The build-up to India’s final Test match against Australia in Sydney last month was one of the more bizarre ones we saw in the recent past, as far as Virat Kohli’s and Co squad selection was concerned. In what has become an entertaining sideshow by itself, there is plenty of interest before every Test India plays over who will be in the XI (or XII or XII) for a game.

In Sydney, Kohli’s press conference started with a announcement from India’s media manager that R Ashwin is not fit enough to feature in the Test, adding that the team will be announced later. Kohli, then, went on to talk about the frustrations of (and for) Ashwin — his lead-spinner overseas — not being available for a historic Test.

“It’s unfortunate that he’s had two niggles that are quite similar in the last two away tours,” said Kohli.

After a little over an hour (and a bit after Tim Paine suggested it’s a good thing for Australia that Ashwin would miss out) India ended up naming Ashwin in the thirteen-member squad after all. At that time, it felt like a delayed reaction to keep Australia guessing somewhat as to who will feature for India and so it turned out at the toss, with Kohli naming Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav as his two spinners.

In a Test that was frustrating to watch for many fans, with the farce surrounding play stoppage — but it must have been as frustrating if not more for India’s premier red-ball spinner as he watched on from sidelines, with Yadav picking up a five-wicket haul. There was a feeling that Yadav, who has been in and out of the Test XIs since then, had done enough to merit selection irrespective of Ashwin’s fitness.

A month since, India head coach Ravi Shastri has gone on record confirming that, for all intents and purposes, young Kuldeep Yadav, will be the team’s go-to guy in overseas Tests going forward.

“He plays overseas Test cricket and he gets five wickets, so he becomes our primary overseas spinner. Going ahead, if we have to play one spinner, he is the one we will pick,” Shastri told Cricbuzz in an interview. “There is a time for everyone. But now Kuldeep is our frontline number one overseas spinner.”

What the numbers say

And thus, the overseas cycle that began with Ashwin impressing in a brief seven-over outing in the first Test against South Africa ended with him in playing only seven out 12 Tests.

In those seven Tests, however, he bowled 303.0 overs, taking 24 wickets at an average of 30.16 and economy rate of 2.38.

vs South Africa: 4 innings, 76.3 overs, 7 wickets at 30.71 

vs England: 7 innings, 139.4 overs, 11 wickets at 32.72 

vs Australia: 2 innings, 86.5 overs, 6 wickets at 24.83

Now, forget everything else for a moment, and focus on just those numbers. Those are not bad returns for an Indian spinner, playing in seven overseas Tests where the pacers invariably dominated and had a year to remember. A spinner is typically expected to provide control and chip in with breakthroughs — which Ashwin did well, when he played.

His batting, however, has been on a downward trend for a while now and that continued. In the 14 innings he batted in the past year overseas, he scored 246 runs with a highest score of 38 at an average of 20.50. Apart from his crucial partnership in the first innings in Adelaide with Cheteshwar Pujara, there is no special innings that comes to mind.

Based on the numbers, it would be fair to say even if Ashwin’s stock as all-rounder came down, his returns as the lead spinner in a pace-heavy attack were solid.

What the numbers don’t say

Well, the number that does matter for the Indian team, going by Shastri’s quotes, is the fact that Kuldeep Yadav got a five-for in one of the two Tests he played away while Ashwin did not. Reading between the lines, it is also the fact that he missed out on five Tests out of 12 away from home due to similar injuries. And injuries, that seemed to have repeated — side strains.

Ashwin admitted to bowling in Southampton without being a 100% fit as Moeen Ali outperformed him in a wicket that had assistance for spinners. He came under some criticism for his second innings showing in the Adelaide win and it was later reported that he was carrying the niggle from the fourth day, aggravating it on the fifth when he bowled over after over without too much luck before India eventually managed to break down Australia’s resistance. The team management, it later emerged, had asked him to hold one end up without leaking runs — a job he managed well.

Kohli said in Sydney that Ashwin is still very much a part of his plans if he is fit but Yadav’s performance seems to have changed that equation. Ashwin’s fitness, more than his numbers, has meant that he is perhaps not seen as a reliable front-line option.

What next?

It’s not just Ashwin that has come under pressure by Shastri’s bold statement, of course. Ravindra Jadeja, Ashwin’s partner in crime in many a home conquest in recent past, did not have the most pleasant Australia Test tour as well, after featuring in just the dead rubber in England. There was that altercation with Ishant Sharma in Perth, and then controversy over his fitness and how it was dealt with. He eventually played two Tests and was solid, if not spectacular with the ball, while continuing to improve on his batting form. And he is still very much a part of the World Cup plans too, so the road does not seem to be a cul de sac for Jadeja, for now.

For Ashwin though, who is not anywhere close to making the limited overs squad, it now seems to be a case of being a home Test specialist. For all we know, Shastri’s statement might just be intended as a kick up the back-side to make sure the record-breaking off-spinner is ready for future challenges.

Right here and now, it is hard to be critical of a player for getting injured. Of course, no one plays to get injured. And no cricketer wants to miss out from being a part of a team that is doing well, because not being able to celebrate famous Test wins can be as frustrating as being a part of a side that struggles to win. Ashwin, on his part, trained at the SCG nets on New Year’s day when the rest of the team opted to take it easy. It was one man slogging it out, trying to regain his fitness, when his teammates took a deserved break. It did not prove to be enough.

It is unlikely that we will hear Ashwin’s views on this anytime soon but put yourself in his shoes for a moment. Does he deserve to be demoted for getting injured while playing a game? After becoming the fastest to reach 300 wickets in Tests, is it fair for him to give up his place to a younger spinner who has impressed in one out of the two away games he has played? For someone who has improved his overseas record steadily, and still only 31 years old, would this not feel like a kick in the gut?

For now though, with India not playing an overseas Test until after the World Cup, one is left to wonder what next for R Ashwin.