From trying out leg-spin in the Indian Premier League to bowling Alastair Cook with a classical off-spin delivery on Day one of the opening Test against England, Ravichandran Ashwin has had quite a year.
Pressure can weigh you down or can bring the best out of you. Ashwin, though, bloomed under the weight of expectations. A lot was riding on his first outing in England. Talk of Kuldeep Yadav coming into the side as the lead spinner was swirling around.
Already out of India’s limited-overs set up, Ashwin had spent the months leading up to the India tour experimenting with his variations, even producing a leg-spin delivery. By dropping Cheteshwar Pujara for the first Test, the team management had reiterated that they weren’t shy of making bold selection choices. With Kuldeep making the cut in the Test squad, the sword was clearly hanging over Ashwin. The onus was on him to prove his relevance.
“You can’t let Ashwin fade away so quickly, because 300 wickets is not a matter of joke. Ashwin has a place in the side. He will reinvent himself because he feels challenged, he knows Kuldeep is up for his Test spot,” former India skipper Sourav Ganguly had said last month.
And Ashwin did step up on Wednesday as India began their stiff five-match Test tour at Edgbaston.
Back in whites at Edgbaston, he did that without conjuring up anything out of the ordinary. He stuck to his most potent deliveries, relying on his stock off-spinners and slow breaks.
Handed the ball as early as the 7\seventh over, he made an immediate impact dismissing Alastair Cook with a ripper of a ball that had dip, a lot of zing and turn that would have made all those months of toil worthwhile. It pitched on leg and turned just enough to go past the bat and crash into off-stump.
Ashwin fans will not be surprised to see him induce turn so early into the game. But, to pick up four wickets on Day one of a Test in England is a feat not many spinners have accomplished.
The off-spinner played his part with aplomb as he helped turn the tide in India’s favour after England were cruising at one stage on 216/3, before collapsing to 243/7.
After Cook, he claimed the wickets of dangerous Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Stuart Broad. They were left prodding and jabbing for the ball as Ashwin proved his prowess on the hard wickets in England.
That three of his four dismissals came against left-handers reiterated the value an off-spinner brings to the table. His bag of tricks didn’t allow the batsmen to settle down. His effort saw England’s middle order collapse soon after a steady stand between Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow came to an end.
Early on, though, it appeared that India would be on the back foot. They would have to play catch-up after losing the toss. The pitch was flat. With premier pacers Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah injured, the pace attack was vulnerable. Umesh Yadav soon lost steam and the English openers did just enough to fend off Ishant Sharma and Hardik Pandya.
Tossed the ball to effect a breakthrough, Ashwin delivered almost immediately only to return later in the day and clean up the lower-order.
With India going in with the lone spinner, there was that lingering question as to whether the visitors were a spinner short in conditions which were helpful for the slow bowlers. In the initial exchanges, it looked like India had missed a trick and were struggling to keep the English batsmen in check.
Ashwin’s entry, though, gave India the impetus needed to turn things around.