There was a moment at the start of the second day, when Ravichandran Ashwin leant forward and drove James Anderson — England's best bowler in the Test — through extra cover for four. It was just the third ball of the day, and this positive intent gave one a glimpse of how Ashwin the batsman is beginning to belong at the highest level. Ashwin went on to register his eighth half-century in Tests, laying down a marker on his overall importance to the Indian side.
India had ended Day one in a dominant position at 317/4. However, the work was only half done. Kohli, who had batted beautifully on Thursday, needed to continue the momentum on the second day and get a big one. He had Ashwin for company, but 11 overs into the second day, India lost Kohli for 167. The total at the time was 351 for five, and the 500-run mark looked daunting. Wriddhiman Saha and Ravindra Jadeja soon followed Kohli back — 363/7 and even 400 now looked a distant dream.
Amid all this, it seemed like Ashwin was batting on a different wicket altogether. He brings about a sense of calm to the situation, something missing in previous Indian sides. He added 64 crucial runs with debutant Jayant Yadav for the eighth wicket, paving the way for a score beyond 450. And though he missed his century, his 58 invaluable runs may prove to be the difference.
He may yet go on to bowl a match-winning spell with the ball and that may push his efforts with the bat under the radar, but it won't change the fact that Ashwin is now a vital cog in India's batting line-up and the go-to man for crunch situations.
Ashwin the bowler is a fire-breathing dragon, but Ashwin the batsman is termite-like: He gnaws away at the target, slowly creating destruction without one even noticing it. He brings about a sense of stability in precarious situations and he's also learning the art of batting with the tailenders, though he was himself considered one not too long ago.
His languid batting style has even drawn comparisons with VVS Laxman, and he seems to be learning the art of situation-based batting from the latter. Earlier, there used to be a sense of panic which would inevitably set in when India's top six were dismissed. But with Ashwin, there is a sense of assurance. And more often than not, he doesn't disappoint.
His emergence as a batsman started with a century against West Indies in his third Test, back in 2011. At the Wankhede Stadium, Ashwin came in to bat at No 8, with India in a tricky position at 331/6 in response to 590. He was last man out, for 103, and India had scored 482. Since then, he has played many crucial knocks to bail India out of tricky situations.
In 2016, Ashwin averages 46.60 from 10 Test innings, with two fifties and two centuries, and has scored more runs and has a better average than Murali Vijay (37).
Against the West Indies in Antigua earlier this year, Virat Kohli promoted Ashwin above wicket-keeper Wriddhiman Saha for the first time, and the all-rounder responded with a century. It brought out the patient side of Ashwin, as he faced 253 balls; before this, he had faced more than 200 balls just once. Two matches later, he strode out to the middle at 87/4, and scored 118 in testing conditions in Gros Islet, which along with Saha's 104, propeled India to a respectable 353. Ashwin faced 297 balls, the most he had ever done in his career. India won the match by 237 runs; Ashwin was named the man-of-the-match, primarily for his batting.
In the last year, Ashwin has scored 544 runs (average of 41.84) batting at No 6 or lower, the most by any Asian batsman in Tests. He has on an average faced 92 balls per innings in Tests in the last year, again the most by any batsman to have faced a minimum of 1,000 balls batting at No 6 or lower in Tests. In fact, his is the ninth-best overall in terms of average balls faced per innings.
Against New Zealand in Kanpur, he came in at 209/5 and scored 40, adding 52 runs with Rohit Sharma — the second-highest partnership of the innings — against a resurgent Kiwi attack. India managed to just scrape past 300 and went on to win the Test comfortably.
He carried this form forward in the England series as well. In the first Test at Rajkot, England piled on 537 in the first innings. India were in a tricky position at 349/5 when Rahane got out and it got worse when Kohli followed three overs later. Ashwin again came to the rescue with a gritty 70, despite just having bowled 46 overs with the ball. He scored 59 of the next 127 runs, along with the lower middle-order, to make sure India kept the lead down to just 49.
In the second innings, the hosts were again in a spot of bother, when they were reduced to 68/3 in the final session. They needed someone to partner skipper Kohli, and Ashwin was again the man of the hour, adding 47 valuable runs. Though he played a poor shot to get out, it was his partnership with Kohli — followed by Kohli's stand with Jadeja for the seventh wicket — that helped India eke out a draw.
At Vizag, Ashwin had a reprieve when he was dropped by Ben Stokes on 17, and he made England pay for it. His feet movement looked assured; he was very good on the back-foot with his late cuts and the short-ball leaves, which were a testament of the effort he has put in in his batting.
The team management's trust in Ashwin's batting abilities and promoting him up the order has paid dividends consistently. It's been a collective effort, with batting coach Sanjay Bangar also deserving praise for Ashwin's development as a batsman. "Sanjay Bangar worked really closely with my stance for the last 12 months," Ashwin said after the Antigua century. "It has been a challenge. I used to be extra side-on and I had to open myself a little bit. That change is very effective. I've not driven straight down the ground for a very long time. That is a pretty evident one. The other things, like my initial movement and other things, had to be sorted. It was a process for like 10-12 months, and on the way, I did lose a few innings as a batsman as well," he added.
He started off batting at No 8 and No 9, then moved on to seven and then to six, which has proved to be a masterstroke. He's averaged 64.80 batting at six so far. And with the change on position, there has been a change in approach as well, which has worked wonders. The mindset has changed and he is now trying to bat out entire sessions. "It's difficult to try and think too far ahead (at No 6)," Ashwin said after the Gros Islet century. "That's easily possible if you are batting at No 7 or eight, which has happened to me before. When I batted at No 8, I think like a bowler at times, and want to get a few extra runs. So I used to play a few more shots."
"My goal is very simple. If I get a good start, if I get to 20 runs, then I'm going to capitalise on it. Then I'm going to play percentage cricket. One thing I try to do is to bat sessions. There have been times when I've scored hundreds in two sessions or less than two sessions. This is kind of different, but I do enjoy it. It's time-consuming and concentration-consuming but it's enjoyable," Ashwin added.
Ashwin has four centuries in Tests, all against the West Indies, which brought out the thinking in certain sections that he was good just against the weaker bowling attacks. But not everything is about centuries; it's also the situation that counts. Ashwin showed it against South Africa in New Delhi, scoring 56 after coming in at 198/7 and taking the hosts to 334. He proved it against New Zealand and now England as well.
Ashwin's batting provides the team much-needed flexibility in team selection, since Kohli can now play five bowlers. "He knows when to get runs and when to play the situation out. So it's priceless to have a cricketer like Ashwin in your Test team," Kohli had said of Ashwin.
Well, he's impressed the captain, the team management, and at this rate, Ashwin the batsman might sooner or later match the stature of Ashwin the bowler.
With stats inputs from Umang Pabari
Published Date: Nov 19, 2016 10:00 am | Updated Date: Nov 19, 2016 10:26 am