It is a one of a kind problem for Indian cricket, one where their lead off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin came out, saw, attacked and conquered the most-wanted Australian batsmen at home. With the return of Ravindra Jadeja, is Ashwin’s adulation in Adelaide enough?
The clock has to dial a long way back and we need to go back to understand where we find ourselves now in. In 2014, when Nathan Lyon was creating a ripple impact amongst the Indian batsmen, Indian skipper Virat Kohli decided to hand a debut cap to Karn Sharma instead of trusting their best off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin.
At home, Ashwin is one of a kind, like the remaining monarchs in the world, the remaining classical artists in the time of modern-day-art. His endeavour doesn’t end at off-spinner, it rather takes off from where off-spinners usually end their day and night in, with variations aplenty, none witnessed before and the stories that often accompany it. But in 2014, Ashwin was shocked, perhaps more because of his record against Australia and even more after he was overlooked for Karn Sharma, a leg-spinner.
Roll that clock to 2020, ahead of the series, with injury to Ravindra Jadeja, it presented Ashwin with an opportunity to really turn back time to the good ol’ days, where the ball got the revs away from home, he got the ball talking and really the town, in general, were admiring his art, sort of an art exhibition in the middle of Australia. Subtle variations, a great measure of spin and that toppled by a workaholic brain, Ashwin’s impact was immediate, set the ball and the Australia top-order rolling and tumbling, in equal measures.
It was a classical example of - how the bowlers have to up their game, get into the batsmen’s head and ride them back to the dressing room. While Neil Wagner did it to Steve Smith with an elan, Ashwin wasn’t far off behind Wagner’s back. He set up Australia’s kingpin Smith in the most orthodox of fashion, with a straight-delivery that didn’t get any sort of turn from the pitch. The variation between his previous two deliveries and this one to Smith was the difference between the right-hander batting it out and being baited out.
Now the off-spinner might be hailed as a crazy scientist, who hasn’t had much sleep, trying out his variations but when he stuck by his angles, picked up the angles from the mathematician Lyon himself, the results were crystal clear. When Smith walked back, he was not just shocked but worried because of the proposition in front of his hand - an off-spinner who knew his trade much better than ever in conditions away from home.
There was sort of an aura that was reminiscent of his tiger-ous prowess in the sub-continent, where he was the head hunter and the other bowling pack were a pack of wolves. But in Australia, he wasn’t certainly a tiger or a wolf, he was merely perpetuated as a controlling bowler who would give the pace bowlers a rest in between their long spells. Ashwin’s average of 42.76 in the SENA countries (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) before the series against Australia certainly rang a bell of how India in 2014, didn’t trust him but weirder things have happened since then.
With Ravindra Jadeja toggling his bowling form by the switch and providing a real renaissance with the bat, the Indian management couldn’t curb their temptation going with the left-arm all-rounder, who provided them with the edge. So with Jadeja returning to the squad, fit to play ahead of the second Test, it provided an even crucial narrative to the Indian bowling unit sans Mohammed Shami - who gets the edge, Ashwin or Jadeja?
While both of them are set to feature in the Boxing Day Clash against Australia, it dialled the clock back to the start with a familiar question - who is India’s first-choice spinner? Having just played twice in Adelaide, where conditions usually aren’t the best for away spinners, Ashwin left a visible impressive mark on the Indian management, a catharsis on the Australian batting order and more importantly, a question to ponder for the Indian fans. While his first outing at the venue wasn’t the best, his second was far more impressive, the sign of things to come.
However, not until his performance in Adelaide this year, has Ashwin garnered such attention away from home, with him falling lower than Jadeja on the pecking order. But 16 wickets, at an average of 30.4 with best figures of 4/55, certainly shows that the 2020 version of the off-spinner is rather the one that we have seen in the subcontinent. Without many variations, the ability to horn down the batsmen, gun down their technique and make a mountain of their weakness which otherwise hasn’t been more than an anthill has become his speciality.
But the more important of the question being, can Ravichandran Ashwin convert his Adelaide adulation into a Melbourne merry, considering the fact that India have gone all-out with five bowling options for the second Test, with the spin-twins - Ashwin and Jadeja returning to the same lineup away from home. Now at the ‘G, his place might be a certainty but it still doesn’t leave him as the first-choice option for the upcoming Tests, which is why his debut Test at the venue would shape his progress through the next few Tests.
That added to his withering batting form certainly posed a similar question of threat for the management - could they trust Ashwin in bringing the goods home or was Adelaide just a one-off good game for the off-spinner.
“I’m actually fighting my own benchmarks in a lot of ways. The number of games that I’ve managed to win for my country and for myself, the number of successes I’ve had and the excellence I’ve shown is always measured up in equal parlance when I travel away from the country, which is great,” Ashwin told ESPNCricinfo.
Now since the quote emerged, nothing dramatic has unfolded - with the spinner from Chennai going through a similar run of form. But with the conditions in Melbourne unknown and with the New Zealand tour as an experience, Ashwin would have to grab all the opportunities that come his way in order to seal his place for the third Test but he has to start at the ‘G before the chances wither away.