One of the big mysteries to emerge from Southampton Test was whether R Ashwin was injured or not. Graeme Swann felt there was an issue, that Ashwin was not always finishing his action. It seemed he wasn’t getting his body into the action as much as he did during his sparkling Edgbaston show.
In some ways Ashwin captured the Indian team’s woes. When not many expected, he came up with a stunner in the first Test. At Southampton, when the wicket was rough and dry he failed. Just like India. They showed great character at Nottingham when it seemed they might be swept 0-5 in the series and froze when they had the match in their hands at Southampton. Pressure does funny things to the psyche but Ashwin relishes such tight situations. When the match situation is dire, he asks his captains to give him the ball.
Virat Kohli met the media at the end of the Test and was asked about Ashwin. He backed his man, saying, “No one wants to do not well. He tried his best. He didn’t get the results but we all go out there to give our best effort. So this was one occasion where Ashwin could himself feel he could have got more purchase out of the wicket.” He then compared with Ali (the questioner had mentioned Ali): “Moeen bowled really well. He was relentless with the areas that he bowled in and the speeds that he bowled at.”
If there was a physical problem with Ashwin, Kohli would have mentioned it. But he didn’t. He said much else but there was no mention of any stiffness or problem. That raises more questions about Ashwin’s performance then. He was injured in the previous Test but a day before the fourth, Kohli said Ashwin had “recovered nicely”. There was no obvious concern, which is also borne out by the fact that he bowled so many overs in England’s second innings.
Even if there was a slight injury, he could have at least tried his best to hit the rough patches a lot more consistently. He wasn’t as accurate as Ali was. Not all over the place, but not as consistent. He chose to bowl over the wickets into the rough outside leg stump for the left handers but couldn’t do much with that line. He has got David Warner out in the past with that angle but he didn’t have the zip off the track. As Kohli said, “Ashwin would himself feel that he could have got more purchase of the wicket”. But he didn’t.
It wasn’t the only failure from him in the Test. His first mistake came with the bat on second evening. In particular the sequence before he got out. Moeen Ali slipped in a straighter one just outside off stump. Ashwin pressed forward in defense but the ball wobbled past the outside edge. Ali followed it with a regular off-break and Ashwin stabbed it just short of silly point. The pressure was on. There were empty acres behind point on the off side and reverse sweep probably made rational sense but one had to be settled for that shot. Perhaps his mind was scrambled but Ashwin went for it. As the bat twirled to the other side in his hands and the ball hit the stumps.
These are modern times and a reverse sweep isn’t something to be frowned upon anymore. But even Jacques Kallis, who used that option to nullify Harbhajan Singh, took his time before he attempted it. Settle in first, get moving around, and then do it. Especially, when the match hung in balance. Especially, when you have seen through the series the contribution of England’s lower order.
There is no doubt that Ashwin is a talented batsman; in fact he should be playing ahead of Hardik Pandya in these conditions but can the team management be blamed if they don’t have the confidence.
He has pulled the team out of a hole with the bat before. Like in St. Lucia with a hundred. But this isn’t West Indies, this was England, the match waiting to be seized and he had the skills to do it. It then goes down to temperament. He is a kind of a player who would play that shot again (as he did the second innings) and squint at the world as if to suggest, ‘Are you talking to me?’.
That fire, that rage, that confidence is good but a bit more circumspection would have been better. Questions would now be asked about his batting and how many times has he done well as a batsman when team was under pressure overseas?
It’s clear that the shot didn’t go down well in the team. Sanjay Bangar came to the press conference later that evening and unprovoked, brought up that dismissal. He usually doesn’t do stuff like that. Even if his client was caught stabbing a knife into a man, he is a type of guy who would go, ‘oh, he was taking the knife out, not thrusting it in.’ For him to say that Ashwin should not have played that shot said something about what was felt in the dressing room.
It seemed he had turned a corner in Edgbaston, bowling his heart out so much so that the selectors deemed it would be better to send back Kuldeep Yadav to get some game time in domestic cricket. It won’t be a surprise if the team management now decides to swap him with Ravindra Jadeja for the Oval Test. If Ashwin gets a chance in the final Test, he would find himself in the same space he was just before the first Test: Prove himself all over again. And if he doesn’t get a spot, then he would be out in a limbo for a while. For a man who was the quickest in the world to reach to 200 wickets, it’s of course harsh. But that’s how it rolls sometimes.