Sidharth Monga in Adelaide
In common perception, R Ashwin carries arguably the most equivocal record for somebody with such great numbers. He has played only 64 Tests, and already has more Man-of-the-Series awards than any other India player. Only five players in the history of the game have more series awards. He is the fastest man in the world to 250 and 300 Test wickets, and is in a photo-finish for the 350 mark. If he takes 11 more wickets by the time Perth is done, he will be the joint-fastest with Muttiah Muralitharan.
Yet few players have to bear with an asterisk next to their name as big as Ashwin has to. And it all comes down to away performances. Not just away performances, but performances outside Asia and the West Indies. Not just performances, but also perceptions.
“I don’t care, it was his job to win India the Wanderers Test of 2013-14,” it is said of the epic fourth innings from South Africa where the hosts smacked 450 for 7 in the drawn encounter. His record in Australia – a bowling average in the mid-50s – is brought up. The record of other offspinners in Australia is forgotten: Muralitharan, Harbhajan Singh and Moeen Ali have much worse numbers in Australia, Graeme Swann and Sonny Ramadhin marginally better.
Ashwin was even asked at the press conference about the difference between his previous tours to Australia and now. It was said the batsmen were hitting him out of the attack on earlier tours. Ashwin has hardly ever been hit out of the attack in Australia even though he couldn’t get the wickets, but that is the perception he has to live with. Ashwin’s economy rate in Australia stands at 3.21, much better than other Indian bowlers. In 2011-12, for example, he bowled an unbroken 25-over spell in Adelaide. Perception and numbers mix to become the big asterisk. A lot of it doesn’t involve an understanding of conditions and match situations.
Ashwin is also compared unfavourably against Moeen and Nathan Lyon in these conditions. They are two completely different bowlers, and only recently has Ashwin begun to have the advantage the other two offspinners do: a complete attack that builds the pressure up from the other end. The Southampton Test – where Ashwin had match figures of 3-142 – will be brought up again, but the fact remains that Ashwin wasn’t fully fit and the decision to play him was taken by the team management in full knowledge of that condition.
So Ashwin came to Adelaide – a venue where he was dropped on the last tour and in whose indoor nets he rediscovered his bowling – with a cloud hanging over him. On the second morning, after having scored 250, thanks in part to a handy 25, Ashwin scored in partnership with Cheteshwar Pujara, India were entering the period where batting became easier on day two too.
The ball was 20-overs old, Mohammed Shami had had a shoulder scare, the sun was beating down, there was no fifth bowler in the side, and India badly needed to retain the tight hold they had had on the scoring. The bowling had not been as aggressive as Australia’s. India hadn’t tested Australia on the drive. The runs had been kept down, though. A big session and a half awaited India. This is when Ashwin began his sixth over. Marcus Harris had been trying to hit him off his rhythm: two mis-hits and one clean one had brought him eight runs.
Now Ashwin bowled slightly quicker, got the ball to drift late, made Harris adjust to a line different to what he had set up for, got the bat-pad catch, and India had an opening back into the game. There was an acknowledgement from the batsman who got out. Now Harris has played a lot of Lyon, arguably the best offspinner to have bowled in Australia. “I’ve faced Nath a lot, and he’s pretty good,” Harris said. “I thought Ashwin bowled really well, mixed up his pace a lot, bowled a few different variations with side spin and over spin. He was hard to score off, and Virat set some really good fields.”
Ashwin has reached a stature to get his own fields so it was more like he was bowling excellently to his own fields. For most of the time, he bowled 7-2 off-side fields to Harris and Usman Khawaja. The only single available to them was down to long-off or a bad ball either on the pads or too short. Those balls rarely arrived.
One big difference, Ashwin says, over his three tours to Australia has been to realise what pace to bowl here. “First time when I came here, in 2011,” Ashwin said, “Michael Clarke kept driving me through the covers a lot. I was a bit inexperienced and kept tossing the ball up. Obviously, that’s where you learn from burning your fingers once.”
Cricviz data backs it up. On this tour, only 54% of Ashwin’s deliveries have been slower than 87ks as against 75% on the previous tour. And then there has been the mastery of the drift.
“Look, to be very precise there is not a lot happening off the straight, or fizzing through, nothing like that,” Ashwin said. “I was getting drift both ways, in and out, and I was able to control both that drift and get the batsmen holding their feet inside the stump and outside the stump and hence hold them. That’s how we got Khawaja out and Marsh out as well. That’s something that really worked in my favour today because of the drift, the ball going away and coming back in. It happens in Melbourne too. So I am backing on that to give me some really good results.”
These are two great offspinners we are witnessing. One relies on the energy into the ball and the overspin for the bounce, the other on subtler variations of pace and release. We should be able to enjoy both.
Ashwin bowled a 22-over unbroken spell in the hottest part of the day, for just 38 runs and three wickets, allowing the fast bowlers to have short sharp bursts from the other end. The fast bowlers kept the pressure up, making this a perfectly symbiotic relationship. The work is not done yet, but the chances of this job not getting completed are less. Earlier in the year, when India have failed to finish the opposition off, it has been after losing the toss, which means the opposition has not been under the pressure of the scoreboard and the fourth-innings chase. They have both these factors going for them now. Australia’s batting is weakened too.
Despite some poor batting on day one, India are currently in a superb position thanks to Pujara and the bowlers. Among them, Ashwin might just have made the most significant contribution at the most difficult time.