Ravichandran Ashwin smiled an academic, near apologetic smile. The wicket-keeper and the close-in cordon ambled to greet him. His colleagues from the far-flung outposts quizzically peered at the big screen as the umpire sought further confirmation as to whether it was Ashwin’s carrom ball or the wicketkeeper’s hand that had disturbed Lahiru Gamage’s off-bail. Kohli and Co, meanwhile, had one hand on the souvenir stumps. No sooner had the the telly umpire confirmed it than Kohli pulled one out and gave it to Ashwin. With a reluctant grin, Ashwin waved the stumps at the audience, before he began scrapping the dirt at the base of the stump.
Whether or not Ashwin would get his 300th — or, indeed, Umesh his 100th — was the only strand of suspense that remained in the match once Sri Lanka’s top-order wilted like thatched huts in a storm. They eventually stumbled to an innings-and-239-run defeat, the heaviest in their history, and they had to thank the breezy little ninth-wicket partnership between Dinesh Chandimal and Suranga Lakmal for reducing its margin.
A devastated Nic Pothas, Sri Lanka’s interim coach, lyrically put their subjugation in perspective, “I believe cricket is a game of chess, for every move there should be a counter move. We just didn’t have a counter move.”
But it was a day when even Ravichandran Ashwin, the most nerdish of Indian bowlers, didn’t have to ponder too deep before plotting a move. There were no intense, cat-and-mouse passages of play, an art he has nuanced in the last couple of years. He needn’t fiddle with his lengths or lines too often, or summon his full bag of trickery. He just relied on his natural variations and the marginal assistance he was getting from the pitch to scythe through the tail-end of Sri Lanka’s innings. Only when Lakmal began to ride on an unbelievable amount of luck did he begin to play around with his tools more often. Eventually, it was the carrom ball that fetched him the 300th. There was a sense of propriety to it, because it was this variation of his that was widely raved about when he burst onto the scene on a balmy Feroz Shah Kotla November morning seven years ago. Maybe, Ashwin picking his 300th at that ground — which hosts the next Test — would have fused a sense of symmetry.
A steep upward curve
Then again, Nagpur is not an inapt venue to trace his metamorphosis, or the ludicrously steep upward curve his career has traced between the two Tests at Jamtha — the first against South Africa in 2015 and this one. He took 12/98 versus South Africa and 8/130 in this match. Neither is symbolic, or fully reflective of his career, and the leaps it has taken in between. The first came on perhaps the most under-prepared strip India has played in the last decade, a spitting cobra of a wicket. The second was a usual slothful Nagpur surface, where if Sri Lanka’s batting were more purposeful or motivated, he would have had to earn his wickets, and the fruits of the labour would have been sweeter.
Between the two Nagpur Tests, he has picked a whopping 123 sticks in 22 Tests, at an average of 24.44. A bulk of those Tests were nabbed at home, or the home-like conditions of Sri Lanka and the West Indies, where some of the pitches in the Test series last year were as dry as those in Asia. But the recurring theme, most often, was that he didn’t always need the elements to facilitate his wreckages. He executed it by combining the old-fashioned tools of spin bowling, such as flight, dip, loop and ripping turn, with the new-age deception kit of doosras, carrom balls and sliders (occasionally leg-breaks and seam-ups too), which makes it difficult to typify him. An orthodox experimentalist, or a radical conventionalist, or a first-of-a-kind hybrid offie, or someone who just keeps up with the times. Just like the best batsmen of this generation who don’t compromise on the orthodoxy of the game, but have expanded its scope and canvas.
While Ashwin’s experimental streak has been criticised in the past, it now rings conclusively hollow, not least when he’s picking wickets a such a consistent clip, winning en route five man-of-the-series plaques on the spin.
“A lot of people have asked me why I experiment too much. But I have always been that way and unless you experiment, you don’t know how good or bad it can be. You might fail, but then you also come know that it doesn’t work for you and look to change,” he had said sometime ago.
In any case, his staggering numbers should transcend geographical constrictions. To pick so many wickets and milestones at such mind-boggling frequency, even if it has been mostly accomplished at home, is no less glittering a feat. The man he surpassed to be the fastest to 300-wickets-mark—Dennis Lillee—himself validates this argument. He has played only four Tests in Asia — three in Pakistan, one in Sri Lanka and none in India. He took a combined haul of six wickets, at 68.33. Muttiah Muralitharan averaged 75 in Australia and 45 in India. He had terrific records in England (48 at 19.20), New Zealand (30 at 19.96) and South Africa (37 at 26), but Muralitharan was a different beast.
Even Kumble, when his picked his 300th wicket, had hideous aggregates outside Asia — 90 in Australia, 63 in England, 40 in New Zealand and 35 in South Africa. Ashwin’s corresponding figures are better — 54 in Australia and 33 in England while he went wicketless in his only Test in South Africa. But from the 2002 tour to England, Kumble was a more penetrative force abroad. Kumble is hopeful that Ashwin too will turn the corner around.
“I was around the same age as him (31), when I began bowing well abroad. So I’m sure that given the way Ashwin has matured over the years, he has the tools to succeed abroad,” he said in a recent function in Delhi.
Ashwin himself, in his post-match interview with bcci.tv, said he was confident of ticking perhaps the only box that remains unchecked. He asserts he’s not too piqued by the criticism, rather he’s looking forward to “bowling without any mental baggages” abroad. But to prove himself, who he says is his fiercest critic, he would envisage a reversal of overseas fortunes. The celebrations then would be bubblier and louder.
Flight, dip and return
Ravichandran Ashwin’s six-year, 54-Test, 300-wicket journey has been anything but straightforward. Let’s retrace his steps.
1 to 100 in 18 Tests: After his 22-wicket debut series against the West Indies at home in 2011, he got a reality check in Australia. Though chastened for his meagre haul in Australia, he sporadically demonstrated that he can be influential abroad as well. Most notably in the first innings in Melbourne. But he returned to reaping wickets in abundance back home and in two years became the fastest Indian to a century wickets and replaced Harbhajan Singh as India’s first-choice spinner. But the criticism that he was impatient for his wickets and over-used his variations hung on, especially against England, when Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar out-bowled him.
100 to 200 in 19 Tests: Statistically, he’s the second fastest to 200 wickets, but the initial half of this stretch was the most trying time of his career. He was criticised for his inability to force the victory in Johannesburg in 2013, where he went wicketless in 42 overs. He was benched for the the two-Test series in New Zealand. Two matches in England in 2014 did his confidence no good and he was a mental wreck when he landed in Australia. Here again, he was unfortunate that Karn Sharma was preferred over him in Adelaide on a spinner-friendly pitch. But Ashwin signed off the series with four wickets in Sydney, which lifted his morale. And he began mercilessly scything through opponents. The last 79 of his 100 wickets came in only 12 games at 17, hinting that he was evolving as a bowler.
200 to 300 in 17 Tests: He was at the peak of his powers, though he never played outside Asia. On turners, he was unplayable, on non-turners, he was still unplayable. With a finer understanding of his craft and newfound peace, Ashwin took the surface out of equation. His art became more nuanced, and was winning the patience game too. The tendency to experiment still persists, but it’s considerably less conspicuous, and he looks every bit a bowler who can thrive in any conditions.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines