Mumbai had been unusually hot for early December. The second session of Day 2, under the afternoon sun, coupled with the counter-attack and fight from England’s tail, made the Indian fans restless.
The dhol players had engaged the near-capacity crowd. They swayed to “India, India”, sang the customary “Sach-in, Sach-in” and chanted “Kohli, Kohli” in a bid to push their men to end an innings that should have ended long ago.
But the heat had taken its toll. The players appeared to go through the motions on the field, the dhol players caught a seat to take a rare break and the buzz was now reduced to a whisper.
That is when a child, in his early years of school, dodged the crowd in the Sachin Tendulkar Stand to get to the dhol players. He tugged at the attire of one of them and pleaded, “Uncle, ‘Ashwin, Ashwin’ karo na (Uncle, let us chant Ashwin’s name).” The dhol player smirked and ignored it. Understandably so, for Ravichandran Ashwin does not carry the aura of a Kohli or the swagger of a Ravindra Jadeja. But, the young boy was insistent, and he pleaded again.
This time, the dhol player gave in. “Ash-win, Ash-win,” he chanted in sync with the tune of his instrument. The Sachin Tendulkar stand joined in and soon enough, it caught on with other parts of the Wankhede too.
The year in which Ashwin the all-rounder emerged
And it worked. Ashwin had the visiting No. 10 Jake Ball, who was in the middle of a cameo, caught behind. The “Ash-win, Ash-win” chant turned deafening. England’s late surge had come to a close. The man without the aura or the swagger had, like so often, applied the brakes when the rest had struggled.
He was, after all, the soon-to-be-crowned ICC Cricketer of the Year. The voting period was between September 14, 2015 and September 20, 2016. It was the period in which Ashwin the all-rounder was born and Ashwin the spinner reborn.
But what must worry every opposition team is that Ashwin’s rise post the voting period only grown exponentially. If the current signs are a trend, then batsmen around the world are in for a severe headache every time they come up against this off-spinning all-rounder from Tamil Nadu.
After all, Ashwin’s all-round sparkle of 48 wickets and 336 runs in eight Tests and 27 wickets in Twenty20 Internationals in the year-long voting period was a record that was unparalleled. In 2016 alone, it shone even brighter. Seventy-two wickets in 12 Tests, and the feat of becoming the second-fastest bowler to 200 wickets in the interim, capped off a year in which ICC Test Player of the Year made heads turn.
Sterner tests will await Ashwin when he travels to the tougher lands of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England. He has a Test average of 54.71 with the ball in Australia, has managed only three Test wickets in England, and is yet to open his account in the longest form of the game in South Africa or New Zealand.
But, it will be foolish to demean Ashwin’s wizardry of the recent year or so with the possible leaner patch in mind. He destroyed South Africa, New Zealand and England at home. And even if it was against a weaker West Indies unit, he wrecked havoc with the ball in the Caribbean. If this is the peak he has now scaled, the Ashwin from up here will be more lethal even overseas.
Shaking off those initial struggles
In fact, Ashwin’s initials struggles may have been a result of his entry onto the international scene when the country was awestruck by the glitz of the Indian Premier League. There were strong domestic performances, but a good run in the glamorous Twenty20 league shot him into the limelight and with it, into the Indian team.
Naturally, Ashwin adhered to the script that brought him success in the game’s shortest form. His one-dimensional bowling and the overuse of the carom ball brought him success in One-Day Internationals but failed him in the whites.
Soon, batsmen found Ashwin out in the ODIs too. Already faced with a struggle to break into the Test side for overseas games, the all-rounder was no more MS Dhoni’s go-to man in the limited-overs either – the lack of confidence India’s limited-overs captain showed in him during the World Twenty20 at home earlier this year had left him back on sticky ground.
But at a time when Dhoni could not trust his one-time constant as much anymore, India’s Test captain Virat Kohli developed a fondness for Ashwin. And in that affinity, the all-rounder found comfort in being brave with the ball.
With Anil Kumble in as coach of the team, Ashwin’s game as a bowler ascended to another level. Ashwin learnt that in Test cricket you have to be at it – vary your pace, your length, your line. Most importantly, he seemed to have understood that there was no substitute for patience – the kind Kumble had showcased year after year in his tenure as India’s premier spinner.
The perfect recipe for success
After Ashwin was accorded with the top ICC honours on Thursday, he skipped Dhoni’s name but thanked Kumble and Kohli among other people.
In alliance with the support from the coach and captain, Ashwin’s ability to strategise and outthink the batsmen was the perfect recipe for success. And, as a bowler, he has relished setting up the best batsmen in the world before scalping them.
Thus, after he had plotted New Zealand captain Kane Williamson’s downfall earlier in the season, he set his gaze on Joe Root from England. He observed that England’s premier batsman had a tendency to edge the spinners to the slips. He worked out the dismissal in his mind, and finally executed it in the first innings at the Wankhede.
And with the generous spell of wickets over the last year came a bagful of runs. For those who have observed the Indian team’s net sessions, it was evident that Ashwin would take his ability with the bat incredibly seriously. Earlier in his career, he had even expressed his desire to bat in the top-order. While Ashwin had talent with the bat, he was always considered to be a handy lower-order bat. This claim of his seemed misplaced till Kohli instilled in him the belief that he was carved out for a greater role for the team than merely its premier bowler.
When India was away in the West Indies, Kohli often used Ashwin in the top six. With the captain’s confidence by his side, and his desire to chip in with the bat, Ashwin narrated to the world his batting tales.
By the time Ashwin was promoted to the top-order, even above Wriddhiman Saha, he had already scored two Test tons. But there was now a newfound assurance to his batting. He raised two more triple-figured scores in the West Indies, and accompanied it with a host of half-centuries in the games that followed.
What stood out in this sudden emergence of Ashwin as a batsman was the nature of his runs. While the runs would be elegance personified – an uncanny resemblance to the drives and flicks of VVS Laxman – most of them were also scored when the team needed them the most.
Shades of Kapil Dev
There is little wonder that Ashwin too thinks of the 118 in the first innings of the St Lucia Test as his favourite knock. India scored 353 in that innings but he had walked in when India were 126 for five. The knock meant the visitors would go on to turn the game on its head and win it by 237 runs.
To have their champion bowler walk out and dig them out of a hole is a scenario India had craved for decades – at last ever since Kapil Dev retired. Ashwin has managed to bring such days of fantasy back to life. The world’s number one all-rounder is an Indian. It is a dream many Indian fans of the last decade or so had waited for. But it is a reality today. The team is in need of wickets, call upon Ashwin. The side faces implosion with the bat, call upon Ashwin.
His rise as a batsman carries a personal gain for Ashwin too. If the overseas tours do not fetch him the number of wickets these Indian surfaces do, he will have his willow to fall back upon. And confidence can rub on. A strong show with the bat can turn the fortunes with the ball, and vice-versa.
Ashwin may not the stereotypical modern-day cricketer. He lacks the six packs. He can barely run, let alone swiftly. And he is not a fielding role model. But he takes us back in time with the way he plays his cricket, and with the kind of Kapil Dev-esque success he finds with both bat and ball. And that, outshines the lack of his athletic physique and makes him a hero of the youth – like that of the young boy in the Sachin Tendulkar Stand.
The home season is not over yet. Ashwin’s climb to greater heights is not over yet. If anything, the ICC honour accords the all-rounder with greater responsibility.
Ashwin is anyway a central figure in the Indian camp now. He is the vice-captain of the Test team in the absence of Ajinkya Rahane. He is also the man who always has a say in the Decision Review System calls the team ponders upon.
Also, the next time when Ashwin gives the ball a rip in his hands at the top of his run up or when he adjusts his helmet and takes his hunched stance, we could expect the number of wickets and runs to only pile up. And, so will the number of youngsters who queue up to idolise India’s latest protagonist.
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