If Harbhajan Singh had bowled the way R Ashwin did on Sunday, he would have been thoroughly slammed by most: ‘Oh look at him, bowling over the wicket outside leg stump so stubbornly without results.’ ‘Look at him bowl so slowly from round the stumps and at a wrong line to the left-handers — just outside and around off stump instead of suffocating the batsmen with an lbw and bat-pad inducing line of attack.’ With Ashwin, after a stupendous season of riches, people can be more generous — and wonder about whether he was jaded after a long season, and such. There is something in that, perhaps, but it has to be said that he was pretty disappointing on a pitch like this. Off days can happen to even great bowlers, of course, but it should be at least recorded on the pages.
Instead of the attacker he could have been, he settled for the second-best role of a stock bowler and run-container. Which was good but India would have loved Ashwin the attacker out there.
He did get David Warner with a ripper from over the wicket — a big-turning offbreak that curled past the defences — but he could have abandoned it when it became clear very shortly that he wasn’t getting big turn when the ball got softer. Instead, he persisted with it for so long that even the Australians were surprised. And happy.
Here is the half-centurion Matt Renshaw, after the day’s play, on whether the over-the-wicket tactic played into Australia’s hands: “Yes I think so. It gave us a pretty clear plan what he was trying to do and how he was trying to get us out. We worked out that and just tried to combat that as well as possible.”
Eventually, he moved round the stumps but he did two odd things. The pace was too slow for the track and the line was a bit too wide to Renshaw and Shaun Marsh. There are pitches where the main focus as a spinner could be to beat the batsmen in air with drift — this wasn’t one of them. He seemed almost hellbent on it from over the wicket. For a while, initially, his line and slow pace made it seem he was setting up the left-handers for the lbw ball — a tad quicker and in line of stumps. But they didn’t come often enough.
The surprise was when he landed them a touch quicker and in line of middle and off, both left-handers Shaun Marsh and Renshaw were put in a bit of a bother. They had to ensure the front pad didn’t come in the way and had to get their bat in front of the leg to make contact. More focus and skill were required of them. It left one with the feeling of what if Ashwin had bowled more such deliveries and kept the slow-around-off ones as a surprise. Instead of the other way around.
That line and pace could have been understandable if this was a different track and if the batsmen were showing more intent to drive him. A short cover would have come in the game more and his spells would have made more sense and been more potent. Not here, not when the Australians didn’t fall into his trap and chose to bat differently.
At the other end…
The danger that Ravindra Jadeja presented made one wonder whether he was underbowled. Australians’ discomfort was clear with the way they batted against Jadeja. As soon as he came, the left-handers knew that with the ball spinning in, lbws and bat-pad-chances were staring at them. And they started to move down the track to try and nullify the spin, especially after Steve Smith became a sitting duck at the crease.
Now they had to do something — move out, use the feet, worry about reaching the pitch of the ball, try taking chances to hit over the in-field, try to work it past short-leg — always a risky thing against Jadeja as he can get hold the ball down the line and force a leading edge. In short, they had to risk and take chances and come up with a semi-attacking plan against Jadeja.
In contrast, they could sit back against Ashwin. And defend or push the ball here and there. When he was over the wicket, with the ball not turning as much after the initial half hour, they just had to sort out their padding better. When he was round the stumps, the slower pace and the line of attack meant they could press forward to defend and push fairly easily. Unlike the Indian batsmen, Renshaw and Marsh trusted their defence more, didn’t push their hands too low, and saw out Ashwin. Credit to them, of course, they were wonderfully composed and determined and showed great character, but here is the thing: it must be said that they couldn’t have done it without a bit of help from the man supposed to torment them.
Ashwin talks a lot about how bounce is important to him, but when it comes down to the details, he doesn’t actually extract disconcerting bounce. This was a pitch that would have actually been more in favour of Harbhajan as it was for Nathan Lyon. Over-spin — the art of getting the fingers over the top of the ball during release and using less side-spin — would have been the ideal way to go about here. Ashwin, though, couldn’t get much vertical purchase off the wicket. It was a pitch where the bat and pad catch should have come more in play, and though the track did lose a bit of its hardness and hence bounce, Ashwin could have done better.
The other day Lyon spoke about how he watched endless videos of Ashwin, and even “if it’s copying, so be it” as he had to fine the best way to bowl in these conditions. Sunday was a day when it seemed Ashwin should be watching Lyon’s bowling video. Irony was dancing on a turner in Bangalore.