As the Indian team arrived at the Ranchi airport lounge on Saturday afternoon, fans jumped at the opportunity to take selfies and groupies with their favourite stars. Both India and Sri Lanka were taking a chartered flight to Visakhapatnam and the fellow passengers made good use of their 15-minute wait before the departure call came. Away from the crowd, Ravichandran Ashwin was having an informal chat with a friend from the media. Only a few troubled him with autograph or photograph requests.
At the ACA-VDCA Stadium on Sunday, as the off-spinner was weaving his magic, 28,000 fans serenaded the captain of the Indian limited-overs team with ‘Dhoni-Dhoni’ chants. After Ashwin finished his spell they clapped but a little more noise and a standing ovation were expected. The 29-year-old doesn’t top the popularity charts – his nerdy nature could be a reason – but he is invaluable to the team. Time and time again has he proved it in the last two years.
A bowling masterclass
Today, Ashwin produced an off-spin bowling masterclass after Dhoni won the toss on a good pitch and decided to field. He finished with 4 for 8 in four overs; best-ever by an Indian in T20 cricket. In fact, Ashwin surpassed his own record; 4/11 against Australia in the 2014 World T20 in Dhaka. He bowled first change in that game and bamboozled the Aussies to 86 all out. Here, he opened the bowling and all but finished the game inside five overs. Caught in the ‘Ash-web’ the visitors slumped to 82 all out. India’s 2-1 series victory became a mere formality.
Opener Niroshan Dickwella, in for injured Chamara Kapugedera, was Ashwin’s first; in the third ball of the opening over of the match. It was a beauty, straight from an off-spinner’s guidebook – nice loop to induce the Sri Lankan opener to leave his crease and enough turn to take the ball past the outside edge. Dhoni’s stumping was almost contemptuous, waiting a while before dislodging the bails.
Photos: Ashwin, Dhawan star in India win
The veteran Tillakaratne Dilshan, with the task to shoulder a mostly green set of batsmen, was removed in the final ball of that over with a classical off-break. The ball turned sharply from outside off and found him in line. The flight created enough doubt in Dilshan’s mind to make his footwork tentative. He was pinned down in front.
Ashish Nehra, who shared the new ball, was loose in his first over, conceding a couple of fours. But Ashwin came for his next over and dismissed Dinesh Chandimal. The Sri Lanka captain charged down the track and attempted a premeditated slog without noticing that the bowler had held it back a little. Hardik Pandya took a dolly at wide mid-off.
Dhoni had already brought in a leg slip for his premier spinner and Suresh Raina soon came into the equation, taking a catch to get rid of Asela Gunaratne in Ashwin’s third over. The debutant didn’t look happy with the decision but there was a hint of a thin edge before the ball brushed his thigh pad on the way to Raina. Ashwin’s first spell read: 3-1-5-4. Sri Lanka were 20/4 after 4.2 overs.
From that point onwards, it was a one-way traffic. This young Sri Lankan team lacked class and experience to fight pressure. They choked. Nehra castled Milinda Siriwardana as the latter tried to play a cross-batted heave to a length ball. The score became 21/5. Ravindra Jadeja’s presence of mind and underarm throw accounted for Seekkuge Prasanna, when he, along with Dasun Shanaka, was forging some sort of partnership. Shanaka, after hitting Yuvraj Singh for a couple of sixes in an over, misread a straighter one from Jadeja and dragged it on to his stumps. Sri Lankan lower-order struggled even against Raina’s part-time spin, gifting him two wickets.
After 13 overs, Ashwin came back to complete his quota. He gave away three runs in his final over without a wicket. His team-mates ran to pat him on the back. Dhoni nodded in approval.
Not many months ago, the skipper had dropped him after a couple of flat performances in the ODIs at the WACA and the Gabba, in Brisbane.
Ashwin went Down Under on the heels of a fabulous year in Test cricket that saw him rise to No. 1 in the ICC rankings. But as the ‘away conundrum’ returned, he lost his place in the XI. Jadeja’s better batting ability was taken into account while playing with one specialist spinner.
From the T20s in Australia, Ashwin started to regain his mojo. And he was outstanding in this series, finishing with nine wickets from three matches at 3.88. Few doubts that he would be India’s go-to man in the World T20. And opponents would already have started plucking their hair out to devise means to negotiate him.
In hindsight, India might have been benefitted with a decent Sri Lankan total on the board. Both Yuvraj and Dhoni are short of time in the middle. A victory target of 83 didn’t allow India to experiment with the batting order. Shikhar Dhawan and Ajinkya Rahane’s unbeaten 55-run second wicket partnership took their side home with 37 balls to spare. The batting blip in Pune now seems a distant memory.