For Ravichandran Ashwin, the tour of Australia was an eye-opener – not because India lost the Test series 4-0 or because he took 9 wickets at an average of 62.77, but because it showed him in real world terms where he stood as a bowler.
Australia is never the easiest place for a finger spinner – not even the home team has produced great finger spinners simply because the conditions suit wrist spinners and you need to be able to impart a lot more revolutions to the ball to get purchase from the wicket – that or you need to be able to beat batsmen in the air.
A look at the performances of other spinners who were in the Ashwin mould – accurate and economical – reveals eerily similar numbers in Australia. S Venkatraghavan had two wickets at 70.50 and Harbhajan Singh took 9 wickets at 73.22. But then you go to bowlers like Erapalli Prasanna (31 wickets at 31.12) and Bishan Singh Bedi (35 wickets at 27.51) who believed in beating batsmen in the air, you realise that this is an art that every spinner needs to master.
Primarily, the ability to beat the batsmen in the air takes the pitch out of the equation. In fast bowling terms, it’s having the ability to bowl really quickly – it makes the batsmen make mistakes rather it forces them into an uncomfortable spot. And that is why when Ashwin came back from Australia – he wasn’t downcast. The tour had given him a new goal – to master flight — and that always helps.
When Ashwin first burst onto the scene, it was mostly on the back of his performances in T20. He was quickly slotted as a bowler whose main weapons were a carrom ball and accuracy. But Tests were out of the question because in the longer format, players can afford to wait for the bad ball. They are not trying to hit every ball and that in turn, means that the carrom ball is not as potent.
Ashwin’s performances in Australia had many people go into the ‘I told you so’ mode but the off-spinner was only doing what the captain and team wanted him to do. As the pacemen attacked from the other end, he was asked to hold up one end. He did that pretty decently.
India’s dismal performances with the bat on that tour had also meant that the bowlers were almost always on the defensive.
Back home, though, the going has been much easier. After seven Tests – including three in Australia – Ashwin has 43 wickets, which is the most ever by an Indian at the same stage of their career.
Indeed, among spinners, only mystery bowler Alf Valentine with 49 wickets, Arthur Mailey, the master of flight, 46 wickets, HV Hordern, an early exponent of the googly, with 46 have ever had a better start to their careers. Australia’s GE Palmer, described by Cricinfo as a right-arm medium-pace spinner, also had 43 wickets.
Of all these bowlers, only Alf Valentine played after the second World War. Everyone else played in a time when pitches were uncovered and playing spinners was indeed very difficult. That tells us just how spectacular the start to Ashwin’s Test career has been.
Some might say that we shouldn’t get too carried away – after all the opposition is New Zealand. But that shouldn’t take away anything from Ashwin’s achievements. The last time an Indian spinner took 10 wickets in a match in India was in 2005 when Harbhajan took 10 for 141 against Sri Lanka at Ahmedabad. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?
Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni was appreciative of the job his spinners did: “There was a bit of turn but it was a wicket where you had to keep coming at the batsmen, bowling in the right areas. With the batsmen deciding ‘I’m not going to take you on’, it was very difficult to get them out. Bowlers were patient and that was very important.”
Indeed, with Pragyan Ojha at the other end, Ashwin has found a partner in crime. Both bowlers don’t give away a lot of runs, bowl a tight line at all times. It allows the skipper to attack and it frustrates the batsmen.
“They didn’t give any loose deliveries to score runs which meant even if the opposition batted for one or two hours, the score was not picking a lot,” Dhoni said. “That really made the difference as we could have those catching fielders and put pressure on them.”
But Ashwin, more than anyone else, realises that these numbers means nothing. After the game, he said, “The numbers don’t really matter much. As an off-spinner if you lose your his line and length, you are no good.”
That’s the pragmatic approach every bowler can use.
Now, if only he can master flight as well, India won’t have to worry about the spin department in the years to comes. Knowing Ashwin, it just might be the kind of challenge he will relish.