On days three and four of India’s solitary practice game in Sydney, R Ashwin sent down 40 overs – 40-7-122-2 were his figures – as Cricket Australia XI amassed 544 runs.
For what it’s worth, India didn’t bowl like a Test attack in that game. Their prime pacer Jasprit Bumrah sent down only seven deliveries; Mohammed Shami took time to find his bearings, Umesh Yadav didn’t find them at all. There was no Hardik Pandya, but Virat Kohli bowled. Ishant Sharma fine-tuned his skills after sitting out since September. It was no more than a work out.
In midst of this all, again, Ashwin’s spell takes spotlight. He held one end up, and constantly bowled. It is tough to pay continued attention on proceedings at a lowly fixture such as this, but whenever you looked up, there Ashwin was, bowling. Barring Yadav, who bowled 28 overs and is still nowhere close to the first Test’s playing eleven, the off-spinner bowled almost twice as many overs than any other primary Indian pacer.
Here, change the setting a bit. In the build-up to this same first Test, Australia’s attack has been gunning up too. Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon, all play for New South Wales, and represented their side in Sheffield Shield cricket against Queensland at Canberra (November 16-19).
Starc bowled 32 overs, Hazlewood another 34, and Cummins sent down 29 overs in that game as New South Wales won by 163 runs. Lyon, meanwhile, bowled 51.1 overs in that match picking up nine wickets. A week later, as India played their practice game, Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins took time off from Shield cricket duties to prepare for the first Test in the practice nets at the SCG.
Lyon, meanwhile, again played for New South Wales, this time against Western Australia at Perth. He bowled 43 overs, picked up seven wickets, as his team won by 104 runs. Look at it whichever way you want – that is a lot of overs and a lot of wickets going into a mega series against India.
“The key thing for both Australia and India is how their spinners, Lyon and Ashwin, bowl. Playing in Australia, a spinner’s job is quite different. Even if you are not taking wickets, you can slow things down and build pressure from one end,” opined Adam Gilchrist, ahead of this four-Test series.
“I also watch his videos [like he watches mine]. We started our Test careers at the same time so obviously mutual admiration is there. He has done well over the last couple years and bowling well, ball is coming out well off his hand. What can I learn? Probably drop the ball at the right spots and probably as the series goes on look forward to a good competition.
It is hard to replicate actions. Something has got me 350 Test wickets and something has got him 300 wickets. It is important to keep going the same way and learn a few things on the way.— Ashwin on Lyon
In that light, Lyon is quite used to being the focal point of Australia’s bowling attack. You just have to refer to last summer’s Ashes when England were hammered 4-0. Starc bowled 162.3 overs in four Tests and took 22 wickets. Cummins bowled 197.1 overs in five Tests and took 23 wickets. Hazlewood bowled 190.5 overs in five Tests and took 21 wickets. Lyon bowled 260.1 overs in five Tests and took 21 wickets.
Can India replicate Australia’s bowling model?
It is well-oiled machinery, this Australian attack, and they have perfected the art of bowling out opponents in their own conditions, following a set blueprint. Perhaps the only question mark is over the fitness of these three pacers – can they last four back-to-back Tests in 33 days? Surprisingly, Lyon is the answer to this as well.
“He is the key. Pat and Starcy bowl shorter spells at times, sometimes I do too. So, Lyon pretty much bowls from one end and after the new ball and we try to filter through from the other end. He is economical and he takes wickets,” said Hazlewood.
You simply know the Indian batsmen will go after Lyon, or they will try at least, in a bid to upstage this Australian attack. It didn’t work in 2014-15 – he picked up 23 wickets in four Tests, 12 of them in two innings of the first Test at Adelaide. Maybe, the Indian batsmen would want to be more careful this time. The bigger question is – can this Australian bowling model be replicated?
The answer is solely dependent on how Ashwin bowls. After benching the off-spinner in his first-ever overseas Test as captain (at Adelaide in 2014 coincidentally), Kohli has shown sufficient reliance on Ashwin’s credentials. Never mind that he played in all Tests in West Indies (2016) and Sri Lanka (2017), India’s leading spinner has featured in six out of eight overseas Tests in South Africa and England in 2018.
Ashwin’s role overseas
Of course, there is no doubt that bowling away from home Ashwin’s role undergoes massive reversal. He becomes the stock bowler – at Centurion, he bowled 68.2 overs for five wickets across two innings, out of a total 205.2 overs India bowled. The differentiation comes when you see that Ashwin picked 4-113 in the first innings and then only managed 1-78 in the second.
Perhaps there is a general expectation that he would run through batting line-ups in South Africa, England and Australia. Sorry, that is simply not going to happen, because there are too many variables within a singular overseas Test.
Not to mention, Kohli likes to mix things up. In England, as conditions changed from Birmingham, to Lord’s, to Nottingham, and to Southampton, Kohli used Ashwin in different methods, ranging from handing him the new ball at Centurion and Birmingham, to only giving one over at Nottingham.
Going back as far as 2016, it is tough to recall an away series wherein India went in with only four bowling options. Hardik Pandya played 9 out of 15 overseas Tests since then, but he isn’t here this time around. So, whenever you glance at the score over the next four Tests, Ashwin will be probably be bowling extra overs to fill that gap, much like Lyon.
Between the two off-spinners, whoever does a better job will have a strong bearing on this series.