As a kid when I went over the scorecard of the cricket matches that did not involve India, I could easily predict the bowler who would have taken most of the wickets. For Pakistan – either Wasim bhai or Waqar; For Australia – most probably McGrath; For Sri Lanka – Muralitharan. Given the talent and the ability of each of these bowlers to perform irrespective of the type of wicket and the conditions, the probability of my choice being right was close to unity. But this game of predicting the bowler never worked in case of India. Scalps were generally distributed among different bowlers. I used to read about a ripper of a spell from one of the bowlers but there was never a bowler who ‘dominated’ the opposition like Murali, Warne, McGrath, Akram. For a long time, India did not have a bowler who made the opposition surrender and dealt with on his own terms. It is analogous to being in a room with a mafia – where you just follow the orders from the mafia. Ravichandran Ashwin is the bowling mafia – India had been looking for, may be, for the past couple of decades. Someone who can lay down the terms and conditions of how the game is going to proceed from here on, make batting look difficult, control the run-rate and deceive the batsman – all at once!
India was all set to play around the landmark event of 500th test and many like me were expecting to see Ashwin bag his 200th test wicket in his 37th Test appearance for the country. A remarkable achievement given where Ashwin stood at the end of the tour to Australia in 2014-2015. Ashwin’s test career was then under the scanner where he was found drifting the ball more towards the middle and the leg stump offering ample of scoring opportunities to batsman. In a total of four test matches, he picked up a meagre 12 wickets and was rested for one test. The strategy of trying out variations every over and sometimes every ball did not work on Australian pitches and he was easily worked around the legs for tons of runs. It was not difficult to identify the most impatient cricketer on the field. Wickets did not come because Ashwin was impatient with himself rather than trusting his own skills and temperament. Post the tour, Anil Kumble, during a press conference, spoke highly of Ashwin and emphasized on persisting with Ashwin pointing that more number of games in and out of the sub-continent would bring out the best from the spinner.
Ashwin turned the time on its head when India began their cricket season in 2015 against Sri Lanka away from home. In the 3 tests, Ashwin has picked up 21 of the 30 Sri Lankan wickets, and was awarded Man of the Series. India won a series overseas after nearly a decade, all thanks to the spinning star, R. Ashwin. November 2015, in the four tests against South Africa, Ashwin picked up 31 of the 40 S. African wickets as Ashwin walked casually for the Man of the Series like the studious kid in school who slogged hard and got 1st rank throughout school. The statistics against Sri Lanka and South Africa do not offer any justice to the terror Ashwin created in the minds of the batsmen. Only a few batsmen can enjoy the feeling of walking in on a dust bowl on a chilly afternoon in Nagpur and Ashwin raring to bowl after setting up the dismissal of A. De Villiers. ABD was batting with a plan and getting outside the line of the leg-stump to get the LBW dismissal out of the way. Ashwin with his guile beat him once on the leg side and once with a regular off-spinner. Later in that over, Ashwin landed a carom ball on the stumps and ABD – trusting his instincts played for the ball to turn which eventually didn’t turn. ABD was caught plumb LBW and Ashwin was successful in deceiving a terrific batsman. Just reading about the ABD dismissal may not be very effective but on a cricket pitch it involved some terrific planning and execution and showcased the brilliance of a skilful bowler. What drastically changed for Ashwin after the tour Down Under in 2014-2015 was the development in the art of planning and setting up batsman to make mistakes! Something which Akram, McGrath, Steyn, Murali, Warne did very easily throughout their career. Over the time, Ashwin grew as a player as he improved on his patience towards the match proceedings. He developed the temperament to read the batsman’s game rather than trying out all of his variants to gauge which one variant would get him a wicket.
Against the Kiwis in the landmark 500th Test, Williamson and Latham were resisting well to the Indian spin attack. Day 2 ended with NZ looking comfortable to have a strong finish in their 1st innings. Day 3 and we all saw Ashwin at the peak of his abilities. Reading the footwork from Latham, Ashwin kept on making Latham play for the spin and then drafted one straight which drifted a little bit to strike the pad in the line of the stumps. Wasn’t a trick but pure skill from a talented bowler. Four overs later, he gave a bowl a little more rip than usual and produced a stunning off-spinner to clean Williamson. The art of setting up wickets was very much visible in Ashwin’s attack mode. Field placements enticing the batsman to play with / against spin, squaring up the batsman for room with his off-spinners, continuing with the regular off-spinners and then sneaking in a carom ball with the tricky variations in pace and bounce have become Ashwin’s strengths after his growth as a cricketer. More than the art of picking up wickets with pure bowling skill, it is Ashwin’s analysis of every batsman that makes a strong statement about his game. Some of the modern day legends including ABD, Sangakarra and Williamson have all fallen prey to the art of disguise.
India began their cricket season for 2016-2017 against West Indies where Ashwin emerged as a complete cricketer. With 16 wickets in 3 tests and a match saving masterclass century, Ashwin defined the template for a complete all-rounder India had been looking for. A bowler who can bat and contribute important runs lower down the order has never been a forte of sub-continent teams. But India can look at one right now. We have all the time in the world to look at R. Ashwin as an all-round cricketer. But at this moment, let us just sit back and enjoy his bowling. 200 wickets in 37 tests with five 10 wicket hauls is a remarkable achievement in history of Indian cricket. India has never been gifted with ‘certainty’ and ‘assurance’ in their bowling, but seems like Ashwin has spun it the other way.