Just before the 2006 U19 World Cup, news came in the Indian camp that Ravi Ashwin, who was by then the first-choice opener in the U-17 age group, was dropped for Rohit Sharma. We all know what followed that decision. But what if, in a parallel world, the Indian management had opted for Ashwin?
The year is 2005 and we are just days away from the selection process for the U-19 World Cup tournament in Sri Lanka. The Indian selectors, sitting at the table, pick Ashwin instead of Rohit Sharma in the squad, on the back of his performance in the U-16 competition, where he piled on 475 runs in just 14 appearances. The selectors also announce that they are picking the Saurashtra batsman, Cheteshwar Pujara, to open alongside Ashwin.
First up, the Tamil Nadu batsman has the task of tackling the Namibian bowlers, with the African side setting them a total of 171. Batting alongside Pujara, Ashwin scores a 71-ball 90, as India chase down the total with relative ease, in just 27 overs, and the country is already talking about the talented batsman. On the back of the confidence gained in the opening bout, Ashwin puts on a masterclass in the tournament and scores 300 runs in the competition, alongside Pujara’s 340 runs, but despite that, all India could manage is a loss against Pakistan in the final.
His performance has already caught the eye of the Tamil Nadu selectors, who were looking for an opener to bat alongside Murali Vijay, and have had an eye on the right-hander since his U-16 days. Tamil Nadu selectors pick the talented batsman in favour of Shiv Vidyut, because of his classical batting stance, which was the need of the hour for the state. In just his first outing in Tamil Nadu colours, the right-handed Ashwin scores a majestic half-century before backing it up with a fabulous 89 to seal a place for himself.
In the weeks to follow, the Chennai batsman continues to pummel all the bowling units, piling 350 runs in just the first eight games of the Ranji Trophy, eventually ending up 589 runs in the entire edition. However, the real challenge was still awaiting, the Inter-zonal T20 tournament, where he would debut in the shortest format. Just like his previous expeditions, Ashwin knocks it off in prime fashion, scoring an unbelievable 68 off just 34 deliveries, with four sixes right across the parking slot, including smashing a car’s window.
The Indian selectors, just ahead of the inaugural edition of T20 World Cup, announce that they are picking Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag as the openers but still pick Ashwin as a back-up. The duo perform sublimely in the tournament but the camera pans out to show a dejected Ashwin on the bench, not knowing if he'll get a chance. Just before the final, bad news rings in, that Sehwag would miss out on the final due to an injury. The selectors close their eyes, knowing that there is Ashwin to replace the right-hander to keep the left-right combination afloat. However, it does not start well for the Tamil Nadu man, who runs out Gambhir in the just the second over. That is when he decides to take matters into his own hands, scoring 23 runs off Umar Gul’s over.
Immediately, the pressure switches back to Pakistan, who start crumbling under pressure. After putting Pakistan under pressure, Ashwin scores a scintillating 64, which helps India win the competition. However, back home, the domestic season is around the corner, where Ashwin only gets a small peak in, where he scores one century in three games. That was enough to convince MS Dhoni to pick him for the 2008 Border-Gavaskar Trophy but not as a starter. As luck had it in the 2007 T20 World Cup, the batsman got a break into the Indian team in the fourth Test, where he was immediately sledged by the Australian team. He did not let that get in the way of his batting, scoring a gritty 65, but as fate had it the visitors had the last laugh, dismissing him for a duck, which sends him back to the domestic scene, disappointed.
In the Ranji Trophy season, the Tamil Nadu opener is put under the pressure and has one of the worst seasons in his career, with scores of 2,10,15,5,20, which propels the state selectors to drop him from the fray, with them instead opting for the new up and coming southpaw, Abhinav Mukund. However, for Ashwin, that was not the last opportunity of the year, with mega-event IPL and auction around the corner. Every franchise has already opted for their icon player but Chennai-based franchise, Chennai Super Kings had a decision to make. Who could it possibly be? As predicted widely, CSK announces that Dinesh Karthik as their icon player and Karthik’s first order for the franchise, “Pick this talented opener Ashwin.”
After his stint with Gautam Gambhir earlier in international cricket, this was Ashwin’s first chance of playing with another superstar, Matthew Hayden. Opening the batting, the Chennai-man scores 302 runs in the tournament, at an average of nearly 28, registering a top score of 80 against Rajasthan Royals. Meanwhile, in the tournament final, they meet the mighty Rajasthan Royals, headed by Ashwin’s national team skipper, MS Dhoni, who has built the side on the very same principles - an underdog side. Just like it happened a year ago, Dhoni takes his side to win against a strong opponent in the form of CSK, which leaves all the Yellow fans disappointed, as they exchanged jerseys.
Yet at the same time, Ashwin’s form throughout the IPL season has propelled the Indian skipper to pick him up for the 2009 Champions Trophy in South Africa, where he is blessed to be opening alongside Dinesh Karthik in the tournament. The duo goes on to score 150 runs between them. This is the very same partnership that had helped Tamil Nadu to back-to-back Vijay Hazare wins, before the 2010 IPL. But even with such a successful partnership, rain gods had the final say as India crash out of the tournament. Cut to the IPL, this time, in the CSK squad, the right-hander is presented with a unique opportunity, of opening alongside his state teammate, Murali Vijay.
A unique proposition was in front of them - they could carry on the momentum from the two domestic tournaments and build it into the 2011 Indian Premier League win or they could continue as one of the most talented teams to have not won the IPL. The duo put on 804 runs in the tournament, with the right-handed Vijay scoring 458 runs and Ashwin piling on 346 runs. It led to the franchise playing the final against Mumbai Indians, where Karthik’s genius move of pushing Ashwin just behind the umpire helped CSK to a victory, with the duo lifting the trophy in unison as the crowd went berserk. Key to this performance was the opportunity that lay in front of the lanky opener, an opportunity to be part of the 2011 World Cup squad for India.
In the leadup to the World Cup, Ashwin does everything right to push his case, scoring 780 runs across the calendar year. That was enough to cement his place in the 15-man squad for the mega-tournament but the catch was, he gets informed by the management that he has to play No.3, a position he has never played before. The Tamil Nadu man was eager to pick this opportunity and shoulder the responsibility to help the team realize their dreams of sending-off Sachin with a World Cup.
It all culminates to this very moment - Ashwin with the bat, Sri Lanka bring on Muttiah Muralitharan as India still need 76 runs for a victory. The very first delivery, the right-hander steps out and smashes the ball towards the deep on the off-side, for a boundary, before reverse-sweeping the next for another boundary. The intent from the Indian camp was clear, Ashwin was earmarked by the management to employ such a batting style against Murali, who could, on his day, threaten anyone. And, another boundary, the Chennai man is in prime form and India still need 30 more runs. Up steps Malinga for Sri Lanka and the slinger goes for the same treatment - the No.3 batsman scores twin boundaries, becoming the fastest Indian opener to score 2000 runs. Alongside Dhoni, there we have it, Ashwin puts a smile on 1.2 billion faces, India win the World Cup for the first time since 1983.
However, the media was still concerned about the right-hander’s form in the longest format, raising the question in the media to MS Dhoni, who answers politely, “We have Gambhir and Sehwag performing well if there is a need we will look at it later!” In the very same year, in the absence of Harbhajan Singh, India go on to pick Baroda all-rounder Yusuf Pathan, who narrowly missed out on a place in the 2007 T20 World Cup, to make his debut against West Indies in the first Test in Delhi as Rohit Sharma also makes his debut instead of Yuvraj Singh in the playing XI.