The interval between victory at Lord’s and the third Test at Leeds is a good time to argue for Ravichandran Ashwin’s play. In the wake of a win produced by a four-stage attack, it has the merit of going against Kohlian’s sanity.
The main argument for Ashwin is simple: he is the greatest spin bowler in the world. He was instrumental in India’s success in the home series against England and before that in their historic away win in Australia. In the World Test Championship final against New Zealand on a sailor-friendly pitch, he took two wickets for very few runs in both innings. Before the Test series began, he took five wickets in an inning for Surrey in a County Championship match. Whether the benchmark is career numbers, strike rate, recent test runs or current form in England conditions, he has an excellent track record.
The most telling general criticism of Ashwin is that his “away” numbers are inferior to his “home” record. This is true. In the six Tests he has played in England, he has taken 12 wickets at an average of 31 runs per wicket. In comparison, Ravindra Jadeja has taken 16 wickets in 7 Tests at an average of 48. Jadeja is more expensive and has a lower hitting percentage, but their bowling records in England are much better. Jadeja has overtaken Ashwin as a batsman in recent years and he is by far the better fielder.
However, it is worth remembering that as Jadeja the batter has improved, Jadeja the bowler has faded. Over the past two years, Jadeja has taken 29 wickets in 13 Test matches with a stroke rate of 69. Ashwin, over roughly the same length of time, has taken 71 wickets in fourteen Tests, a success rate of 46. In terms of their career records, Ashwin and Jadeja are similar creatures: bowling all-rounders. But seen through the lens of recent appearances, Jadeja plays to the strength of his punching power (Ravi Shastri redux?) while Ashwin has developed into a great bowler who can bat a bit. In the three Tests Jadeja has played in England this summer, his number of wickets per innings is: 1, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0.
The argument for Ashwin in England on this tour is not necessarily that he should replace Jadeja; it might as well be that he would play next to him. This would mean a bowling attack consisting of two spinners and three seam bowlers. This was the team Kohli went with in the WTC final; India’s defeat by an all-seam Kiwi attack seems to have tipped the balance in Kohli’s mind against the two-spinner option. It’s worth repeating here that Ashwin threw well in the WTC final, taking four wickets in the match.
So a plausible case for Ashwin is to show that he is likely to be more valuable than India’s fourth navigator. That we’re trying to choose between the world’s best spinner and India’s fourth-choice sailor is either a tribute to India’s fast-paced bowling wealth or a commentary on the seam-like monoculture created by England’s circumstances and the Dukes ball, but the choice seems to exist, and the case for Ashwin is not obvious, it must be made.
First, the heroism of the collaboration between Mohammad Shami and Jasprit Bumrah is unlikely to be repeated the next time England comes to India’s lower order. Having 8, 9, 10 and 11 manned by four number 11 batsmen is not a gamble that will work most times. If Root and his company hadn’t collectively lost their heads, chances are India’s tailenders would have played to their average and folded for very few runs. As it was, Shami and Bumrah carried on bravely, but chances are they won’t do it again. Ashwin would be a more reassuring sight if he walked in on the sixth wicket fall than Shami or Sharma. It is worth remembering that six months ago in Chennai Ashwin made a Test 100 against this English team.
Second, are India’s fourth-choice sailor more likely than Ashwin to break into England’s batting line-up in the next Test in Leeds? Much will depend on ground conditions, of course, but Ashwin has a peculiar talent that doesn’t depend on the nature of the field at Headingly or elsewhere: his shortcut with left-handed batsmen. He is the only bowler in Test cricket history to have fired left-handers over 200 times, costing him less than 20 runs per wicket on average.
Michael Vaughan, former England captain and commentator on Test Match Special, suggests in an article that England’s Headingley Test team could have five left batsmen: Rory Burns, Dawid Malan, Moeen Ali, Sam Curran and Jimmy Anderson. Playing Ashwin, the scourge of lefties, would be a smart move. Burns would probably twist himself into a corkscrew to doubt him and Malan, playing for his place in England’s top ranking, would face Ashwin challenging both sides of his bat from the wicket. Not playing Ashwin because India got out of prison thanks to England’s mental collapse would be the predictable, conservative, unimaginative thing to do.
However, given the team management’s preferences, Ashwin is unlikely to make it to the team. In February 2019, Shastri Kuldeep praised Yadav as India’s first choice spinner abroad. “He plays test cricket abroad and he gets five wickets, so he becomes our main overseas spinner. If we go further, if we have to play one spinner, he is the one we will choose…” When Shastri told the world that Yadav would do that before Ashwin would be picked on tour, Yadav had played six Tests and taken 24 wickets. Ashwin (then) had played 65 and won almost 350.
As soon as Yadav slipped from the reckoning, Jadeja replaced him as India’s default spinner abroad. After winning the Australian series earlier this year, Ashwin said in an interview that if Jadeja hadn’t been injured, he wouldn’t have made it to the playing XI. It is noteworthy that a slow bowling genius who took 413 wickets at an average of 24.56 and a stroke rate of 52.40 serially has to give way to a novice wrist spinner, a left arm spinner whose bowling prowess is on the wane, and now, a fourth choice sailor . When Shane Warne did badly in India, Australian team management didn’t replace him with a fourth sailor, he was just as important to the Australian bowling attack as Glen McGrath. Not coincidentally, Warne’s best-known motto is: ‘If it sews, it runs.’
One explanation for Ashwin’s struggle for a spot is that Virat Kohli and Shastri have a template for the modern Indian cricketer and Ashwin doesn’t fit into it. Their beautiful ideal is someone like Hardik Pandya: all-round athleticism plus laddishness. Ashwin is as intense a cricketer as any player who has worn the India cap. (He’s also awesomely funny: please watch his gleefully-hilarious post-mortem of the Lord’s Test with India’s field coach R. Sridhar. But he’s not one of the guys; he’s just a great bowler at the peak of his powers.
There’s a perversity to the argument that a slow-bowling maestro should sit on lush fields and cloudy skies. Only in Test cricket can you taste the drama of bowling genius against the surrounding odds – like Muttiah Muralitharan and Warne managing a green top, or Bishan Bedi and Ashwin letting the new ball do the talking for them. It is a cricketing tragedy that Kohli, who has not earned his living as a Test batsman for two years, must stop Ashwin, the Dagar of the long game, from bowling for India.
Mukul Kesavan is a writer from Delhi. His most recent book is ‘Homeless on Google Earth’ (Permanent Black, 2013).
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