As the spinning ball found the tiniest of gap between Vernon Philander’s driving bat and his pads to thump into the top of the middle stump, Ravichandran Ashwin clapped in glee. Not one for vociferous celebrations, the Tamil Nadu cricketer whipped out his classic fist pump – no, not the in-your-face kind – as he acknowledged his teammates around.
His 27th five-wicket haul in the Test circuit had taken a while coming – two years two months and 29 days to be precise – during which his presence in the side, his future as a player and his compatibility with skipper Virat Kohli was constantly questioned.
Only in the presser after the day’s play, did the offie allow hints of emotion to seep through, as he fielded questions on his life away from the national team in the last few months. Ignored for most parts of the team’s overseas cycle, the most successful bowler for India in this decade took a break from watching cricket on TV, with the hurt cutting deep into his mind.
“To stay away from cricket itself was very tough for me. I've literally stopped reading about the game like I used to do in the past. In as much as you want to know stuff, you want to watch the game. There was a phase where I stopped watching cricket. I just wanted to play.”
Cast Aside, Only to Return Stronger
Need to break a frustrating partnership? Turn to Ashwin. Need an extra batter who will pitch in with runs down the order? Turn to Ashwin. Want early wickets with the new ball? Turn to Ashwin.
The man for all seasons, Ashwin has played a massive role in his side’s leap to the top in the Test rankings.
Of his 350 scalps, 248 have come in wins – a whopping 70.85 percent.
In victories at home, the cricketer has snared 203 victims, second most after Anil Kumble overall, and the highest in the last decade. But while his spot in the playing XI in India was never in doubt, it was his performance overseas and his dismal figures outside Asia that proved to be his Achilles Heel.
Ashwin’s Achilles Heel
In South Africa, he averages a little over 46. In England, 32.92. In Australia, his average nears 50 with the ball, and though in West Indies, his average is an impressive 23.17, his fitness and his form over the last 12 months meant that Ashwin was not a starter as India toured the Caribbean Islands this August.
Since the Jo’berg Test last year that India won, the 33-year old has missed seven Tests that India have played in, only three of them to injury.
His exclusion from the final game in Australia earlier this year was the most curious of the lot. A day before the game at Sydney, Kohli had announced that Ashwin had been ruled out due to an injury, only to have his name enlisted in the 13-man squad just two hours later. Though the Tamil Nadu cricketer was seen rolling his arm over in the nets, five-match-old Kuldeep Yadav was given the go-ahead over him instead. Yadav returned with a five-wicket haul.
In February this year, coach Ravi Shastri went on record to say, “Already! He (Yadav) plays overseas Test cricket and he gets five wickets, so he becomes our primary overseas spinner. Going ahead, if we have to play one spinner, he is the one we will pick. There is a time for everyone (referring to Ashwin’s poor fitness record in 2018). But now Kuldeep is our frontline number one overseas spinner,” the coach said.
Here to Win Games, Not Hearts
The words would have stung. A bowler with a big heart, Ashwin has often earned criticism for his frank views and his nonchalance – displayed ever so glaringly when he ‘Mankaded’ Jos Buttler in the IPL this year. With Indian cricketers often staying away from such controversial dismissals – remember, when MS Dhoni had recalled Ian Bell despite running him out in the disastrous England series in 2011? – Ashwin rigidly defended his act, calling it within the laws of the game. It certainly was.
While his firm stance did not go down with many, what it also displayed was his innate hunger and his no-nonsense attitude when it came to his cricket. He was here to win games, not hearts. He was here to leave his mark, even if it would mean going back to domestic cricket to get a place back in the side.
He participated in the TNPL, when many others of his calibre would rather opt out. To hone his skills abroad, he joined county team Nottinghamshire, where he picked up 23 wickets at an impressive average of just under 20 and also scored 197 runs in just three games. He worked on producing “that ball”, the kind the best of bowlers have in their arsenal when facing stubborn resistance. Often, Ashwin had been accused of running through sides when things were going his way, but lacked the ability to raise his game when they weren’t.
In 2013, he had bowled 46 overs at Johannesburg for no wicket, even when there was considerable spin. The next year, he went wicketless at Manchester, and failed to perform consistently against Australia Down Under later that year, ending with just 12 wickets in a series where his counterpart Nathan Lyon picked 23.
Last year as well, his inability to run through the England line-up on a Southampton track where Moeen Ali, a part-timer, thrived, raised eyebrows over his effectiveness. Acknowledging his drawbacks, Ashwin returned with a unique action in the TNPL, with his non-bowling arm remaining unmoved as he completed his run-up by releasing the ball on his left foot.
Another setback came his way when he was not picked for even a single game against Windies this year, with Ravindra Jadeja being preferred over him. Vice-Captain Ajinkya Rahane credited Jadeja’s skills with the bat for the decision, surprising considering that Ashwin is no fluke with the bat either.
Ahead of the first Test against South Africa, Kohli had no answer to a journalist’s query on whether Ashwin was the number one spinner for the side at home. The onus, then, was on the latter to flourish at Vizag; to stake a claim to the spot that was rightfully his.
He went on to do just that.
In the first innings, on a track that was not doing much, Ashwin was unrelenting as he kept probing the Proteas with clever variations. Faf du Plessis, who was dancing down the track at will, was undone by a slower one.
Quinton de Kock, using his feet to take the rough out of the equation, perished after an arm ball from Ashwin broke his defence. Earlier, he had picked up Aiden Markram with an offie’s delight as the ball spun and dipped. Theunis de Bruyn was sent back after Ashwin enticed him to drive; the spinner ripped through the tail, ending with a seven-wicket haul.
In the next essay, he got to 350 scalps in only his 66th game, the fastest to the feat with Muttiah Muralitharan. There was no vociferous celebration, just his classic fist pump and a silent smile as he acknowledged his teammates around. The only addition was a sigh of relief. He was back.
(Sarah Waris is a postgraduate in English Literature has taken on the tough task of limiting the mystic world of cricket to a few hundred words.)
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