THE TWEAK that Bangladesh made in their top order in the Asia Cup opener on Wednesday had hinted at confusion caused because of Tamim Iqbal’s absence. His replacement, Imrul Kayes, was pushed down the order, while Mohammad Mithun, returning to the fold after two years, opened with Soumya Sarkar. But as Bangladesh captain Mashrafe Mortaza would confirm later, they didn’t have any uncertainties in their thought process. The change was brought about with an intention to negate the Ravichandran Ashwin factor.
It’s a statement about how far Ashwin has come along in his career, and how much respected he is by the opposition. In the home T20 series against Sri Lanka, Ashwin had opened the bowling on slow turners at Ranchi and Visakhapatnam. But the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium pitch for Wednesday’s game had a fair amount of grass cover which called for pace from both ends with the new ball. Bangladesh guessed it right. India, indeed, had started with Ashish Nehra and Jasprit Bumrah. The hosts altered their batting order to maintain a left-right combination against Ashwin.
“Ashwin is a great bowler and will almost always do well. But because of the dew, I thought 150 was gettable. We even changed our batting order keeping Ashwin in mind; to allow a left-right combination going. But it didn’t matter, because we lost wickets and just couldn’t build partnerships,” Mortaza said. This is the kind of respect the Tamil Nadu offie commands from the opposition these days. Amid the hype over Bumrah’s emergence and Nehra’s return, Ashwin is doing his job silently and brilliantly.
Not that he has been weaving his magic only on turning pitches. On flat decks in Australia, he took four wickets in three T20 matches at an economy rate of 7.58. Then, in the series opener against Sri Lanka at Pune, Ashwin was outstanding with his figures of 2 for 13 in three overs on a green-top. With 20 more runs to play with, he might have won the match for his team. In the final game of the series, Ashwin was unplayable.
Figures of 4-1-8-4 was instrumental in decimating the Islanders. It was the best-ever bowling show by an Indian in the shortest format. He finished the series with nine scalps from three matches at an economy rate of 3.88.
Against Bangladesh also, conditions didn’t help the spinners. Far from it. Consider this: the home team played four fast bowlers and the two spinners, Shakib Al Hasan and Mahmudullah, shared just five overs between them. But Ashwin, in the form of his life, has become too good to be dented by the odds.
He came in the eighth over. Outfield was a little wet and the ball was a touch soggy. A full-toss slipped out of his hand, which Sabbir Rahman reverse-swept to the third man boundary. Ashwin immediately corrected his length and forced Rahman to go on a forward defensive prod.
When Kayes faced him, Ashwin bowled seam up to outthink the batsman. He held it back a little to dismiss Kayes. The latter had already committed to a horizontal-bat shot and got the top edge. It was fascinating stuff — a top craftsman was at work.
The last Asia Cup in Bangladesh two years ago had coincided with Ashwin’s period of struggle. He even wore full sleeves to tinker with his action in India’s match against hosts Bangladesh. Then, against Pakistan, Shahid Afridi did a Javed Miandad to rub more salt into Ashwin’s wounds. With 10 required off the last over, the Pakistani swashbuckler hit him for two consecutive sixes to secure victory. It was a night of despair for the Indian off-spinner.
Miandad, however, had lent his support to the beleaguered bowler, pointing short straight boundaries at the Mirpur stadium. With India about to face their arch-rivals in another Asia Cup fixture, on Saturday, the Pakistani batting great tried to assess Ashwin’s progress. “From a distance, I would say he has become a better bowler because he now flights the ball and varies its trajectory. You can’t be a top quality spinner unless you are confident enough to flight the ball, formats notwithstanding. He is very confident in his ability, which is why he has progressed,” Miandad said, speaking over phone to The Indian Express.
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In Sarfaraz Ahmed, Shoaib Malik, Umar Akmal and Afridi, Pakistan have some very good players against spin and the outcome of the high-octane contest two days hence will, to some extent, depend on how Ashwin fares on the night.
“In T20 cricket, form doesn’t matter. It’s about the performance on the night. I think Ashwin will go into the match with a clean slate and the Pakistan batsmen, too, will play the ball on merit,” Miandad observed.
Somehow, though, there’s a feeling that Ashwin will have to keep performing to make his presence felt. After a grand 2015, when he took 62 wickets in nine Tests to become the World No. 1 Test bowler, he was unceremoniously dropped from the ODI playing XI following a couple of low-key performances in Australia.
Away from Asia, when there’s only one slot available for a spinner, MS Dhoni has always preferred Ravindra Jadeja over Ashwin because of the former’s “better batting ability”. The off-spinner has never complained in public and taken failures in his stride. He is now handling the honours with aplomb.