“It [last 2-3 months] has been a fairytale because when I started the Aussie tour I didn’t expect to be playing in the XI because Jadeja was looking like he was going to start and he got a hamstring tear and since then things have just looked upwards.”
This was Ravi Ashwin with an honest outpour of emotions after he became the second-fastest cricketer to 400 Test wickets. He is the fastest Indian to reach every multiple of 50 Test wickets. And yet his acceptance of not being the preferred spinner to start the Australia tour is not a surprise.
For years, Ashwin was a home track bully. The best of pacers take a wicket every 50-55 balls. Great spinners have this number in the early 60s. Ashwin’s balls per wicket at home is an envious 48.3.
Ashwin struggled when he went on his initial tours to SENA* countries. Till 2014, he averaged 104.3 balls per wicket in these countries. Since he made his name in the IPL, the opinion about him was of being a thinking cricketer. His oratory skills as good as his bowling added to this reputation. A tendency to overuse his variations to outfox the batsmen were often pinned as a reason for his failure in non-friendly conditions.
In 2018, India travelled to these countries except New Zealand. Ashwin was a more mature cricketer by then. Thus, the numbers improved. The wickets came at every 75.8 balls. Not exceptional but it cost him 30.2 runs per wicket. He was keeping things tight from one end.
The issue that surfaced in these later tours was Ashwin’s fitness. Moeen Ali bowled England to victory in the fourth Test in 2018. Ashwin was visibly struggling with his fitness to get the same purchase. He could not last the full Australia tour later that year. Kuldeep Yadav, playing the fourth Test at Sydney, ended up with a five-wicket haul. In reference to Kuldeep’s performance and Ashwin’s fitness, India’s head coach, Ravi Shastri, made Ashwin’s position in the side clear. “There is a time for everyone. But now Kuldeep is our frontline number one overseas spinner”.
Kuldeep lost form and confidence in the IPL. As it often happens, it also resulted in him losing his place in the Test side. Meanwhile, Ravi Jadeja took giant strides with the bat and ball. He was India’s number one spinner soon.
As Ashwin informs, Shastri and Virat Kohli saw something in his bowling ahead of the Australia tour that looked special. During the lockdown, he shed 7-8 kgs while reassuring himself that whenever cricket resumes, he will be playing a crucial part.
Whatever Ashwin did when the world was behind closed doors breathed air into his career. When the series was all-square at 1-1 after the MCG Test, Ashwin and Pat Cummins were leading at 10 wickets apiece. Ashwin took those wickets at an economy better than Cummins or anyone else. He was not only taking wickets but proved difficult to score against as well.
At the beginning of the Test Series, Ashwin was at 365 wickets while Nathan Lyon was at 390. They are at 400 and 399 respectively as you read this. Ashwin out-bowled the opposition’s off-spinner. He was now performing overseas too.
Ashwin started his career as a batsman for his state side. He lost touch with that craft in recent years. While people were offering advice on batting, he just needed confirmation that he could bat well. His captain and coach provided that. Ashwin ended his century drought in the second Test against England. But, he laid the foundation of that knock against Australia in the third Test at the SCG. “It is all the self-belief I had over the lockdown that is paying me rich dividends right now I reckon”. Ashwin said about his recent success.
In the history of Test cricket, no other bowler has dismissed left-handers as many times as Ashwin (205). On the eve of him becoming the first bowler to dismiss 200 lefties, Ashwin spoke about his method. “Obviously the ball turning away from the left-hander is one very big advantage when it comes to offspinners. To me over the years, left-hand batsmen have tended to receive a lot of bowling from round the stumps. One thing I have learned and got better at is varying the seam position, the point where I use the crease, going wide on the box or as close as possible. Also, change over the stumps. That is one angle I have used effectively recently."
Usually, it is the pacers who use the seam to get movement in the air. But, there is nothing in the rule book that stops spinners to do so as well. Ashwin’s use of seam position to get generate drift is an added weapon in recent years. Alastair Cook’s dismissal to Ryan Harris in Perth during the Ashes 2013/14 is one for the ages. His twin dismissals to Ashwin at Edgbaston in 2017 are not far behind.
Ashwin takes out left-handers on toast. Doubters can have a debate with Ben Stokes. But, in the two recent series, Ashwin’s performance against the right-handers has proven to be series-defining. Steve Smith averaged 278.5 against off-spinners at home before the series against India. He averaged 21.3 after three dismissals against Ashwin. Left-handers were still walking wickets against him but he is now beating the right-handers on both sides of edges as well.
The pitch in Ahmedabad for the day-night Test has the ex-English captains divided. 21 out of 30 wickets fell to the ball that did not turn. But, some still found the pitch substandard. However, others including Joe Root himself felt that England handed the initiative to India when they went from 74 for two to 112 all-out in the first innings.
Axar Patel bagged 11 wickets in the Test. But, it was Ashwin who broke the Test open for India. After Root scored hundreds for fun against Sri Lanka, his father spoke about his early years in their backyard. Even as a kid, his father Matt had to bowl really full to force him to come forward. Ashwin exploited Root’s stubbornness to stay on the backfoot. In the 22nd over of the innings, Ashwin bowled three balls at a good length to Root, testing both sides of the edge. Root played them all off the backfoot. The fourth one was at the same length but had more air and less dip. Root played back when he should have been forward. The best batsmen in the opposition in the last two series have been right-handers. Ashwin neutralized both of them in crunch moments.
At 34, most bowlers might start descending from their crest. Ashwin is here for the long haul. “One thing is for sure, I have always looked to improve and every time I have thought I have bowled well, I have always found another gear. I wouldn’t be surprised if I surprise myself in the future as well”. All of us are waiting with popcorn tubs filled to the brim.