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Washington Sundar takes first tentative steps out of Ashwin’s shadow

by Rohit Sankar 5 minute read

Washington Sundar‘s Test debut could restart a first-class career that has been shoved behind the glitz and promise of T20 cricket, writes Rohit Sankar.

It was fitting that Washington Sundar was handed his debut Test cap by Ravichandran Ashwin, one of the two spinners he replaced in the playing XI from the Sydney Test. The tall 21-year-old off-spinner hails from the same state as Ashwin, has played most of his first-class games in Ashwin’s absence and came into the IPL replacing the Test veteran in the Rising Pune Supergiant setup.

There was outrage on social media when Sundar was handed a Test debut over Kuldeep Yadav, the bowler head coach Ravi Shastri hailed as India’s No.1 spinner in overseas Tests after India’s last tour Down Under – ironically, he has never played a Test match since – because of Sundar’s first-class record.

Sundar became India’s 301st Test cricketer on Friday morning. Ashwin was India’s 271st. The difference between the two is the number of wickets Sundar has in his first-class career spanning 12 matches, the last of which came in 2017. Since then, he hasn’t been in Tamil Nadu’s plans in this format of the game. It’s unlikely Sundar would have made a Test debut anytime soon if it were not for the bio-bubble and India’s long injury list.

Yet, here he was thrown into the deep end at the Gabba, arguably the most intimidating Australian ground, in conditions where spinners have less than one-third the wicket of seamers in the last decade. The last away spinner to bowl on his debut at the venue was in 1985. The message is clear: the odds were stacked against Sundar, who last played something over than a T20 in October 2019.

Why India chose him over Kuldeep Yadav is up for debate. Most likely, with only a draw needed to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, it’s runs, both the scoring and the drying up of them. It’s a trait Hrishikesh Kanitkar, the coaching staff at Rising Pune Supergiant who recommended him as Ashwin’s replacement, pinpointed back in 2016. The Gabba is one of Australia’s fastest venues in more than one way. Since 2014, for Australian grounds hosting more than three Tests, the scoring rate in Brisbane is the quickest. It made sense for a raw attack — all of four Tests experienced combined — to try and control the run flow. A tidy stump-to-stump bowler would possibly do that better than a left-arm wrist spinner low on confidence in a series-decider.

His first ball in Test cricket was to Steve Smith, his first IPL captain. It came with Australia at 61-2, a position India possibly did not anticipate when they lost the toss and were asked to field first. But, Sundar wasn’t brought on until Smith and Labuschagne had settled down and played over 100 balls between them. The aim was to cut down the runs. A leg-side dominant field suggested the same.

All six deliveries were pretty straight, slightly short and some even sliding down the leg-side. The next six balls he would bowl to Labuschagne followed the same plan. So did the next six as Sundar started with three maidens. His first ball after lunch came after seven overs, but he was immediately onto the same leg-side line. A flick from Smith went straight to short mid-wicket and Sundar had a maiden Test wicket before conceding a single run.

In his 22 overs in the day, Sundar did the same, over and over, landing the ball in similar areas and sticking to what he does in the shortest format of the game. He bowled more overs than any Indian bowler and conceded runs at the second-best economy rate. Had it been any other spinner, it would have been dismissed as a rather uneventful day. But, for Sundar it presents a bigger context: it showed he was more than a limited-overs spinner. It could indeed even revive his first-class career, though his job in this Test is not yet half done.

It could indeed be with the bat — Sundar opened the batting on his first-class debut and has a century in the top order for Tamil Nadu — that he shows the different dimensions he could potentially offer in the future. It’s premature to state that this will be the beginning of a great Test career, irrespective of what he does in the rest of this game. Rather, this, coming in the cauldron of the Gabba at the denouement of an epic series, could rekindle his first-class career, one that has been in the backburner for four years now. At 21, this could even be the beginning of him fighting for Ashwin’s spot a few years later.

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