The 500th Test celebration kicked off a trend of picking an all-time greatest Indian Test XI. It is a fairly easy exercise with only a few points to debate. The top four batsmen – Sunil Gavaskar, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar – are an obvious choice. The wicketkeeper toss up is between MS Dhoni and Syed Kirmani, with the romantics favouring Farokh Engineer too.
No Indian Test dream team can be complete without Kapil Dev, or Zaheer Khan for that matter. And then you come down to the spinners, those in whom the true legacy of our nation’s cricket is vested. Anil Kumble, with his 619 Test wickets, cannot be left out, nor can Bishen Singh Bedi with his fluidic left-arm action. But how do you deny Erappali Prasanna or Bhagwat Chandrasekhar?
On Sunday, another name was added to this list of non-deniable candidates to the greatest Indian XI. That of Ravichandran Ashwin, as he scalped his 200th wicket in Test cricket, faster than any other Indian bowler, quicker than the likes of Dennis Lillee, Waqar Younis and Dale Steyn. Second quickest to Clarrie Grimmett, only because the washout in Port of Spain denied him this chance.
“I am just happy trying to compete with myself. If you go out to beat records, it will teach you a lesson. And that is something I learnt very early in my career. I lost a good 12-18 months of Test cricket and it was enough to teach me that it is only important to compete with myself and get better everyday,” said the off-spinner in Kanpur on Sunday.
It shows the heightened awareness about his game acquired through the years. 37 Tests is not a long journey, but it is lengthy enough to learn and unlearn, to experience a plethora of ups and downs. As any cricketer would say, it is a part and parcel of the game, but success consequently becomes vital. Perhaps this is one story where disappointment was of more importance.
The down-curve began in Johannesburg (2013), when he was endured a wicket-less Test. Ask him today, and he will still tell you that he should have had both AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis LBW in the second innings of that drawn Test, and the match could have turned in India’s favour. But he was dropped from the eleven, unnecessarily one might add, and only returned to the side after sitting out six Tests in Africa, New Zealand and England.
Ashwin could only take three wickets in Manchester and the Oval Tests, and the argument against his overseas record just didn’t go away. It was unfair, for much like the inexperienced batting line-up, this was his first Test cycle away from home too. Yet, this factor wasn’t taken into consideration, when Virat Kohli shockingly picked leg spinner Karn Sharma ahead of him in the Adelaide Test (2014-15).
“That phase is very, very important,” Ashwin said. “It taught me a lot, and more so, it emphasised that I should be working on my skill. And my skill has definitely been talked of ever since.”
His return in Brisbane (on that same Australian tour) was vital in the sense that he was the lone spinner once again, and held his role definitively. The umpteen variations were gone; he stuck to a particular mode of attack. A thinking cricketer, he found the balance between searching for wickets and playing a support role to the pacers. He has never been left out of the playing XI again.
Thereafter, over the course of past two seasons, he has built an immaculate home record, one that sows similar apprehension in the visiting teams’ minds as Kumble did. Alternately, he has improved his overseas performance too. Until the 2014 England tour, he averaged 64.50 in six Tests. Over the course of 11 Tests played away from India afterwards, he has brought that average down to 33.23.
The key highlight among these exploits were the 12 wickets in three Tests in Australia (2014-15), again a marked improvement from his first tour there in 2011. Ashwin hasn’t looked back since, winning back-to-back man-of-the-series awards against Sri Lanka, South Africa and West Indies.
Cynics would argue that Sri Lanka isn’t really an overseas trip, or that West Indies aren’t the same force as before. Even, that the pitches for the home series against South Africa were under prepared. It is but a technicality, and the blood and toil of a professional cricketer cannot be denied on such abject grounds.
Moreover, it brings that aforementioned ‘greatness’ debate into focus once again. Virat Kohli’s double hundred in the West Indies was celebrated without mentioning his past failures in England. That 2014 series has been defined as a blip in an otherwise glorious batting career.
The underlying point herein isn’t about defending one using the stick to beat another.
Instead, it is about the current generation of Indian cricket aficionados – fans and media alike –who are so obsessed with the idea of replacing Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. Maybe Kohli will fill that void, and maybe Ajinkya Rahane will prove to be as dependable.
But this fascination has led us to shut our eyes off a glorious chapter being currently written in the annals of Indian cricket. And so, while we forgot to replace Kumble’s guile and Harbhajan Singh’s impact, Ashwin quietly went about building his own legacy.
Today, he is already good enough to simply walk into any Indian Test eleven, in dreams or otherwise.