In the three games that Ashwin played at the T20 World Cup, his five out of the six wickets were to traditional, Test-style off spin deliveries. He used the same skills against New Zealand and restricted the Kiwis to 164
It’s never easy to know what’s going through a quality spinner’s mind. Part of the art of the craft is to deceive the batsman into thinking that they are going to get a different delivery than they get. As a result, they are often very good at hiding what they’re thinking.
When Ravichandran Ashwin was thrown the ball at the start of the 14th over in the first T20I against New Zealand, the situation was looking dire. The Kiwis were 106/1. Mark Chapman and Martin Guptill were both hitting the ball as if had insulted their mother. India needed a wicket.
In some ways, Ashwin was the perfect man to throw the ball to.
In Test cricket where the wickets are most valuable, Ashwin takes them almost as often as anyone. Since the start of 2018, no spinner has a better average or strike rate. And nobody is close in terms of average. There have been 22 bowlers who have bowled at least 400 overs in Tests in that time and had an average under 28. Ashwin is the only spinner in that group, with an average of 22.09 in the same period. In the top 20 bowlers by strike rate, he is one of the only two spinners (Moeen Ali has a very low strike rate too). If any spinner in the world knows how to take wickets it is Ravichandran Ashwin.
But in other ways, he was a terrible person to throw the ball to.
He was left out of the Indian white ball sides in early 2017, and spent years as a Test specialist. After missing out on the national side, he had not exactly covered himself in glory in domestic T20s. In his 56 matches in the IPL from 2018 onwards, he had taken 55 wickets with an average in the 30s. Most top T20 bowlers take more than one wicket per match and average in the mid to low 20s. The ones who don’t are normally all rounders who only sometimes complete their full quota of overs. Ashwin certainly does not fall into that category. He had gone from being a global star to being a below average domestic spinner.
He may have still known how to take wickets, but he had not done it with a white ball consistently.
India didn't get a lot of help from the pitch. Only a couple of balls had gripped in the surface and turned in the previous 14 overs. However, both were bowled by Ashwin, and they both had something in common, they were both a bit slower.
One of the things that Ashwin does well in Test cricket is that he uses his early overs to test out the conditions. He doesn’t settle on a line, length and speed immediately. He will try a few slower and wider, and some shorter balls. He will then try some faster ones. He will change things, trying to determine what type of deliveries will work best in these conditions.
A spinner has several things to consider when bowling. Different atmospheric conditions will mean that the ball will drift more or less. Drift is where the ball swings in the air, caused by the revolutions that the spinner puts on the ball. The squarer the plane of rotation is, the more the ball will drift, but the less variable bounce the ball will get, higher are the chances of the ball just travelling through to the batsman, rather than gripping in the pitch.
As a general rule, the faster the ball is bowled, the less it will turn off the pitch. That’s why sometimes it is possible to see school boys turning the ball much further than professional spin bowlers: they bowl slower. But slow spin is relatively easy to play. Each pitch has a different amount of grip, and this determines what ratio between speed of ball and speed of the ball’s rotation at the edge will cause the ball turn, or not. One thing that spinners need to do is find the maximum speed where the ball will still turn far enough to trouble the batsman. Once they find that speed, a small decrease in speed will see the ball turn more, while a small increase in speed will see the ball go straight (or almost straight).
While few of the best spinners can explain the physics of cricket ball spin, they all know it experientially, if not theoretically. Their brains work like statistical modelling computers assessing all the information in a match against the experience that they have. When using a statistical model to make a prediction, there are two key factors to determine how good that prediction is. How good was the modelling system, and how much information was fed into that system.
One of the reasons why Ashwin is so good in Test cricket is that he is prepared to feed more deliveries into his brain before deciding where to bowl than most other bowlers. He is at his most potent after the 30th over. He takes his time to decide where to bowl. But the luxury of time is not available in T20 cricket.
Instead, spinners have to ensure that they are still bowling good balls whenever they try to experiment.
The first ball of the 14th over was outside off stump and moving away. But it did not move away enough, and Mark Chapman hit it hard through the covers for four. The sweeper had no chance to cut it off. But despite him hitting the ball very hard, the shot was more a club than sweetly timed.
It had been a surprise when Ashwin was called back into the Indian side for the T20 World Cup. And he was not called on to play in either of the two biggest games. But in the three that he did play he did quite well, and of the six wickets he took, five were to traditional, Test-style off spinners deliveries.
Perhaps there is a place in T20 cricket for some of the old-fashioned skills.
After the boundary on the first ball, the pressure had only increased. There are various systems for predicting scores in T20 cricket. None of them are perfect, but they all give an idea about what is the normal score from the position that a team is in. After 14.1 overs the various models were suggesting that New Zealand were on track for a score of around 182. That was likely to be too much for India to chase down. India needed something, and they needed it quickly.
The second ball was the time for Ashwin to pull the trigger. He came from round the wicket slowed down his speed, bowled with a quite square trajectory, and let the ball rip. It wobbled through the air and landed on a good length on leg stump. Chapman’s eyes lit up. This was a chance to go bigger again. But he was beaten in the air. His swing to the legside was too early. Then he was beaten off the pitch, as the ball, slightly slower gripped and spun. It went past the edge of Chapman’s bat; then crashed into the top of off stump.
The 109-run partnership was over, and India now had an end open.
Phillips first ball was a quicker arm ball. It beat the outside edge.
Phillips second ball was a big, slow off spinner. It beat the inside edge and hit Phillips on the thigh pad.
This was like a cat playing with an injured bird. It was almost cruel to watch. The master was playing with the new batsman as if he was a tail ender.
Phillips third ball was another slower one. It again beat the batsman in the air and off the pitch. Only this time the umpire’s finger went up, and New Zealand’s most dangerous batsman had to walk back to the dressing room without contributing anything.
New Zealand’s projected score had moved from 182 to 167. In the space of 4 balls.
Traditional skills turned out to be very valuable. Ashwin’s experience and skills came to the fore in that over, and the match was turned.
Perhaps there’s no such thing as a Test specialist after all.
Michael Wagener is a cricket tragic from New Zealand. He discovered early on that he would never be an expert at playing cricket, so set out to be an expert at watching it.
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