R. Ashwin is a curious bowler. He is the kind of bowler who thrives on momentum, like many previous Indian spinners of various eras. But there are times when nothing he bowls ever seems like it will merit a wicket. There are times when he looks absolutely helpless, a slave of pitches and circumstances and lack of confidence. There are times when he just doesn’t look like the no. 1 bowler in test cricket.
As of now, though, that R. Ashwin is fleeting. He is no. 1 again. For a bit, it seemed like MS Dhoni’s usage of him in the 2-month long Indian T20 League seemed to have dented his soul. For many games, Dhoni even bowled rookie Murugan Ashwin ahead of R. Ashwin for the Rising Pune Supergiants. When Ashwin bowled, he didn’t for more than an over or two, or sometimes none. It almost seemed like Dhoni was purposely testing his temperament and steel, now that he had retired from Test cricket and couldn’t mold his favorite spinner. Ashwin cracked a bit, and we wondered if his test form would dessert him ahead of a long season.
And it seemed like it did, for almost an innings and half into India’s first test against West Indies at Antigua. The world and its mother are aware about Ashwin’s decreased “aura” outside of the subcontinent. But here, he went a whole innings against a depleted West Indian batting attack without a wicket. We had seen this before. And it was never in India. It was always overseas. It had to be. Then, for the first 9 overs of the second innings, it seemed like Ashwin would be the spinner dropped in the second Test in favor of Ravindra Jadeja. Amit Mishra had taken wickets by then. But Ashwin was coming into the second innings on back of a curious development: He had been promoted to no. 6 in the batting order, above wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha. Virat Kohli may have recognized the importance of telling Ashwin that the team still needed him – if not with the ball, then with the bat. Anil Kumble may have decided to make his top offie an all-rounder, something he never had the privilege of doing himself. Rohit Sharma would have batted at this spot had he been selected. R. Ashwin didn’t shy away from the added responsibility. After all, how much worse could it get? At least nobody would blame him if he failed with the bat; it wasn’t even his job to succeed.
And then, he succeeded. And succeeded even more.
His third Test century came – all three against West Indies. It was his first outside India. He now averaged almost 34 in his 33 tests with the bat. Even Moeen Ali, a designated all-rounder, averaged lesser.
And then, after the 9th over with the ball, Ashwin tasted blood. Before the match, he had spoken about how Kumble would understand him as a bowler, and how he had already learned that he would need to be patient and carve away thanklessly at the opposition even when things didn’t go right. It was all about discipline and consistency, and then hopefully reaping the benefits.
The floodgates opened. In Ashwin’s first Test in the Caribbean, he took 7/83 – any Indian spinner’s best bowling figures abroad – in the second innings. He had taken nothing for 42 in the first innings. He looked like less of a chessmaster and more of a bowler again. He looked confident again. Perhaps the wicket of Marlon Samuels, the opposition’s best batsman, may have spurred him on.
He knew that his stats, which had made him the best bowler in world cricket at the moment, were a bit flawed. He knew that they had to be corrected, and this would be the beginning.
This was Ashwin’s 10th test outside the subcontinent in five years. It was his 14th test outside India alone.
He has taken 152 out of his 183 wickets in the subcontinent at an average of 20. Stunning figures. His other 31 wickets outside came at almost 38. In his only Test in South Africa, he had failed to take a wicket in 42 overs. In Australia, he averages 55 for his 21 wickets in 6 Tests.
It isn’t his fault that he has played only 10 matches outside Asia. Though, it is his fault that he wasn’t picked for some of the matches in Australia and England – that he wasn’t even the first-choice spinner in these tours. But now, with the added responsibility of batting up the order, at a spot where he always should have batted, India may need him to become the all-rounder Dhoni had always craved for. It’s ironic that Dhoni, who blooded Ashwin into who he is, didn’t quite take the initiative to do this. It took Kohli, and Kumble, the two test captains on either side of Dhoni, to recognize this inevitability. No more Binny and silly seaming all-rounders. Perhaps Dhoni’s exit has ironically accelerated Ashwin’s destiny. Dhoni used to bat at 6, and now with Saha still finding his feet (impressively), Ashwin can emulate the best all-rounders of all time.
He became only the second player after Ian Botham (twice) to score a century and take a 7-for in the same innings. He became one of four players to do the 100 and 5-for twice already.
And in the rankings that came out a day later, Ashwin was expectedly the World no. 1 bowler once again. Of course, that can change with another wicketless innings. But more importantly, and this will gladden Indian hearts more than ever, he is now the no. 1 Test all-rounder in cricket. A genuine Indian all-rounder – who is better with the ball than the bat, and who can also be better with the bat than the ball.