India was 236 for 4. Ajinkya Rahane had just been dismissed. India was still more than 300 runs short of their final total. What happened? Ashwin walked out to bat at number six, ahead of wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha. Possibly Virat Kohli’s most telling signature move as captain so far.
Not too long ago, leave alone Ashwin’s batting, Ashwin’s bowling would not have bought him an overseas Test spot. Jadeja was India’s first and only choice spinner in those Tests. That Ashwin could bat was not in doubt – he scored a Test century in only his third Test way back in 2011. That was when batting at number eight. Plenty of 30s and three half centuries later, he scored his second century in 2013. Again batting at number eight. Both times in India, both times against the West Indies.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni was the Test captain then and Sachin Tendulkar was still playing. That’s how much the landscape of Indian cricket has changed since then. Even though Ajinkya Rahane is the vice-captain, by all accounts Ashwin is the heart of the core group. He is an ace communicator, original thinker, unafraid to have an opinion. By sending Ashwin in at number six, Kohli didn’t just empower Ashwin the batsman, he empowered Ashwin the leader.
Ashwin’s awkward charm
In the admittedly unlikely event of Kohli’s absence, it’s not preposterous to expect Ashwin and not Rahane to captain India. Rahane could remain a perpetual deputy, much like Rahul Dravid in more ways than one – the batsman for troubled waters, the man for all seasons.
Part of Ashwin’s awkward charm is that he’s far more real than today’s stubbled Indian cricketers. He’s clean-shaven. He’s not as athletic as they are. A second run with Ashwin invariably ends in hilarity. And Ashwin chasing a runaway ball is like watching your uncle warming up at jogger’s park.
But in spite of what he lacks, Ashwin brings so much more to the team. Going wicketless in the first innings and in his first seven overs in the second didn’t deter him. His lines stayed tight, almost in the manner of India’s current head coach Anil Kumble. Ashwin started the slide with Rajendra Chandrika’s wicket and ended it with Gabriel’s dismissal. He had bookended this win with bat and ball. Not often that a Kohli century in an Indian win finishes second best.
Only last week, Pakistani leggie Yasir Shah was the toast of the cricketing world. He then went wicketless for 38 overs. He finished with figures of 1 for 213. Bowling outside the subcontinent, especially in the first innings, even spinners such as Shah and Ashwin have off days.
Kohli’s bang, Ashwin’s calm
If India has been patient with unlucky Ishant Sharma to allow him 69 Tests across more than nine years, it will serve them well to add to Ashwin’s 33 Tests, in spite of the bad days. Ashwin is not just developing as a bowler, he’s progressing in leaps and bounds as a cricketer. Often, the added value of a cricketer is not what he can do with bat or ball but what he compels his teammates to do. Kohli showed this when he promoted Ashwin up the order.
Just as Zaheer Khan was India’s bowling captain, it’s time for Ashwin to take on a similar mentoring role, helping set fields, speaking to bowlers whilst fielding at mid off. His acceptance of the need to work on his batting with batting coach Sanjay Bangar and alter his stance has shown an openness to change. Ashwin was the first to credit the straight drives to Bangar’s account.
On the field, Ashwin and Kohli could work as Yin and Yang. For Kohli’s bang, Ashwin’s calm.
For the full impact of the possibilities, picture Kohli, a hardcore Dilliwallah at the wheel, with Ashwin, the level-headed South Indian, as his navigator. Racing ahead could be fun, even more when you know the rules that can be broken and the routes that can be taken to get there.
It could be one exciting ride for Indian cricket. Ashwin will do well to remember that both he and his skipper need to have their seatbelts on: hairpin bends lie ahead.