When Worcestershire played Durham two months back, their scorecard had a queer look. Ravichandran Ashwin, brought from India to polish his spin bowling skills, had registered a 130-ball 82 and was the home side’s top scorer. For those unfamiliar with Ashwin’s batting, the innings would go down as a one-off incident, but for those who know him, he is capable of that and much more.
Ashwin, the batsman, is an accomplished player. With a sound technique, solid defence and soft hands, he could potentially put to shame several of India's top-order batsmen.
Sri Lanka were nine down in Nagpur with the Test well and truly out of their grasp. But the crowd waited with bated breath, on the edge of their seats, to witness a record-breaking feat from their rampaging off-spinner, Ravichandran Ashwin. The Tamil Nadu bowler was on 299 Test wickets, one away from breaking Dennis Lillee’s record for fastest to 300 Test wickets (56 Tests).
And out came the carrom ball. It turned square, had Gamage, Sri Lanka's clueless No 11, in a tangle and sent the bails flying. He had prised out his 300th Test wicket in his 54th Test, thereby breaking Lillee's record on the very same date he had set his (27 November).
Languid in style and stable in perilous situations, Ashwin — the batsman — is an underrated player. With a wide array of shots and an eye for batting out situations rather than playing the natural game, he is a treat to watch when in flow.
“I never give my wicket away. If I don't get runs I am disappointed. I am as much worried about my batting as I am about my bowling. That's a clear indication that I see myself as an all-rounder”, Ashwin had said after India’s tour to Sri Lanka two years back.
He couldn't quite bat as well as he would have liked in that series, but since then, Ashwin has been a key player in India's batting line-up where he is mostly played at No 6 in the Kohli regime, ahead of Wriddhiman Saha.
The promotion in batting position is quite justified. If it was looked upon with frowned eyebrows at the start, Ashwin’s wonderful returns in the past two years have erased any doubts of him being a misfit for the role. If anything, his flexibility lends India additional balance in the Test side.
Since the start of 2016, Ashwin has 847 runs in 22 Tests at an average of 31.37, including two hundreds, one of which came in tough conditions at St. Lucia in West Indies. The numbers are comparable to that of Shakib-al-Hasan and JP Duminy in Test cricket during this time frame, underlining his value as a Test batsman with calm demeanour and sublime stroke-making.
Ashwin, the bowler, is a magical soldier armed with an inexhaustible gun. Turn, flight, dip, drift, variations including the carrom ball, leg-spinner, outswinger...he has got it all. One after another, he keeps firing shots with the ball and prising out big scalps.
Since 2016, no bowler has got more wickets in Tests than Ravichandran Ashwin. In 22 Tests, the 31-year-old has 124 wickets at an average of 24.59, inclusive of a mind-blowing ten five-wicket hauls.
He has bowled a total of 6412 balls in Test cricket since 2016, nearly a 1000 balls more than the next bowler, Yasir Shah (5595 balls). The whopping amount of overs he has put is grossly undervalued.
Sub-continental conditions are touted as paradise for spinners. But the toil, hardwork and effort put in to bowl all day often goes unnoticed. Even when you align everything in favour of a bowler, he still has to find a way to send the barrier between him and the stumps back to the pavilion. Ashwin has been a relentless machine at that.
"I really hope I can go on to double these 300 wickets, I have only played 50 Tests. It's not easy bowling spin, it looks like you're just ambling up. But there's a lot behind it. We've bowled a lot of overs, me and Jaddu (Ravindra Jadeja)”, Ashwin said post his record-breaking feat.
If he was outstanding under MS Dhoni, he has been out of the world under Kohli. In 30 Tests, the off-spinner has 182 scalps at an average of 22.16, including 17 five-wicket hauls. Take a moment to absorb these facts before you digest the next. His last 150 wickets have come in 25 Test matches. Among spinners to 300 wickets, Ashwin is head and shoulders above the likes of Shane Warne, Muttaih Muralitharan, Anil Kumble, Rangana Herath and Harbhajan Singh.
India and all-rounders have never gone hand in hand since the retirement of Kapil Dev. Pacy with the cherry and a whirlwind batsman, Kapil had spoilt cricket fans in India with his extreme all-round ability. From lifting the World Cup to smashing four sixes in four balls to avoid the follow-on, Kapil was a stuff of dreams. Indians would rub their eyes in disbelief when Kapil ran quite a distance to pluck a sensational catch in the 1983 World Cup final against West Indies. For them, he was the zenith; an irreplaceable force.
As is the norm, the departure of Kapil was followed by an eternal search to find a replacement. Ajit Agarkar and Irfan Pathan promised much but fell away as quickly as they came.
Right when India had resigned to the fact that an all-rounder wasn't meant to be for them, Ravichandran Ashwin walked in against the West Indies in 2011, scored his first hundred in just his third Test and picked up an eye-catching 22 wickets in the series.
India had been there before. They had seen the rise and fall of Irfan Pathan, the all-rounder. To expect Ashwin to repeat his feats for a longer time frame seemed improbable. After all, they had an albatross around the neck in terms of finding all-rounders.
Today, he is the fourth best all-rounder in Test cricket. With four hundreds, eleven half-centuries and 300 Test wickets, the wily Ashwin has been a phenomenal force in Indian Test cricket.
His numbers may not be comparable to that of some highly rated all-rounders in Test cricket (mostly batting all-rounders like Jacques Kallis, Gary Sobers), but cut the list down to bowling all-rounders and Ashwin’s numbers are quite commendable.
With India due to tour South Africa in early 2018, questions will once again be raised about the team composition. The extended home season has seen India stick to a five bowler strategy. This, though, hasn't been the trend in overseas Tests where a sixth batsman was always preferred.
But the presence of Ashwin and Hardik Pandya might just tilt the balance this time around. Going in with five bowlers and still maintaining the strength in batting is a realistic possibility. The top five in the batting line-up alongside Wriddhiman Saha, the keeper, virtually pick themselves.
But India may need to choose between Ashwin and Jadeja for the lone spinner’s spot. Hardik Pandya will most likely fit in due to his ability to bowl seam up and bat like a champion. Dubbed as a 'Stokes-like’ player by Virat Kohli, Pandya will look to emulate Stokes’ feat (a smashing double hundred in 2016) in South Africa.
This leaves room for just four more players, three of which are surely out and out pace bowlers (Mohammad Shami and two among Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma and possibly Jasprit Bumrah).
Ashwin struggled as the lone spinner when India last toured the Rainbow Nation, going wicketless in 42 overs in the country. He hasn't quite set the Thames on fire outside the sub-continent. His wickets and average in South Africa, England and Australia read thus:
South Africa : 0 wickets
England : 3 wickets at 33.66
Australia : 21 wickets at 54.71
Jadeja, on the other hand, has played one Test in South Africa and picked up 6/138 in the game and his stump-to-stump bowling could just be the added bonus. However, several things have changed since India last visited South Africa in 2013. The pitches have flattened out considerably and Ashwin has progressed from a bowler with a limited-overs mindset to a phenomenal Test icon.
To keep him out would be outrageous given his recent performances with the ball. Add to that his ability to grind out tough runs and you have a success mantra for survival in South Africa. His presence allows India to retain their five-bowler theory while not cutting down on the number of batsmen in the side. It is time to stand up and applaud Ashwin, the all-rounder.