Ravichandran Ashwin suffering from a left abdominal strain and hence pulling out of the second Test should not really come as a surprise. Even during the second innings of the Adelaide Test, it was apparent that all was not well with him.
Ashwin was not putting body into delivery stride and follow through, and this was particularly evident on the last day of the Test when he was failed to run through the Australian batting line-up.
A classical off spinner’s pivot which brings hip, shoulder and fingers into play was conspicuous by its absence. This ensured that he did not get drift, turn or nip that was the hallmark of his bowling in the first essay.
Critics bemoaned his inability to hit the many rough patches on the last day. But it probably was a tribute to his grit and effort that despite niggling pain and injury he still managed to keep things tight at one end while the pacers struck at the other.
Frankly, playing the first Test of a lengthy series with just four bowlers was always fraught with danger. Bowlers could so easily be overworked at the start of the series itself and this could adversely affect their performance and output in subsequent Tests. That fear has now come true in the form of injury to Ashwin — a key weapon in the armoury — and there is every possibility that this could impact the momentum the team is carrying into the second Test.
In fact mid-way through the first innings of the first Test, when Mohammed Shami went off the field for treatment, there was real danger that his bowling could be hampered by a shoulder strain.
Fortunately, India ensured that the Aussies did not bat for too long after that. Later, KL Rahul, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, and Ajinkya Rahane soaked up enough deliveries to ensure that Shami got a lengthy rest and treatment before he was asked to bowl again.
Cricket pundits could argue that Ashwin was fresh coming into the series and that he bowled only 86.5 overs in the match. And that even those overs were spread over four days. But on Australian grounds it is not just about bowling alone. On the vast outfields there is always a lot of chasing and flat throwing from the deep and these place extra stress on hamstring, groin, hips and shoulder.
These would have also taken a toll of Ashwin, who in any case is not athletic to start with.
But Ashwin was invaluable in the scheme of things. He was, importantly, a spinner who took the ball away from left-handed batsmen. His bowling played out well against this Australian batting line-up, which is extraordinarily packed with six left-handers: Marcus Harris, Usman Khwaja, Shaun Marsh, Travis Head, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazelwood.
This right-left combination in the line-up demanded that India fielded bowlers who were adept at bowling different lines and from both over and around the wicket.
Ashwin was one such prized bowler. Additionally he could bring both short-leg catchers into play when spinning the ball viciously into right hand batsmen. It hardly needs to be pointed out that umpires are no longer tolerant of pad play and thus an attacking off spinner like Ashwin could be a handful on turning tracks for any right-hand batsman.
Ashwin could also be a handy batsman, as he showed during the plucky 62-run partnership with Pujara in the first innings.
His expected replacement for the second Test, Ravindra Jadeja, would be a far more efficient fielder. But unless there are enough spots on the pitch to exploit, he will not be the same challenge to left-hand batsmen.
In all probability, Hanuman Vihari could be called to chip in with his part-time off spin bowling.
Vihari will come in place of Rohit Sharma, whose lower back is said to be acting up. Rohit’s absence though will not be a big loss for India.
Rohit is very successful in white-ball cricket as bowlers are forced to bowl in his comfort zone. But in Tests where there is no fear of being called for wides, bowlers have successfully thwarted him by simply keeping the ball away from his hitting zones. Given his limitation of technique and adaptability he finds new ways to get out.
Vihari is expected to be a good replacement especially since he could also send down a few overs.
However India need to be guarded in the second Test. They have made a winning start to the series, but cannot afford injuries to any more key players. Besides affecting momentum and teamwork, it would also tell adversely on team morale. And that won’t do when the mission for Kohli and Co is to steal the thunder Down Under.