Ravichandran Ashwin doesn’t quite rip an off-break around off-stump, with loop and dip, and let the batsman cope with it. Like Muttiah Muralitharan, especially when younger, used to do. Or as Nathon Lyon does on occasions. The art of Ashwin lies in entangling the batsmen into meanderings from which they are unable to disengage themselves in time. Like Steve Smith on Day 1 of this Boxing Day Test.
The ball that took out Smith opened up its trickery under the gaze of the batsman, rather than reveal its perfection from the moment it was released. It’s a familiar theme with Ashwin. His deliveries are constructed for what a batsman might do, tailored to probe the anticipated response, as opposed to a pre-fabricated line of thought. He doesn’t do those pre-designed dream balls.
Someone like Shane Warne can dispense with reality and make the batsmen dance to his machinations. His genius and the art of leg-spin allowed him to do that. Barring Muralitharan, off-spinners don’t have such wizardry in the DNA of their art. But every now and then, Ashwin manages to create a private reality within the batsmen’s world where he makes them work against themselves.
The surprise in Smith’s dismissal wasn’t how it ended but how soon it ended. Just two balls. Ashwin targeted the intended shot or rather the hands, that Smith claimed to have found during the limited-overs leg of the tour. The first ball spun sharply down leg but Smith didn’t handcuff his hands. The next dropped on a length around middle-and-leg, forcing Smith to lunge.
For a minute, scrub out the two players, photoshop in Ricky Ponting and Harbhajan Singh – and you wouldn’t have noticed a difference. The seam of the ball towards leg-gully, the ripping side-spin and the door-knob turn of the wrist at release that took the ball in the air from a shade outside off to its eventual destination. Perhaps it was the lure of the trajectory, but Smith’s hands trespassed into areas from which he couldn’t extricate them in time.
Marnus Labuschagne too did the same, almost. Unlike Smith, he seemed more intent to play off the backfoot. Ashwin’s plan was ready: to get him caught at backward short-leg, wristing the turning bouncing ball off his hip. If the batsman tries to block straight down the pitch, the bounce and turn would hopefully be enough to get the ball ricochet off the inner edge to forward short-leg. The ball sailed past the two short-legs a few times and then Labuschagne made his move.
He started to move sideways. Side-stepping to leg, he started to cut and punch to the off. It was an interesting move; he had attempted one in Ashwin’s first over but was beaten, nevertheless he revived that approach now. When the ball was fuller, he would push it away, without a big stride, letting his dextrous hands take care of the deviation. For the rest, he would shuffle sideways to ping the large gap at covers, left deliberately open. For most of the day, Ashwin bowled with just two on the off-side.
Ashwin’s art isn’t static. It keeps changing colours according to the perceived threat. Soon, he shifted to around the stumps, and over-spun one on leg-and- middle on a length. Labuschagne almost combusted, going for an ill-executed sweep on an urge, and was saved by the DRS on the lbw appeal.
Though the moisture evaporated from the track in the second session, Ashwin returned around the stumps but wisely abandoned that line of attack after sensing the lack of pre-lunch biting turn and bounce. From over the stumps, he quietly tried pushing Labuschagne back and getting him to wrist the turning ball to waiting hands. Though he wasn’t successful, a similar line of attack worked for Mohammed Siraj.
Ashwin has already shown in the first Tests of the last tours to England and Australia that his art isn’t parochial. It isn’t pinned down to India’s soil. But untimely injuries meant he couldn’t finish what he started on those tours. Now, it seems, he is on a celebratory run.