Ravichandran Ashwin is on the verge of picking up 300 wickets in Tests(292). His numbers are brilliant. In 52 matches, he has picked five wickets in an innings 26 times, which means a five-for in every second Test he plays. Despite these impressive numbers, his record has an anomaly that critics are quick to pounce on. Outside of subcontinent, he just has two five-wicket hauls, both in the West Indies, and none in Australia, South Africa, England and New Zealand, countries where India have traditionally struggled.
One should take nothing away from Ashwin’s match winning abilities. A spinner is always going to be more successful on turning pitches, just like seamers are more effective on green tops. One of India’s greatest match winners of all times struggled to bowl match-winning spells away from home in the first half of his career. Anil Kumble kept getting better at his skills though and ended up playing crucial roles in historic away victories at Headingley and Adelaide.
One area where Ashwin has stood out in his career is his willingness to experiment and learn new skills to improve his bowling. From a T20 specialist, he is now India’s most reliable campaigner. Not to mention, his batting has come up by leaps and bounds to a position where he is now a useful lower-order batsman who has batted at number six in Tests.
In his latest bid to turn a new leaf in his career, Ashwin has signed up to play county cricket in England for Worcestershire. A decade ago Zaheer Khan spent a season in the same county when he wasn’t a part of the national team. The stint turned around his injury-plagued career, and over the next five years, Zaheer established himself as one of the most skillful seamers in the world. Zaheer’s country stint in 2006 was also one of the main reasons for his man of the series performance in India’s tour of England in 2007, the last time India won a series in England.
With India scheduled to tour England for a five test series next year, India will be hoping for a similar performance from Ashwin. England isn’t the spinner’s paradise like India, but on the evidence of this year's performance by Moeen Ali against South Africa where he topped wicket taking charts with 25 wickets in the series, a spinner can make a major impact on a series. Of course, Ashwin is going to be more than handy with the bat too, something Moeen did consistently for England in the last series.
An English county season used to be a must have on every international cricketer's resume. Spinners who have enjoyed consistent success in England in the 90s like Shane Warne and Mushtaq Ahmed were also county cricket regulars. Shane Warne’s exploits in England are well documented, but fewer people remember England’s 2-0 win in 1996 where Mushtaq Ahmed was the most successful bowler from either side. Playing for Somerset since 1993, Mushtaq was already adept at playing in England and took 17 wickets in the series. More recently, when Australia were struggling to find options at the top of the order, 36-year-old Chris Rogers was called back into the team for his experience of playing for four different counties.
With busy international calendars, overseas player’s attendance started diminishing in the 2000s and with IPL coinciding with English summer, Indian appearances in English domestic cricket became even rarer.
The trend of Indian absence in England was broken by Cheteshwar Pujara who turned up for Nottinghamshire last year and scored a match-winning hundred for his team against Gloucestershire.
Pujara will be back in England again this year and will be competing with his India teammate for the top spot in Division two. At the moment, Nottinghamshire is right behind Worcestershire in the table who are holding the top spot. We have seen Indian teammates locking horns in Ranji Trophy or IPL, but it’s been a while we have seen the same happening on foreign soil. BCCI’s consent to Pujara and Ashwin to go and play in England will finally give us a reason to follow county cricket again.
More importantly, the move is a positive step in India trying to buck the trend of struggling overseas after winning convincingly at home. We have heard Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli say that this team is capable of going where no Indian team has gone before. To really put money where the mouth is, the team will have to compete in every overseas tour even if they don’t start winning outright. They have started off on a positive note with a series win over Sri Lanka but tougher challenges await.
Hopefully, the trend will continue with more players who are not part of the national team being allowed to work on their skills by playing overseas. It’s important not just for getting exposure to different conditions and oppositions, but also to ensure that players who aren’t part of the national team get a chance to play throughout the year. Restricting them to play only in IPL and other domestic competitions limits the amount of cricket they can potentially play in a year. With the abundance of talent available at BCCI’s disposal, they can truly become the most dominant cricketing nation over the course of next decade. For that to happen, the Indian players need to stand out not just at the international level but also at domestic leagues in different parts of the world.