What is the most common stick to beat India’s no.1 Test ranking with?

Between June 2015 and December 2017, India have played 31 Tests. 20 Tests were played at home, while 11 on foreign soil. That word – foreign – is a bit of a stretch though, for it included tours to Bangladesh (2015), Sri Lanka (2015 and 2017), and the West Indies (2016). India won 21 of these, and rode to the top of the ICC rankings, much to the dismay of their critics.

You know who else is beated up with the same stick?

R Ashwin, for his rise as one of world cricket’s best spinners coincided with India’s 31-Test run to no.1. Playing every match in this interim, Ashwin picked up a staggering 185 wickets – 5.96 wickets per Test – at average 22.08. Compare it with what he had done prior to this period, and the criticism becomes obvious.

In 24 Tests, from his debut in November 2011 to the Australian tour in 2014-15, he had picked 119 wickets in 24 Tests at 30.67. During that overseas cycle, he had played only 6 Tests, picking 15 wickets at average 52.86. These numbers tell a tale of progression, one from a learning bowler, to a non-performer (yes!), to a world-class spinner.

On Saturday, at Supersport Park, that number – 31 – came into prominence one again. It was the sum of overs Ashwin had bowled on a day one Test wicket in South Africa.

Going back in time

The stage was Wanderers, Johannesburg. After an intense four days of Test cricket in December 2013, it boiled down to this last day’s play. India were in the hunt for a victory. Chasing 458, and starting day five at 138/2, South Africa believed themselves to be in a good position too.

It was a day no Indian cricket fan could forget, at least not for a while. South Africa finished at 450/7 in an intense draw. How could India not enforce victory on a day five pitch? More importantly, how could their lead spinner – Ashwin – end up wicket-less in 36 overs?

“It was a reality check, in terms of not being able to win a Test for your country on day five when all things were actually set up for a spinner. It was kind of a hit on my professional pride and from there on I knew I had to work on certain things. When you don’t take wickets, you don’t get bull-headed and believe things will get better from next time. I am not made that way at least,” Ashwin said, after day one at Centurion where he finished with 3-90.

It was an astounding but honest admission. He doesn’t like to talk about much about that disappointing 2013-14 cycle, particularly that South African tour wherein he was dropped at Durban (in favour of Ravindra Jadeja) and not picked for the next five overseas Tests. He doesn’t like to talk about that Johannesburg Test, period. Often, in various conversations about his bowling, he comes across as ‘bull-headed’.

Perhaps, it is nothing but a defense mechanism. We forget cricketers are also human beings. They can have bad days in office too, and then have to justify their performance to the world (a billion fanatics in this particular case), not just to a singular boss sitting in his cabin.

They – particularly Indian cricketers – do not have the luxury of living, and surviving, in a cocoon. Maybe then, Ashwin had waited for this day to burst out and let his innermost thoughts about that match, that tour, be known.

Ashwin came into the attack early and stayed there. Photo credit: BCCI/Sportzpics
Ashwin came into the attack early and stayed there. Photo credit: BCCI/Sportzpics

Cut to the present

It was only the 20th over of South Africa’s first innings. The match was half-a-session old. And suddenly Virat Kohli threw the ball at Ashwin, his fifth bowler. The Centurion wicket had surprised everyone. Yet, it was even more befuddling to see Ashwin get purchase off the surface from the very beginning.

When Faf du Plessis had talked about the wicket being ‘a lot browner’, he wouldn’t have envisaged first-session turn for the world’s best off-spinner. Hell, 48 hours before the match, India didn’t even think they would need a spinner in this Test.

“It had looked like an all-seam attack for us. When the grass disappeared, I thought I am in contention (to play) now. Personally, I was very happy the grass was taken off,” Ashwin said.

The Centurion wicket has a tendency to be damp on the first morning. Thanks to the dead ‘brown’ grass on surface, it allowed for the ball to grip. From the moment, Ashwin had Dean Elgar in some trouble, it was clear that India needed to bowl around their talismanic spinner on this day.

The pitch had afforded little help to pacers in their first spells. This was a familiar setting. It didn’t take long for Ashwin to get into his element. Kohli, being the ‘intent-minded’ captain he is, attacked with close-in fielders.

It was a well-known sight – the ball turning, Ashwin dominating, particularly troubling the left-hander and catchers egging him on. It was only the ‘open’ stadium with its sun-tanning Saturday crowd that made you realise this match was not happening in Chennai. It mattered not, for team India was on a mission.

Ashwin is used to being the peripheral bowler in this Indian attack. Mostly, he has Jadeja for company at the other end, drying up runs and putting pressure on the batsmen. But not this time – for it was a moment of reckoning for him, and he had to contend with it all by himself. He brought out all his weapons – the regular off-break, the carom ball, even the ‘flipper’ that he has been developing lately.

“For me, it was about changing angles and bringing in the variations. I didn’t have too many opportunities when Hashim Amla and Aiden Markram were batting, but I was able to do it more in the last session of the day,” Ashwin pointed out.

It was precisely in that last session that India scripted a fine comeback in the game. Through the day they had toiled hard, and this perseverance was rewarded by South Africa who squandered 3 wickets for 5 runs.

And herein, Ashwin’s fine spell to help trigger this collapse from one end catches the spotlight. Four years ago, the criticism against him was that he had been too defensive on a fifth day pitch. On this day, nay day one, he had turned the tide in India’s favour because he was able to shift gears from defense to attack when the situation demanded it. This, alone, marked how different he is today to the bowler who had failed in Johannesburg.

Slipping up in the slips

On day two then, Ashwin had a rare chance of picking five wickets overseas, thwarted only by Kohli’s butter-fingers at slip and gross miscommunication between Hardik Pandya and Mohammed Shami. They gave Kagiso Rabada two lives.

It also begged the question why he was introduced so late into the attack this morning. It could have been on account of the new-ish second ball, allowing pacers to stay in the game a bit. But Ashwin is not stranger to bowling with the new ball irrespective of the format of the game. This went down as another of Kohli’s queer tactics, ranging from mixed-up selection policies to fixed plans when it comes to changing the bowling around.

Even so, it shouldn’t take away from the fact that Centurion is India’s best chance of making a comeback in the series. Only 335 in the first innings to surmount, and with a ‘home-like’ pitch available to Ashwin in the second Proteas’ innings as well, could this be his redemption song?