Rough patches outside the batsman’s off-stump, a pitch that was coughing up dust, inconsistent bounce and sharp turn to follow. Conditions at Southampton could not have been more in favour of the spinners on Saturday.
But still, India’s star spinner R Ashwin walked off the ground at close of play on day 3 of the fourth Test against England with just one wicket to show for his troubles.
The conditions were as dry as as they can get in England. The sun was beating down on the Aegis bowl. The stage was set for Ashwin to shine bright. But, it wasn’t to be his day.
The 31-year-old toiled for 35 overs. He produced a few close shaves, going past the edge of the batsmen a few times. But, just could not find the right length and pace to keep the batsmen on their toes, despite the rough on offer.
“With his experience he will pick up a few wickets. He is a clever bowler. He will definitely utilise the rough,” Cheteshwar Pujara had claimed at the end of the previous day.
The script played out a lot differently, though. Maybe, it was the weight of expectations or just the resolve of the English batsmen, but Ashwin came up short when it mattered the most.
He just could not find a way past the Englishmen, who seemed more troubled by India’s seamers when they should have been spun out by the spinner.
He made the rudimentary error of bowling quick even as he aimed to pitch the ball in the rough. His average speed usually hovers around the low 80s, but on Saturday he went as high as 93kph. The resultant turn wasn’t as effective and the pace even seemed to affect his accuracy. The likes of Keaton Jennings and Jos Buttler known for their penchant for playing spin were more than up to the task.
The most intriguing spell of play was when Jennings dispatched Ashwin for two consecutive boundaries. His first shot was a reverse sweep to the fence. Ashwin wasn’t a happy man. Jennings changed his plan the very next ball as Ashwin attempted to compensate. The batsman, this time, found the boundary with an orthodox sweep. The disconcerting aspect wasn’t that Ashwin had conceded eight runs in two balls, but the ease at which the batsman had picked him and executed the shot.
His length let him down as well. He gave ample time to the batsmen to make adjustments even when the bowler was getting some juice of the track.
Ashwin tried to alter his line and length but that didn’t help matters either. He kept changing from over the wicket to round the wicket, hoping to use the rough areas on both sides of the pitch. He kept altering his lengths but he was either too full or too short.
There was even a stark difference in the way he altered his action from the first Test, where he had picked up seven wickets in the match. He is usually side-on with his action but on Saturday, he was chest-on and the change might have impacted his accuracy and perhaps even his rhythm.
But, that Ashwin effort was quite different in execution. In Southampton, it just wasn’t his day. The hip injury he picked up in the previous Test could have played a role as well. However, to consider those aspects one has to be provided with facts. The team management was clear Ashwin was fully fit, which rules out any niggle that he carried into the game could have hampered his ability to bowl effectively.
If Ashwin would have observed how Moeen Ali operated on the previous day, he would have done well too. The English spinner made the most of the footholes. Kept his pace in check and gave the ball flight, a basic aspect that Ashwin for some reason failed to consider or execute. One might argue that the pitch was too slow and he did need to bowl quicker than usual, however Moeen’s five-wicket haul was proof enough to suggest that such changes were not required.
Ashwin did walk away with one wicket to show, though. He bagged the wicket of Ben Stokes just after the Tea break. Ashwin celebrated with gusto. Relief was written large on his face. The toil had finally reaped dividends. He would have thought it would help open the floodgates and more wickets would follow. It has happened before. But, on Saturday, it didn’t.
Ashwin’s prowess on rough pitches is well-documented, what transpired was more shocking for the fans than the bowler himself. Maybe, the team management missed a trick by not picking another spinner. In doing so, they may have piled on the pressure on Ashwin, who was coming into the game on back of minor injury. Kohli used the seamers sparingly as the ball got old. Ashwin was used from one end non-stop but the fast bowlers got long breathers. The skipper could have changed the tactic by observing Ashwin’s struggles. But, he chose to stick with his plans.
The camera panned to Ravindra Jadeja a few times as he sat near the boundary rope taking care of the drinks for the players on the field. He even came on as a substitute fielder. If the team management had its way he could have come on as a substitute spinner as well. It was that bad a day for Ashwin in the office and couldn’t have come at a worse time for India.
The match still hangs in the balance but if Moeen can do what Ashwin couldn’t, India might be in a fair bit of trouble.