Ravichandran Ashwin might not essentially deliver Test five-fors in overseas conditions, as he does for fun at home, but his exceptional skill set and a smart cricketing brain makes it incredibly tough to look beyond him. After his exclusion at Lord's, the selection debate rages on.
It’s the first morning of a Test series between India and England. Virat Kohli loses the toss and is asked to field. The England openers take 22 off the first six overs, including four boundaries. With two left-handers in, Kohli turns to Ravichandran Ashwin’s off-spin. Ashwin comes on, gets one to drift to get an inside edge which falls short of short-leg, another to jump that hits the glove and rolls wide of slip. In his next over, he gets one to pitch on a good length around middle and leg, the ball spins sharply, beats the batsman’s forward prod and takes the top of off-stump.
It’s a classical off-break. The batsman is Alastair Cook. It’s 2018. The venue isn't a hot and humid Chepauk, or one of the subcontinent's many rank-turners. It’s Edgbaston, under the Birmingham skies with clouds playing hide-and-seek throughout. England ascend to 216/3, before Ashwin intervenes again to make it 287 all-out. Cook is undone in the second innings too, even more dramatically perhaps, as the off-spinner rattles the top-order.
Less than 30 months later, Ashwin is up against Australia in the pink-ball Test at the Adelaide Oval. On his previous trip, he’d bagged six wickets at the venue to power India to a 31-run win. This time, though, he’s up against Steve Smith, India’s nemesis for over half-a-decade. For a change, Smith endures a 29-ball struggle, which ends with a thick outside edge flying to the lone slip. This sequence, too, is repeated later in the series.
Ashwin’s overall numbers are extraordinary - 413 wickets at a miserly 24.56. A strike-rate of 52.4 is the best among spinners with more than 300 wickets, ahead of the likes of Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble. While it could be argued that most of it is a product of his exploits at home, it’s his spells of brilliance against the top batsmen in recent times (like the ones against Cook and Smith), which elevate his status as one of the modern-day greats.
And yet, there’s always an uncertainty over his place when it comes to the SENA countries. That he is currently the second ranked Test-bowler, makes it sound all the more baffling.
At the heart of his steady progress as a Test bowler has been a mix of great determination, resolve and hardwork. A major dip came in the 2013 Wanderers Test, where he failed to buy a wicket in 42 overs across two innings. 36 of those were bowled in the second, as Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers almost guided the Proteas to a record 458-run chase, before the former’s run-out tilted the result to a draw.
"It was a reality check in terms of not being able to win a Test match for the country on day five when all things were set up for a spinner," Ashwin would reflect in 2018, recalling a forgetful outing. "It hit on my professional pride and from then on I knew I had to work on certain things."
Things changed for good during his next overseas cycle. The SENA numbers significantly improved from 24 wickets at 56.58 till the 2014/15 Australia tour, to 43 wickets at 28.23 thereafter, till the World Test Championship final against New Zealand. The average in the latter period stands four points better than any other spinner with 40 wickets or more in the four countries.
On a seam friendly Southampton wicket in his most recent outing, he returned with 2/28 and 2/17, the latter of which somewhat revived hopes of a miracle. This was followed by a six-fer in a County game against Somerset in the build-up to the England series. However, after two coin tosses, the 34-year-old is still on the sidelines.
“I’m unable to comprehend what has changed since the all important World Test Championship final, when Ashwin was your first-choice spinner,” VVS Laxman said in a conversation with ESPNcricinfo on Day 1 of the Lord’s Test. “Now, he’s not able to find a place in the XI after a month. He brings variety to the attack and an abundance of experience. If Ashwin isn't playing in these conditions, I don't see him getting in the XI anytime soon. Don’t think Virat Kohli will change the template as he’d stated earlier.”
Interesting to see the Lord's pitch taking turn. The average deviation for Moeen Ali so far (3.0 degrees) is the 6th most for the opening two days of a Lord's Test, in the last 20 matches at this venue. #ENGvIND— The CricViz Analyst (@cricvizanalyst) August 13, 2021
On Thursday, India opted to go for four specialist seamers for the third time in as many years, and that did align to the ‘horses for courses’ idea at Lord’s, considering overcast conditions at the start. Following Shardul Thakur's injury, a match-fit Ishant Sharma was perhaps an obvious pick, given his overall experience and the match-winning spell at the venue seven years ago. Leaving out Mohammed Siraj might've been a bit harsh, given that he's shown his worth as a Test bowler in early stages of his career. However, with the visitors bowling last on a surface which has already seen Moeen Ali pose a few questions, an added dimension to the attack could've been handy against the inexperienced England line-up.
A reason for Ashwin being overlooked in the ongoing series might be Ravindra Jadeja’s batting ascendancy. That, however, in theory, could itself validate Ashwin’s spot in the XI to strike a balance, considering his batting credentials, if only India rethink their strategy of going in with three seamers instead of four.
“If your three seamers can’t do a job, you can’t expect much better with four,” remarked Sunil Gavaskar on air before the toss, bidding for Ashwin’s inclusion.
India have, in the past, triumphed in overseas Tests with spin playing a significant part - an idea first put into practice by the great Tiger Pataudi - even before the days of B Chandrasekhar spinning a web in the Oval Test of 1971, and the Kumble-Harbhajan pair running through England at Headingley in 2002. India’s current fast-bowling depth leaves less room for a two-spinner attack than perhaps ever before, but leaving out your top-ranked bowler, for whatever reasons, surely makes an intriguing case.
As it stands, irrespective of what happens at Lord’s, there will be a lot of curiosity about Ashwin in the build-up for the third Test at Headingley. Whether Kohli does change the template, remains to be seen.