying on the bench. Jadeja has the third-best average for batting positions 6-9, from 2018, with 848 runs in 24 innings at an average of 49.88, with just one duck. During the same phase, Ashwin, who is in contention has scored just 422 runs, at an average of 19.18, which made it tough for the off-spinner to feature in conditions that are not tailor-made for the slow bowlers.
But amidst all of this stacked against the off-spinner, does he realistically get a look-in at some point in the series?
With the last three Tests of the series being at Headingley, The Oval and the Old Trafford, there exists a brilliant opportunity for Ashwin to weave his magic on the world stage. While Headingley is known to be another fast-bowler paradise, the fact that there is a long break in between the second and third Test rules the off-spinner out of the equation.
But it is pertinent to know that Ashwin has in the past weaved his magic in England, not just on the County level but also at the Test level, with the national team. The Three Lions are his second favourite side in Test cricket, with 88 of his 413 victims being English players, at an astonishing average of 28.59.
It isn’t too different at home, at 27.77, which suggests that he is as good as it gets with or without the conditions. In the past, with Ashwin, it might have been the favourable conditions debate that had aided his selection but in 2021, the off-spinner has shown that he isn’t most definitely a spinner who can only turn it in Asia.
The SENA question that surrounds Ashwin
Since 2017, in SENA countries, only Nathan Lyon and Keshav Maharaj have more wickets than Ashwin and naturally, at their own home conditions. 82 of Lyon’s 112 wickets have come in Australia, with all of 45 wickets for Maharaj coming in South Africa. That distinctively shows that Ashwin has been a rather different beast, in conditions away from home, where very often teams have prepared a distinctively distinguishable wicket for the visitors.
In England, barring Nathan Lyon, no away spinner has picked more wickets than Ashwin, with 15 wickets in comparison to Lyon’s 20. The Indian off-spinner’s average (27) is substantially the best average for all spinners who have played a minimum of at least five Tests since 2017. Not just that, the 34-year-old’s experience on the county circuit, with Surrey, Nottinghamshire and Worcestershire definitely makes a case for his inclusion.
41 wickets in the last two editions of the County Championship – Ashwin ranks as one of best operators of spin bowling in England, all down to his mind more than body. Rewind the clock to 2020, the place – Australia and the Test – Adelaide. In those conditions with the pink ball in play, the Test was always going to be tilted towards the pacers but Ashwin made a startling difference.
He operated not only on the conditions, the batsmen but used his mind to a greater use – the reflection of science in cricket. Ashwin not just used his variations but used the bowling crease to a greater advantage, deceiving batsmen using his angles and drift, something that he had openly discussed during the home series against England.
“Every load-up gives a different result in terms of which way the pitch is behaving. I try and load up differently, use the breeze, use different angles to release the ball, speed of the run-up. This is working because I have created this awareness for myself,” he said after India’s win over England in the second Test in Chennai.
It was vividly visible during the Test, when he setup Stokes’ brilliantly, with a wide range of variations that altered in line, length and most importantly, pace. With the conditions in both The Oval and Manchester likely to aid spinners and with India having a great chance at resting their all-format players, like Bumrah and Shami – there exists a real possibility that Ashwin will feature in at least one of the series remainder.