@swaris16 6 minute read
South Africa offers Ravichandran Ashwin a chance to shift his overseas narrative, writes Sarah Waris.
Besides being a terrific spinner and analyst, Ravichandran Ashwin also works very hard on his game. In his interview with The Cricket Monthly, the off-spinner cited how he made Steve Smith his “obsession” for six months before India’s tour to Australia last year. He noted how Smith’s hands drove his batting and how he had to disturb those patterns. As he geared up for Australia, eager to bowl against the best batter in the world, only one question remained: would he even be a part of the XI?
The Tamil Nadu player’s Test career can easily be divided into two. A wicket-eating monster at home, Ashwin’s overseas journey has been less simple. His career average of 24.12 increases to 30.55 away, and if you only consider non-Asian countries, his average reads 35.30. In the last four years, Ashwin has played only 12 Tests away from India, in a period where the team has played 25 games abroad.
The frequent omissions are enough to sow seeds of doubts, and Ashwin felt no differently. He battled with his body but also with the views of others. In his interview with The Cricket Monthly, Ashwin admitted to feeling “crushed,” after India head coach Ravi Shastri said Kuldeep Yadav was now India’s No.1 overseas spinner after the 2019 series win over Australia and claimed that “there is a time for everyone”.
The lack of clarity over their role can prove to be mentally jarring for any player. However, Ashwin was not fully out of fault either, for his showings overseas had lacked oomph from time to time. In 2013, he sent down 42 overs in Johannesburg for no wicket. When he visited Australia in 2014/15, he averaged close to 50 with the ball while Nathan Lyon thrived to finish as the leading wicket-taker in the series. The biggest blot will remain the match at Southampton in 2018, when Moeen Ali thrived and made life miserable for the Indians. Ashwin, on the other hand, was a pale shadow of himself, picking up one wicket in 37.1 overs in England’s second innings.
But after all those setbacks, something clicked for him in Australia last year, with an injury to Ravindra Jadeja presenting him with the chance to start the series. His appearance at Adelaide was only his second overseas Test in over two years, and third since the disaster at Southampton. A fine display in that day/night match allowed him to play until injury ruled him out of the Gabba finale.
Ashwin was often guilty of bowling too full in his first few series overseas, but he impressed with some clever bowling in Australia. He flighted the ball up and bowled faster to stop batters from advancing down the track, and he worked over Smith spectacularly at Adelaide, setting him up with a bit of extra pace to nab an edge to slip. The spinner returned with three more wickets in the innings, picking up Travis Head with a ball that drifted in from round the wicket, Cameron Green with a short one and then Lyon too. He ended the series with an average of 28.83, marking it out as one of his best ever overseas series performances.
Ashwin then picked up 4-45 in the WTC final against New Zealand in his next visit abroad, following which he enrolled himself to play for Surrey in preparation for the England series. However, after picking up 6-27 in a County Championship match against Somerset, Ashwin was benched for the entirety of the series. On face value, it may have shown India’s lack of trust in Ashwin overseas, but the move was not unreasonable considering the make-up of their XI.
With India’s recent reliance on their gifted quicks, four fast bowlers were always going to be the norm, with a toss-up between Jadeja and Ashwin for the spinner’s role. The left-hander has improved leaps and bounds as a batter, which puts him in the category of the all-time greats, and India’s inconsistent batting line-up, with the repeated failures of Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and even skipper Kohli meant that Jadeja was always going to pip Ashwin as an all-rounder.
With Jadeja’s injury before the South Africa series, however, Ashwin looks set to start, and it’s about time that he gets the chance. The spinner has waited, not always patiently, to prove his mettle overseas, working on his game throughout even when he wasn’t promised a place. He has been questioned by experts, has had his skills ridiculed, and has heard his wickets have been a result of the friendly tracks in India. But if he can continue what he showed in Australia and in England against New Zealand this year, he can silence the ones who have doubted his credentials once and for all.