350 wickets. 66 Tests. Quickest ever to breach that mark – Muttiah Muralitharan.

Think of him, and it is tough not to think of the phrase ‘all-time great’ in the same breath. You may not have been convinced about his action (it doesn’t matter), or you may have thought Shane Warne to be the greater spinner. Even so, there is no deniability herein of the elite status Muralitharan had achieved before the halfway stage of his world-record haul of 800 Test wickets.

Add another name to that 350-bracket now – Ravichandran Ashwin.

Like Murali, it is a record-equalling feat that further affirms his spot in an elite group of cricketers. He has taken 242 of his wickets in 39 home Tests – that’s six wickets per match, three per innings on home turf. Wickets are a certainty given the manner Ashwin bowls in India.

“He blocks one end up all day,” reckoned Faf du Plessis after the Visakhapatnam Test.

South Africa, like most visiting teams here, miss that one bowler to hold fort from one end and allow their pacers to run in from the other. It was an unmatched trick for MS Dhoni, and now it is for Virat Kohli as well. Thereafter, it is about skill, undeniable in Ashwin’s case.

Look at Aiden Markram’s dismissal in the first innings. Facing spin early, he had this zeal of taking an extended front-foot step in a bid to attack the length. In turn, it left a huge gap between bat and pad. Using high revs on the new ball, Ashwin pierced that gap and Markram’s stumps were shattered.

It is also about perseverance, the stock weapon of any true-blue Test bowler. Back in 2016, when Vizag hosted its first Test, Ashwin bowled a whopping 59.5 overs against England. He bowled 66.2 overs against South Africa this past week. In ideal Indian conditions now (proper sub-continental wickets, not rank turners), there is increasingly slower turn on offer, meaning a higher number of overs for the spinners. Why, Ravindra Jadeja bowled 65 overs in this Test too (against England in 2016, he bowled 63 overs on a similarly slow surface).

At this juncture, the narrative transcends skill and perseverance and poses the larger question about how Ashwin has been treated in the past year. He bowled 76.3 overs in two Tests in South Africa, 139.4 overs in four Tests in England, and 86.5 overs in the Adelaide Test against Australia.

At the start of that overseas cycle, he was the obvious number one spinner. But 20 months is a long time and we have arrived at a fork in the road where Virat Kohli has had to justify not picking Ashwin in the West Indies.

“We picked Jadeja for the season he had and the overseas performances he put in. [However] the kind of bowler Ashwin is, he will always be starting with Jadeja [in home conditions],” said the skipper before the first Test. It was the second time in nine months that the team management changed its stance on India’s number one spinner.

In an interview with this writer in February, coach Ravi Shastri had proclaimed Kuldeep Yadav as the prominent spin choice. Yet, he was not in contention in the West Indies and is relegated to third-choice at home. Kohli’s statement is clearly different from that of the coach.

Overseas record

The combination of fitness issues and team selection has been a tough pill to swallow for Ashwin. Was it unfair? Perhaps, yes. The spotlight here shines brightly on overseas records then.

Ashwin has 108 wickets in 27 away Tests – that’s 4 wickets per overseas match at average 31.39 and strike-rate 63.4. Jadeja has 54 wickets in 15 away Tests – that’s 3.6 wickets per overseas match at average 35.05 and strike-rate 74. How does it compare with other Indian spinners?

Arguably the greatest Indian spinner of all time, Anil Kumble took 269 wickets in 69 away Tests (3.89 per overseas match) at average 35.85 and strike-rate 74.5. Harbhajan Singh, who is often critical of Ashwin on-air, took 152 wickets in 48 away Tests (3.16 per overseas match) at average 38.90 and strike-rate 76.2. Stretch it back a little further to the seventies. Erapalli Prasanna took 94 wickets in 27 away Tests (3.48 per overseas match) at average 33.85 and strike-rate 81.4. Bishan Bedi took 129 wickets in 37 away Tests (3.48 per overseas match) at average 33.72 and strike-rate 85. Bhagwat Chandrasekhar took 100 wickets in 26 away Tests (3.84 per overseas match) at average 32.66 and strike-rate 67.7.

Comparison over eras is a moot point, silly even. The bottomline is what these statistics reveal. Is Ashwin’s impact better than those past records from the Kumble-Bhajji era, leave alone the seventies?

It is difficult to say, but the statistics favour him.

Are his numbers better than those of his contemporary/teammate and the spinner deemed number one for the most recent away series? Yes, definitely.

But for reasons unknown, whenever there is a debate over the lone spinner’s role in overseas Test cricket, Ashwin alone is prominently browbeaten with those numbers, whether in public discourse or in commentary boxes.

As Faf du Plessis defined above, the role of a spinner in Test cricket – whether home or away – is to hold one end up and bowl in pairing with spin or pace from the other end. If the spinner in question can also attack and pick up a handful of wickets along the way, it is a bonus.

Triumphant return

Ashwin, in that regard, is bang on the money. Bowling at home comes easy to him, finding different lines of attack when the opposition sets in on a still-decent pitch. But to anyone who watched his first innings’ display in Centurion, the Birmingham and Adelaide Tests, all from 2018, he has managed to hold tight to that definition.

To look at his situation from only a myopic statistical viewpoint is rather convenient and, more importantly, grossly unjust on a record-breaking spinner.

And, of course, you do need to ask, what of those numbers in home Tests? What weight do they carry then? He has 350 from 66 Tests, which feels like only the halfway mark of a special journey.

“To stay away from the game, not playing cricket, was very tough for me” he said, on his triumphant return to the side in Visakhapatnam.

There was relief on his face after that familiar haul of 7/145, except he regained more than just wickets, something mighty precious. Ashwin isn’t someone to let emotions get the better of him in front of the media, let alone the opposition. But for a brief moment, his demeanour portrayed what he truly felt.

“I am elated to be back!”

Indian cricket and its billion fans should be elated too. We are witnessing bowling greatness, and need to appreciate the same while it lasts.