Just before tea, Ravichandran Ashwin found something amusing in the stands and immediately put this to Ravindra Jadeja’s notice, before they began rolling over in laughter. It was a rare instance of the pair sharing a light moment together on the ground, or revelling in something trivial. One often finds Jadeja at the end of some prank, chattering and bantering around, but the off-spinner is often lost in his own world, preoccupied with his bowling.
Even off the field, they have different tastes. Ashwin is an academic, a bibliophile hooked to music and web series, when not thinking of the game. Jadeja is a more outdoor guy. He likes his horses, bikes and pets. The dissimilar interests have ensured they don’t hang out together unless it’s a team function. On the field too, there isn’t a brimming fraternal bond — the discussions are often serious, game-specific. Theirs seems to be a more occupational bonding.
Maybe, it’s about perceptions. They’re always pitted against each other, compared and contrasted, from their craft and wickets to averages and traits. It never existed between Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, because Harbhajan, because of the age disparity, was always considered an understudy.
Back in the day, most of the fabled spin quartet played most games together. So there wasn’t scope for minute comparisons. But here, the two are contemporaries, competent lower-order hands and masterful craftsmen, leaving effectively little to choose between them.
The comparisons scuttle along, more so in the backdrop of Virat Kohli stating that Jadeja is his first-choice spinner overseas. Their mutual competitiveness makes for a riveting watch. Like it has been this series, where Ashwin has been perceptibly a notch above Jadeja.
The clear difference between the pair — other than the strike rate and average— has been the threat they exuded. Ashwin was Kohli’s go-to man, whether to break a partnership, venture for the kill, or stem the run-flow, with the new ball or old, on the first session of the day or the last. Jadeja was more of a tying-an-end up operator, which he does even when he’s not at his best.
It can be argued that pitches weren’t of the Jadeja kind — slow turners rather than breaking ones, the ones that grip, wherein he can scythe through opponents. It was a trifle slow for his liking. It’s where Ashwin sneaked ahead, in his ability to purchase wickets on unresponsive wickets, like it was in both Vizag and Pune. It’s because he had a better range of tools to take the pitch out the equation — variations, drift, flight, loop, speed — and a mind that’s constantly ticking over. Much has been written about those gifts, but Ashwin prompts frequent retelling. In Pune, he relied on old-fashioned off-spin bowling, looking to beat the batsman in the air and in the turn, keeping him guessing with natural variation or the one that doesn’t turn as much as the batsman expects.
Sometimes, he goes even subtler — like trying different wrist-loading positions. Some are at 180 degrees, sometimes 90. It’s how he controls the drift.
The 180-degrees drift more than the those at 90 degrees. He gets the control from his dexterous wrists. Sometimes he hurries through the action, sometimes slows it down. He uses different grips too — seam pointing down the wicket for the arm ball, or over-spinner, seam pointing at an angle for the standard off-break and the middle finger tucked behind the ball for the carrom ball. All of it creates a mirage for the batsman.
Like he did to Quinton de Kock in the first innings, when he ran faster into the action, lulling him to assume that he would be countering a full, fast-ish slider. Rather it was a good length ball that hung in the air and spat off the surface. It curved and dipped, humming with the spin imparted, homing on middle and off before stealing past the outside edge to dislodge the off-bail.
But it would be his continuous mastery over Faf du Plessis, the most experienced South African batsman, that would please him more. It was less exciting but more cerebral. In the first innings, the Proteas skipper played inside the line and edged to first slip. In the second, probably expecting a similar one, Faf played outside the line, only for the ball to deviate marginally more this time, and brushed his inside edge. Identical deliveries taking both edges, nothing would please a bowler more.
Ashwin specialises in taking the most important wicket, which makes him a captain’s dream. Against Sri Lanka, he nailed Kumar Sangakkara four times in six innings, he was Kane Williamson’s nemesis in the 2017 series, he has consumed Alastair Cook eight times in 12 matches and David Warner nine times in 14 games. It hasn’t escaped his notice, and he explained the rationale: “Against the best players, you naturally will be sharper and more pumped up to be extra brilliant.” its the gist of Ashwin-Jadeja competition.