Earlier this week, Muttiah Muralitharan gave Ashwin Ravichandran a huge compliment. Asked who he thought could come close to his record tally of 800 Test wickets, the Sri Lankan great said he only sees the India off-spinner having a chance.

“Ashwin has a chance because he is a great bowler. Other than that, I don’t think any younger bowler coming in will go to 800,” Muralitharan was quoted as saying in a Michael Vaughan coloumn for the London-based Telegraph.

Muralitharan’s was a timely nod to Ashwin, for the latter has been the toast of the cricketing world over the past week for his heroics in the drawn Sydney Test.

Ashwin has been a key figure in the Indian team over the past month as the Border-Gavaskar Trophy has enthralled audiences worldwide. In the absence of a number of important players, the 34-year-old stepped up when his team needed him the most. Be it his pep talks during team huddles or the determination with which he batted at the SCG, Ashwin shouldered the responsibility of being a senior player with aplomb.

But his biggest impact was, of course, with the ball in hand. In the three Tests he played in the series, he bowled the most number of overs for India (134.1), got the most number of wickets (12), had the lowest economy-rate (2.57), and on pitches that are meant to be more suited for fast bowling, he returned with a better average than Jasprit Bumrah (28.83 as compared to 29.36).

There was a lot riding on Ashwin heading into the series. With Ishant Sharma missing, he was the senior-most bowler in the side and was expected to lead the attack. And he did exactly that. On his fourth tour Down Under, having struggled in the past to replicate the threat he posed in home games, Ashwin analysed in great detail the challenge at hand and found a way to succeed.

His battles with Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne in the first two Tests were simply incredible to watch. In the past, he’d struggle to find the right pace for Australian pitches and would often pay the price for trying too much. But this time, he decided to bowl much straighter, keep a tight leg-side field, and use his variations from a similar length.

The drift he got away from the right-handers from a middle-stump line was sensational, but the true testament to his class as a bowler was the consistency with which he executed his plans. His dismissals of Smith and Labuschagne in the Melbourne Test played a huge part in India bouncing back from the Adelaide debacle.

However, the riveting battle between Ashwin and the Aussies was cut short because of an issue that’s troubled the ace off-spinner repeatedly over the past few years. A back spasm he suffered during the Sydney Test forced him out of the all-important decider at the Gabba and left his team in a deep hole.

Muscle spasm generally results from inflammation that occurs when a muscle is overstretched or torn. It begins as a muscle strain, which doesn’t sound like a serious injury, but it can cause severe low back pain.

Now, it’s undeniable that Ashwin is well on his way to being an all-time great for India in the red-ball format. His record of 377 wickets in 74 Tests at an average of 25.53 speaks for itself. But what’s also undeniable is that his numbers are much better at home than they are in away games. And there is, perhaps, another explanation for that apart from the fact that conditions in India are more suitable to his style of bowling.

R Ashwin's bowling stats in Test cricket

Mat Wkts BBI BBM Ave ER SR 5s 10s
Overall 74 377 7/59 13/140 25.53 2.83 54.0 27 7
Home 43 254 7/59 13/140 22.80 2.76 49.4 21 6
Away 31 123 7/83 10/160 31.18 2.93 63.7 6 1
Courtesy ESPNcricinfo

A remarkable aspect about Ashwin’s career is that since his debut in 2011, India have contested in 43 Tests at home and he has played in each and every one of them. However, he has featured in only 31 of the 48 away Tests India have played since his arrival. While dips in form have indeed played a part in him being in-and-out of the side in overseas Tests, another factor, especially since 2018, has been the number of injuries he has had.

Since the final Test of the 2018 tour of England, injuries have forced Ashwin to miss five of the 13 Tests India have played away from home. It started with a hip injury at the Oval, followed by an abdominal strain which kept him out of three Tests during the 2018-19 tour of Australia, and now a back spasm ahead of the ongoing Brisbane Test. And it goes without saying that these have been some of the most important Test matches for India during this period.

Away Test series featuring R Ashwin

Opposition Year Mat Played Missed Reason
Australia 2011-12 4 3 1 Dropped
South Africa 2013-14 2 1 1 Dropped
New Zealand 2013-14 2 0 2 Dropped
England 2014 5 2 3 Dropped
Australia 2014-15 4 3 1 Dropped
Bangladesh 2015 1 1 0
Sri Lanka 2015 3 3 0
West Indies 2016 4 4 0
Sri Lanka 2017 3 3 0
South Africa 2017-18 3 2 1 Dropped
England 2018 5 4 1 Hip injury
Australia 2018-19 4 1 3 Abdominal strain
West Indies 2019 2 0 2 Dropped
New Zealand 2019-20 2 1 1 Dropped
Australia 2020-21 4 3 1 Back spasm
Scroll sideways to view full table

“Injury is not something you can hold up against a certain player,” Ashwin had said in February 2019, soon after missing three Tests in Australia. “Injury has not missed Sachin Tendulkar, injury has not missed Don Bradman and it will not miss players in the future. Whenever I have done a fitness test or a Yo-Yo test, I am at the top of the list. I am doing my best.”

As hard as Ashwin says he works on his fitness, the fact of the matter is that injuries have been a constant for him in recent years. Perhaps, this is because he isn’t the most athletic cricketer to begin with or that he doesn’t have a quick-arm action which leads to a great deal of pressure on his lower back and hips. Whatever the reason may be, what’s important for him going forward is that age will only make things tougher.

Over the years, we’ve seen a number of legendary sportspersons evolve with time. Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Lionel Messi – there are many examples of great athletes recalibrating their game with age. Even closer home, we had Zaheer Khan take time away to return fitter and stronger during the second half of his career. And the one constant for all these greats was that they worked that much harder on their fitness as the years went by.

Ashwin is one of the great thinkers of the game. He has spoken many a time about the amount of thought he puts into constantly honing his skills. His passion and commitment towards the sport is irrefutable. It was there for all to see when he fought intense pain to battle for hours in Sydney. But perhaps, it’s time he reinvents his fitness regime the way he reinvented his skills to take on the Aussies. And you never know, in time, we may get to call Muralitharan a soothsayer.