There was a subplot that is being played out in the Indian cricket team as it seeks to extend its stranglehold over Sri Lanka in the Test series. Even in a series that appears to be quite lopsided in terms of a contest, with the home side in the throes of rebuilding its Test unit, the evolution of spin-twins Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja will be watched with more than cursory interest.
There was never any doubt that Sri Lanka’s curators would not risk preparing bowler-friendly pitches, given the absence of penetrative bowlers in the home team’s ranks. So one of the areas in which the Indian think-tank would have sought improvement was the ability of its own attack to claim 20 wickets on flatbeds.
The form of Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav, as well as the return of Bhuvneshwar Kumar meant that India had a fairly good crop of new ball bowlers on whom to fall back. In the recent years, India’s propensity to play either Ashwin or Jadeja as the primary and often the sole spin-bowling option meant that if a fast bowler did not find his rhythm, the attack would become quite imbalanced.
In the first Test — in which three Indian batsmen scored centuries and played no mean role in imposing pressure on Sri Lanka, there was one small but telling bit that went unnoticed, by and large. For the first time in an away Test, the Ashwin-Jadeja combination delivered the goods and came away with more wickets than the fast bowlers.
"The win is more special because the surface did not offer the bowlers much. They had to work hard, bowl in right areas and create opportunities," said captain Virat Kohli, praising their persistence in the Test. Sri Lanka’s lack of a stomach for fight was in evidence much of the time, but the bowlers had to keep plugging away.
In the wake of the team management’s decision to keep left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav out of the XI, the two finger spinners had to take up greater responsibility on a pitch that was overwhelmingly loaded in the batsmen’s favour. Over the past few years, either bowler had found it tough to make as much an impact away as he did at home, singly or in tandem.
For years, India would pack its attack with the faster bowlers in an overseas Test, with a spinner expected to provide relief and variety to the bowling. The opening Test of the current series may have contributed in some ways to changing that line of thinking. We may have to wait and see how Hardik Pandya evolves, but his arrival ensured that the two frontline spinners remained in the mix.
Of course, it may be early days to judge the Ashwin-Jadeja pair on the basis of its showing in one Test. But for the pairing to court success in its third Test (after Manchester in 2014 and Gros Islet in the West Indies last year) is significant. That the duo shared 10 wickets in an overseas Test for the first time cannot be ignored.
More than that number itself — four more than the trio of quicks claimed, the manner in which Jadeja and Ashwin picked up the Sri Lankan wickets reflected their evolution. That they were willing to work hard, remain patient, and present the batsmen challenges with their creativity, was perhaps a major step forward for the Indian team.
Jadeja was used mainly as a defensive option in most of his earlier away Tests. Kohli will be quite pleased with the left-arm spinner’s response to the call to become a wicket-taking option in not-so-helpful conditions as well. He engineered the defiant Kusal Mendis’ dismissal in the second innings by getting the batsman to jab at the ball from his crease.
It meant that the bowler had landed the ball on a teasing and confusing length, got it to turn just that bit to kiss the outside edge of a bat that was drawn out magnetically more than stuck out a defensive push. The twin dismissals of Angelo Mathews would also have given Jadeja immense satisfaction.
Ashwin’s scalping of left-handers Niroshan Dickwella and opener Dimuth Karunaratne, playing the sweep in the second innings offered interesting insights into his progress as a Test bowler. He came up with different angles, getting Dickwella caught behind with one that turned and bounced before finding the under-edge of Karunaratne’s bat with one that did not bounce much.
To be sure, the pressure exerted by the scoreboard added excruciating layers to the challenge faced by the home batsmen, but it cannot be overlooked that this pair of Karunaratne and Dickwella had battled hard to regain some control over the proceedings. It was for such reasons that the Galle Test may go down as a major milestone in the careers of the two spinners.
You can expect Sri Lanka to roll out flat (and perhaps flatter) decks in the remaining Tests since India has the attack to exploit bowler-friendly tracks and the batting to score big against the home side’s limited bowling. If the Ashwin-Jadeja combination continues to walk in the direction it found in the Galle Test, it might get to feature productively in a few campaigns overseas.
We will get a better idea at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground where the second Test will be played from Thursday onwards.