YOU CAN’T blame the New Zealand batsmen if they’re feeling a tad gutted at the end of the third’s play. Maybe, even hard done by. The last few weeks have taught them that facing R Ashwin is like walking a tight rope with their feet tied together. Even one slip or error can prove fatal. But what do you do if he starts dismissing you—or your partner in this case—without really having to depend on his bowling just by using his hand or a sliver of it?
Luke Ronchi’s straight drive was perfectly timed, only that it was a bit too straight. The result: it caught the ring-finger of Ashwin’s right hand in the follow through and crashed into the stumps to catch Martin Guptill short of his crease at the non-striker’s end. This, after Guptill had spent more than two hours at the crease and finally looked to have come to terms with his role as a Test opener, scoring a fluent 72.
Later in the day, when Matt Henry’s uppish drive presented Ashwin with a low return-catch, he let it slip but the ball ricocheted on to the stumps before Jeetan Patel could even ground his bat. It’s not like he didn’t continue to be an inscrutable scourge with his bowling, which has now almost become inevitable. Ashwin snared yet another five-wicket haul—No.20 of his career—to finish with 6/81 leaving the visitors on the ropes facing a deficit of 276 runs with India understandably deciding against enforcing the follow-on. It was a day when the Kiwis lost to Ashwin both by pinfall and submission.
To say the 30-year-old off-spinner is in the midst of a dream run would be an understatement. Some of his numbers prove that few, if any, spinner has enjoyed as good a spell of wicket-taking as he has over the last 12 months. And you could be mistaken in thinking that all Ashwin has to do these days, especially on pitches in India, is to turn up and roll his arm over. That wicket-taking is just a formality. But where he’s been sensational in this period is that he’s made it look like a formality. For, it’s certainly not the case.
Expensive first spells
Ashwin has not always started well with the ball in this series. He’s regularly been scored off in his initial overs—going at over four-an-over in pretty much every opening spell. It’s not like he’s been expensive as a result of trying to buy wickets, but like in his own confession on Monday, he’s not started in “fine rhythm”. He’s also had to deal with a corn on his spinning finger on occasions.
At Kanpur, in the first innings, he was made to wait for 16.5 overs before he took his first wicket. Here in Indore, he didn’t quite look like himself in the early going. There were short balls and half-volleys, which Guptill and Tom Latham made the most of. Not many balls came close to beating the bat and Ashwin simply couldn’t put together a cluster of deliveries on a length that would put the Kiwi openers at unease.
But like he’s shown over the last 15 months, you can never be at ease when Ashwin has the ball in hand. As a batsman, you can often formulate a plan based on studying and researching the general plans of a spinner and get the better of him. Even the greatest in the business have been thwarted by a well-prepared batsman. What stands out with Ashwin is that he’s not solely dependent on a solitary strategy to entrap the batsmen. He’s forever adjusting his plans based on yours. Often he’s not just moving his own pieces on the chessboard but also manipulating the batsman to move his according to his whims.
Like in the first Test. Once he realised that Latham was keeping him at bay by placing his front-foot straight down the line of the pitch rather than it pointing towards cover, he immediately adjusted the line to closer to the stumps and trapped the left-hander lbw in both innings. Here, he stuck to a similar line but was bowling a fuller length to make sure that the batsman attempts the drive on the slow pitch. This one landed slightly short of Latham’s bat, before it gripped, spun sharply and had him caught and bowled off a leading edge.
At Kolkata, Ashwin had consumed his man by altering his line of attack to slightly wide outside the off-stump after the Kiwi had changed his footwork from the first Test and survived for a long period.
In walked Kane Williamson. Ashwin would later reveal to have picked up clues about the Kiwi captain from their previous meeting in Tests four years ago. “He has a tendency to lunge forward outside his off-stump,” is how he described it. And from the moment Williamson has walked in to bat this series, Ashwin has operated without anyone manning the cover region and constantly bowled length and at times even short of length deliveries outside the off-stump, coaxing the right-hander to hit against the turn. It succeeded in Kanpur.
Williamson, being the class batsman he is, has found his own method of contending with Ashwin’s plan by looking to play off the back-foot so that he’s not leaving any gap between his bat and pad. He’d been defeated on both occasions in the first Test while employing this very gameplan. On this occasion he felt to an ordinary shot. It was the drift on the ball that flummoxed him first and convinced him to attempt a cut. But the ball was too close to him and as it spun back sharply, all he got on the ball was an inside-edge that trickled on to the stumps. It wasn’t the first time that Ashwin had outdone a batsman of the highest quality of late. He had sort of spoiled Kumar Sangakkara’s farewell party by dismissing him in his final four innings. He did so by beating the Sri Lankan stalwart at his own game, letting him play his trademark cover-drive to off-breaks outside the off-stump with generous flight and deception and getting him caught at slip. In the end Sangakkara had to admit, “I think I just couldn’t see the ball Ashwin bowled to me four times in a row.”
Later that year, he got rid of AB de Villiers in Nagpur, a scalp he has often called his most satisfying. With the South African trying to stave off an lbw risk by moving his feet outside the leg-stump, Ashwin used a carom ball that pitched on middle and took out off-stump.
Back in Indore, Ross Taylor looked all at sea once more against Ashwin. His constant ploy against the off-spinner has been to play inside the line of the ball and make sure the ball doesn’t turn past to hit his pads. In Kolkata he was squared up and trapped lbw. Here, he ended up leaving his bat hanging outside his off-stump to a regulation off-break and edged to slip. Ronchi, who has so far shown great footwork against Ashwin, too perished the same way.
Though Jimmy Neesham and the lower-order did wag in impressively, Ashwin returned to mop them up to complete his five-wicket haul. And it looks likely that he’s only getting warmed up in this Test with the second innings still to come. Still, somehow Ashwin’s achievements always seem to carry an asterisk for some. “Kumble and my Test wicket count would have been something else if we had got wickets like we have been playing on in the last four years,” is what Harbhajan Singh had tweeted a day earlier.
But what Ashwin seems to be proving on a regular basis is that his success is based as much on what he brings to the pitch as it is on what the pitch has to offer. And that he has more ways than one to get rid of a batsman. Just ask the Kiwis.