If one knows anything about R Ashwin, it’s that he likes to make spin bowling cerebral. He makes a prepared move, reads the batsmen’s response and the negotiation begins in earnest from then on.
Done in by bounce and over-spin
His battle with Steve Smith started before the game, in his mind. Prasanna Agoram, South Africa’s performance analyst and someone who has worked with Ashwin during the Indian Premier League (IPL) and Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL), had predicted India’s top spinner’s gameplan with prescience in a chat a couple of days before the Test.
“Against Smith, he would bowl it quicker through the air and the trajectory would neither be too tossed up or too flat. It will make him (Smith) feel he can come forward but he won’t be able to. It will make him feel he has to go back but that’s when he will feel rushed. And that bounce from overspin will hopefully lead to mistakes. Tucking him up for a while like this and then mixing up pace and flight variations is what he will do against Smith,” Agoram had said.
That’s exactly what happened. The delivery that got Smith on Day 2 at Adelaide was neither tossed up nor pushed through. But it had enough speed to keep Smith pushing at it from the crease. During his county stint, this ball had got Ashwin rich rewards. Smith’s mistake was that he stabbed inside the line, playing for the turn. But the ball bounced and tilted in through the angle. Not sharp turn, but the angle did him in.
The ball spun less not because of the pitch but by design; Ashwin made it go straighter. What the untrained eye would have missed was the fizzing air-speed and over-spun bounce of the ball that dragged Smith into an uncomfortable spot. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram
“Go through Ashwin’s English county performances,” Agoram had said. “You will see a lot of those types of deliveries.”
Why it is difficult to read Ashwin
In the past, during home games, Ashwin has shown that with a subtle sleight of hand, he can restrict the break in his off-spinners. By merely changing his thumb position on the seam, and while keeping the grip and release the same, he can reduce the amount of spin. When he wants to spin it less, he will have his thumb cut across the seam. When he wants it to turn more, the thumb will go beside the seam, not touching it, curled in towards the index finger. So without a discernible change in action, he can control the spin.
“Do you guys see all this from your press box, do you notice all this?!” he had once asked in half-jest. Even most batsmen, from far closer, have failed to see through this trick.
Green’s back-foot play fails
It was his battle with the wonder-boy Cameron Green that was more gripping. The ball that dismissed him might be seen as a short one that was mis-pulled, but the lead-up to it was fascinating. Green, more than any other Australians, was looking to move gears against Ashwin. He used his crease well, going fully forward or back. One thing he didn’t want to do was get caught at the crease. He even played a very effective late cut.
Ashwin was alert, of course, and started to add more revs to his deliveries. This resulted in the ball starting to loop and dip that much more. The first ball of the over in which Green fell was a couple of deliveries after that late cut. It reared with overspin and Green jabbed it to the on side. Sensing that a trap was being laid, he rushed out next ball but the ball wasn’t where he thought it would be. Somehow, he used his height and lunge to stub it out.
The next ball had his name on it. He had set himself well back inside the crease, and pressed even further back, but Ashwin had again got this one to go through quicker and bouncier. The resultant pull was unsurprisingly mistimed to short midwicket where Kohli pouched a sharp catch.
“I am expecting my prediction of 20 wickets to come true,” pinged Agoram after this wicket.
Head beaten by slower one
Travis Head and Nathan Lyon were two simple dismissals, but Head’s in particular was revealing of Ashwin’s adjustments. To the left-handed Head, he went slower, from round the stumps, and the ball looped out of his hands, foxing Head into giving a return catch.
Off-spinner tries leggies
In the final session, under lights, Ashwin also tried a bit of leg-spin – again a product of calculated thought and not out of whim. “It’s not his T20 game coming in but it would be a calculated move as the pink Kookaburra has a black seam which can get difficult to pick in lights in the last session, and can be exploited by wrist spinners,” Agoram had said.
Ashwin’s instinct is honed thorough preparation that allows enough room for spontaneity to kick in to tackle the batsmen’s responses. If the inherent fluidity of Lyon’s art feels like a song, then Ashwin’s, to paraphrase writer Leo Carey, often feels like speech or like thought itself.
That’s why it feels at times as if he goes on a jarring tangent with a carrom ball or a leg-break but that’s his layered thought-out craft, not whim, in play.