Last Thursday, playing his maiden county game for Worcestershire, Ravichandran Ashwin took 5/68 against Gloucestershire, and then duly expressed a desire to carry on playing for the remainder of the English domestic season. Of course, there was a rider attached – the Indian team for the One-Day International series against Australia will be announced soon, and Ashwin’s availability depends on any additional “rest” afforded by the selectors.
A few thousand miles away, meanwhile, Kuldeep Yadav paired up with Axar Patel as India’s current One-Day International spin combination. At first sight, it isn’t anything odd – along with Yuzvendra Chahal, they form the second-choice spin attack in limited-overs’ cricket behind Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
At this juncture, a couple peculiar points come in. One – after the 2017 Champions Trophy, India have played 10 ODIs, and their spin attack has always included one leg-spinner. And, two – on Sunday, Chahal and Yadav, both featured in the fifth ODI against Sri Lanka. It was the first time in their ODI history spanning 922 matches that there were two wrist-spinners in the Indian playing eleven.
The problems that the Ashwin-Jadeja combination poses
There is an obvious conclusion here. India are in the market for a new-look combination across the board – batting, pace and spin – as they have started early on the road to the 2019 ODI World Cup. And while the other jigsaw pieces will eventually fit into the puzzle with time, the spin attack is the one under the most reconsideration if the past two ODI series are anything to go by. Simply put, Virat Kohli isn’t particularly happy with what he has available with Ashwin-Jadeja alone, and he is looking for more.
This is what the Champions Trophy did. Two years before the pinnacle event, it was supposed to be a dry run for the World Cup, and help teams understand their strengths and weaknesses. Being an ICC-run tournament, it also allowed for an assessment of the conditions that can be expected in 2019. For India, the biggest conclusion was fairly obvious – batting-friendly pitches, white ball not swinging much, and spinners not doing enough in the middle overs, either in terms of controlling runs or taking wickets.
That last aspect is the underlining one because Ashwin didn’t play in the first two games against Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In the next three matches against South Africa, Bangladesh and Pakistan again, he returned a single wicket in 29 overs (yes, you read that right!) at an economy of 5.75 and average of 167. Jadeja too was unimpressive – four wickets in 42 overs across five matches at an economy of 5.92 and average of 62.25.
Controlling the tempo
These figures don’t sit well with India’s bowling plans, which have become clearer in this ODI series against Sri Lanka. Kohli looks to attack up front with Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s tight lines, and puts Jasprit Bumrah/Hardik Pandya to use as per opposition or conditions on offer.
In the middle overs, he wants his spinners to control the pace of scoring whilst delivering crucial wickets, so when Bumrah returns to bowl around the 35th over, he can further choke the scoring rate. This plan didn’t work in the Champions Trophy at all, at least as far as spin goes. It did work, first in West Indies and then in Sri Lanka, however.
“Axar Patel varied his pace a lot. Despite not having too many variations, he didn’t let the batsmen get on top. He used his height very well. Kuldeep and Yuzi Chahal, being wrist spinners, will always keep you in the game. They are pretty spot on with attacking the batsmen all the time. It really helped us get those crucial wickets in the middle overs, and at the same time helped us control the run-rate as well,” said Kohli, reflecting on his spin choices, after the 5-0 series victory.
Ashwin-Jadeja may be the foremost spinners in Tests at present. But that attacking instinct has been visibly absent in limited-overs’ cricket. If their statistics from the Champions Trophy are any reflection, they are defensive, holding spinners at best. Surely, team India does not need two of them in the same line-up, and a key rejoinder to this was seen in the Caribbean, when Yadav played all five ODIs with Ashwin-Jadeja used alternately.
“I cannot bowl to restrict runs. If I do that, I will end up conceding more runs. I like to flight the ball so the batsman can attack me, because that will give me more chances to get him out. Taking wickets should be a habit for bowlers. If you are not taking wickets, you are an ordinary bowler and of no use to the team. My thought process is very simple,” said Yadav, ahead of the fourth ODI in Colombo.
There is chutzpah about this young left-arm leg-spinner that has seen him snare 11 wickets in seven ODIs thus far at an average of 20.81. Cynics will argue that it is still early days for him, but the devil lies in the comparison. Jadeja’s last 11 ODI wickets have come in 15 matches. Meanwhile, Ashwin has taken his last 11 ODI wickets in 12 matches dating back to the 2015-‘16 season. That last factoid is staggering even when you consider that the off-spinner hasn’t played much limited-overs cricket in the past two seasons.
All eyes on the 2019 World Cup
Additionally, it is representative of the unorthodoxy that wrist spinners bring to the table. It is also why Kohli is keen to pick either Yadav or Chahal in the playing eleven, or even both as the case may be, ahead of his regular “Test spinners”. Then, there is the Patel angle, who does a holding job while the skipper can attack with a leg spinner from the other end, or indeed even game a tad by bringing on a part-timer (read Kedar Jadhav).
“We want to recognise our best combination for the World Cup as quickly as possible,” Kohli had said on Sunday, underlining the experiments against Sri Lanka as a success. Yadav and Chahal have given Kohli the control he desired, and there is merit in their elevation as contenders for that big tournament. As harsh it may sound, Patel and Jadeja seem to be interchangeable in terms of their bowling, alone. The added rider herein, of course, is fielding.
At this early stage on the road to 2019, it is a wonder where Ashwin stands in the pecking order thus. Guess we will know soon enough, if he continues playing county cricket whilst the Australian team arrives in India.