Ravichandran Ashwin last played a white ball game for India in 2017, but four years since, he isn’t just a clever spinner, but also someone who can fulfil a specific role in the Indian side, writes Rohit Sankar.
Ashwin last played limited-overs cricket for India in 2017. At a time India found a deadly wrist spin duo – even coming up with a fancy name, ‘Kul-Cha’, for the combination – to bowl in tandem, Ashwin, and Ravindra Jadeja, were considered surplus to requirements after a forgettable Champions Trophy in England.
To be fair to the management and selectors, Ashwin’s limited-overs game needed a lift at the time. He was neither containing the run flow nor picking up wickets. Since 2016, Ashwin averaged in the mid-50s with the ball in ODIs while conceding runs at nearly run-a-ball. The numbers never dipped in T20Is, though, where he churned out decent performances, but the impact of him spiraling down in ODIs eventually played a role in him being ‘rested’ (read dropped) across limited-overs formats.
It also perhaps boiled down to the lure of playing two different wrist spinners in the same line-up, an option too enticing to ignore. Only it didn’t last that long. The last time Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav played together in an ODI was in the 2019 World Cup game against England; one that exposed the demerits of having two wrist spinners together on a flat batting track against some power hitters. Kuldeep went at 7.2 runs per over, Chahal at 8.8.
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While Chahal has stood out with his ability to chalk out dismissals with shrewd planning, Kuldeep’s career has quickly gone downhill, forcing India to move away from the strategy and of late, rely on the improved all-rounder in Jadeja and the steady Washington Sundar as the second spinner, especially in T20Is. Sundar has in fact played a game more than Chahal in the shortest format since 2019 while Jadeja has missed a few with injury concerns.
India have tried the likes of Krunal Pandya, Mayank Markande and Rahul Chahar briefly, but never seemed fully convinced with any of them. When the tour of Australia beckoned, their first pick was the uncapped spinner who had had a good IPL 2020 season, Varun Chakravarthy. Similar in style to the mystery spinners that dot T20 cricket now, Chakravarthy offered a different dimension to the spin attack, one which India did not have in the side.
While that choice is understandable, it is strange that India do not deem Ashwin, who has continued to flourish in Test cricket, a limited-overs spinner, especially when his IPL numbers have been rather impressive in the last couple of seasons. Ashwin ticks a lot of boxes, including complementing Chahal and Jadeja, their two first-choice spinners in both limited-overs formats, in turning the ball into right-handers.
In T20Is, the most important checkmark across Ashwin’s name is perhaps his powerplay bowling. In IPL 2020, Ashwin finished with 13 wickets at an economy of 7.66. Seven of those wickets came inside the powerplay overs, the most by any spinner in the season. His victims? Chris Gayle, Devdutt Padikkal, Karun Nair, Rohit Sharma, Nicholas Pooran, Steve Smith and Jos Buttler. The even split of right and left-handers is notable as are the kind of names on that list.
Conceding runs at a shade over seven runs per over in the first six overs, Ashwin fulfils a specific role in this Indian side, one that allows Jasprit Bumrah, their strike weapon, more overs in the death.
His direct competitor is Sundar, the seemingly innocuous yet effective powerplay spinner, who turns the ball in the same direction as Ashwin. Virat Kohli was pretty straightforward in the press conference before the India-England T20I series when asked about Ashwin’s non-inclusion. “Washington has been doing really well for us, so you can’t have two similar players in the side. Unless Washington has a horribly bad season, I don’t see it… you have to have some logic when asking the question, you tell me where would you fit in Ashwin.”
However, aside from the fact that both are off-spinners and can bowl in the powerplay, the two are pretty dissimilar bowlers. Sundar is more of a restrictive bowler, while Ashwin is an attacking spinner who takes early wickets. Wickets in the powerplay play a massive role in a T20 game as teams are then forced to attack with new batsmen to keep up with the scoring rate. Sundar had a much better economy than Ashwin in the powerplay overs in IPL 2020 but took three wickets less than him. He also offers more with the bat than Ashwin.
However, with two limited-overs World Cups to be held in India in the next three years, Ashwin offers as much as Sundar with the ball, while edging ahead on experience, guile, wicket-taking ability and variations and those cannot be undervalued, especially when the batting parameter is less valuable given there’s no slot vacant in the top seven. With a slew of street-smart variations in his ragged bag of tricks, it can be argued that Ashwin is more a mystery spinner than a genuine off-spinner.
He had also recently expressed a genuine interest to return to the limited-overs teams. Asked if it was his dream to play in the T20 World Cup later this year after running through the England Test side, Ashwin was candid as ever.
“For me, it’s very realistic not a dream (to play in T20 World Cup). The space I am in right now, I’m enjoying whatever I’m doing on a day-to-day basis. It’s been more about the process, it’s more about what how and when rather than this that and there. That’s something which can make you chase and make you desperate,” Ashwin said.
“There are a lot of cricketers who have done very well for India in different formats. I’ve been out of the (T20) team for the last three years but every time I have got an opportunity in the IPL I have put a very earnest attempt and contributed in whatever way I can. If the team deems it fit and obviously, I will think I’m good enough.”
One other factor going the finger spinner’s way is that England and a full-strength West Indies side, the two biggest contenders for the title heading into the T20 World Cup this year, have a top-order heavy with left-handers, but also bat rather deep. Ashwin, who recently became the first spinner in Tests to dismiss 200 left-handers, is a match-up option in the first six overs against some of the powerful southpaws around whom the above teams have built their T20 side. Sundar’s run-controlling ability pales in comparison to Ashwin’s wicket-taking skills in these first few overs, especially against teams that are prepared to go full throttle armed by a deep batting line-up.
Overall, Ashwin has 69 wickets in the first six overs in all T20s, coming at a strike-rate of 20.6 and economy of 6.8. On the other hand, Sundar, who boasts of a better economy, has a strike-rate of 26. Since 2019, that number has gone further up to 29.4. The narrative is pretty clear: Sundar is definitely valuable in containing the run-flow, but in a format where wicket-taking skills, especially in the powerplay, are quite valuable, Ashwin edges ahead.
The confidence he is riding on right now, plus the specific role he caters to, make him a genuine contender in the T20I side at least. With the ODI World Cup again in India in 2023, it might not be a stretch to imagine a spin attack of Chahal, Jadeja and Ashwin leading India to the knockout stages.
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