During the 1979 Lords Test,a match better known in India for being Dilip Vengsarkars first of three entries on to the MCC honours board,Ian Botham split India open in the first innings with a five-for.
But it was Bothams solitary wicket in the second innings that was vastly celebrated. When Sunil Gavaskar nicked one to second slip,the man playing his 19th Test had taken his 100th wicket. A couple of Tests later,at the Oval,Botham scored his 1,000th Test run.
The double,100 wickets and 1000 runs,took just 21 games a still-standing record in Test cricket. If you look at this particular stat in isolation,it does not tell you much. For example,it does not reveal whether or not Botham remained as successful for the rest of his career. Neither does it tell you where the Englishman ranks in the list of genuine all-rounders. But the stat does highlight one fact: No other all-rounder showed as much promise to perform with both bat and ball simultaneously any quicker than Botham did.
Until,an off-spinner showed up. One who often opens the bowling but one who has never risen above the bottom four in the batting line-up.
Ravichandran Ashwin is a man of many contradictions. Never has he played in the conventional all-rounders spot of number seven. Yet,after just 17 matches,he has scored 740 runs (at an average of 41.11) and taken 97 Test wickets (average,28.07). If we compare his figures with those of all-time great all-rounders at the corresponding stage of their careers,Garry Sobers (1221 runs,21 wickets),Botham (791,87) and Jacques Kallis (741,22) have scored more runs. In terms of wickets,however,Ashwin is ahead of the aforementioned trio as well as Kapil Dev (698,58),Imran Khan (554,70) and Richard Hadlee (617,61).
In fact,following his second Test century,made against the West Indies in Kolkata earlier this week,Ashwin now boasts of as many tons as Hadlee scored in his 86-match career. But if you believe that comparing across eras and teams is not justified,then try overlooking this.
Ashwin and Suresh Raina,a pure batsman,have played the same number of Test matches. Raina has batted in 29 innings,never lower than number seven,for 768 runs. Ashwin has played six fewer innings,never higher than number eight,for 740 runs. And Ashwin has scored twice the number of hundreds that Raina has and just one less than the 40-Test old Yuvraj Singh. All this while exceeding purely as a bowler. The off-spinner,after all,is on the verge of becoming the fifth fastest over all and quickest Indian of all time to scalp 100 wickets. But more on his bowling later.
So why isnt he called an all-rounder? Honestly,I dont expect to be called anything at all, a modest Ashwin said at the press conference at the Eden Gardens. But those who watched him bat alongside debutant Rohit Sharma on Days Two and Three of the Kolkata Test knew that Indias prayers for a genuine No.7 had been answered.
When the 27-year old exited the Dr BC Roy Clubhouse on Thursday,India were 156 for 6. A debutant was at the other end of a two-paced pitch and only the tail remained in the dressing room. And his equivalent in the West Indies side,off-spinner Shane Shillingford,had taken four of the six wickets to have fallen. But Shillingfords snappy turn and spongy bounce was dealt with the soft hands of Ashwin,who played correct cricket shots in the V for singles.
When Shillingford gave way to the fast bowlers,the man who played his school cricket as an opener,drove and cut through the off side with ease. Then when Veerasammy Permaul,the left-arm spinner,was brought on,Ashwins wrists turned fluid. Off one particular ball in the 65th over,Ashwin waited for the ball to pitch and spit,only to gracefully flick it with his supple hands against the turn. It was picked up at the midwicket fence. His wrist work and the class it exuded brought to mind just one name. VVS Laxman.
Ive said it. Now sue me.
Ashwins contributions to the win didnt stop there. Even as fast bowler Mohammed Shami dazzled in the limelight during the second innings,Ashwin bowled quietly in the shadows,working his way towards what he later called as one of the best spells in my career. Big words for figures of 3/47,coming from a man who has already taken nine five-wicket hauls in the space of two years. But you can see why he enjoyed it.
Criticised for trying too many variations in the past,Ashwin focused mainly on his stock ball,the off-spinner,in Kolkata. And in the process,he scalped classic off-spinners wickets.
In the first innings,Permaul tried to work one away with the turn,but only spooned it back to Ashwin for a return catch. In the second,Darren Bravo made the mistake of staying back for a flighted ball. It skid on pitching,stayed low and rapped his pads in front of middle. Later,Tino Best looked to slog a conventional off-spinning ball over cow corner. It was caught by the only man in the deep,posted there for that very shot.
Best was Ashwins fifth wicket of the match and 97th over all. Were he to take the remaining three wickets between now and New Years day,a space in which three Test matches are to be played,Anil Kumbles long standing feat of being the fastest Indian to take 100 wickets (in 21 matches) would have been wiped off.
And were Ashwin to score another 260 runs in that same period,Botham would have lost his Test double record to a man who still refuses to acknowledge that he is an all-rounder.
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