No good offspinner minds seeing a batsman try hit through extra cover off the front foot for there looms the prospect of his wicket. But confidence can dissipate when someone executes those shots as authoritatively as Marlon Samuels twice did to Ravichandran Ashwin just before the rain break on Sunday. First, he extended that front foot of his, which somehow goes AWOL against seamers, and brushed it through cover. The next ball was flighted even more, a touch wider on off-stump but an elegant tip-toe to the pitch of the ball and those sinuous wrists of Samuels twitched the ball over extra cover for another boundary. If any doubt lingered on Samuels’s aptitude to play spin, he imperiously dismissed such notions.
It set the tone for some intrigue in the second session; a cerebral spinner and an insouciant stroke-maker. Straightaway, in his first over after lunch, Ashwin began bowling flatter and more off-stumpish than he had initially. Samuels must have sensed some triumph — he has forced India’s spin spearhead on the defensive. But Ashwin was just softening him up. Eventually, came a flighted delivery on off-stump or thereabouts. The carrot was dangled, as they say, but Samuels tackled it assuredly.
The doubts were induced couple of balls later. Ashwin got one to drift and dip rapidly, pushing Samuels to play from inside the line. Unsure of how much the ball would turn, a tetchy Samuels thrust his front foot as far as he could to reach to the pitch of the ball, hoping he would get enough of his wood on the ball. The ball, though, hardly turned and kissed the outside edge of his bat. Samuels’s soft hands, however, ensured the edge died and went squarer to the slipsman. A prodigiously turning off-break arrived next. Suddenly the Jamaican was doubt-ridden, uncertain of the direction and extent of turn.
Not only did he have to gauge the flight but also tackle the dip and drift. His confidence has begun to wean away. And this wasn’t even a vicious turner of a track.
Caught in two minds
Spinners, by their very instinct, home in on any uneasiness in batsmen and Ashwin could sense it in Samuels. He began to tease and trick, and Samuels retreated to the backfoot, hoping to read the turn of the ball off the track. It was a risk-fraught ploy, as Ashwin could slid in that faster, straighter one that’d ping him in front. But Ashwin had other notions. He made one turn in and bounce viciously.
Now Samuels had to reconsider his method. He can’t pre-empt. He can’t wait for the turn on the back foot. He can’t attack. He can’t defend. Then his mind went blank. As Ashwin’s next ball began to drift away from him, Samuels just kept watching it, wide-eyed like a child in a circus, before offering a tentative prod, his feet nowhere in the vicinity to the pitch of the ball, in the hope the ball would miss his bat, pads and stumps. It didn’t. It spun slightly away from him to hit the off-stump. Samuels stood there in his follow through, dazed and confused as he had been after lunch. Ashwin celebrated the wicket with the sort of joy that only comes when something is pre-planned. A pre-planned setting up of batsman that would have made Anil Kumble proud. In his prime, especially towards the second half of his career, it was how Kumble bargained his wickets overseas, through rigorous plotting and clinical execution. Ashwin himself acknowledged Kumble’s inputs as playing a vital role in his seven-for.
There wouldn’t be a better person than Kumble to instruct the spinners about bowling abroad, himself having struggled and then retooled himself to crack the overseas code. When he was appointed the coach — Virat Kohli apparently wanted Kumble ahead of Tom Moody, because he thought he could help solve Indian spinners’ overseas woes — it was assumed his presence would benefit the spinners the most, especially to enhance their effectiveness overseas. That seems to have borne an instant result, as Ashwin’s seven-wicket haul is the third best figures by an Indian spinner outside Asia, just a rung below Kumble himself.
Ashwin was effusive, and precise, in his praise of Kumble’s inputs. “We were constantly in touch through different occasions of the game. I went wicketless for the first 25-26 overs I bowled in the match. In the past I would gave been impatient. I kept on speaking to him about what I was doing right and what I was not doing right. He felt my body was not going through well yesterday because I was a little tired. Also, he told I had to slow down at the crease, gave me different ideas about what lines to bowl to batsmen,” he told bcci.tv. In the break, Kumble advised him to mix the pace of his deliveries, besides asking him to slow down at the crease so that he wouldn’t hurry through the action and consequently the tendency to bowl flatter.
Kumble, in the past, had fondly remarked that Ashwin reminds him of himself. It’s not difficult to see why. Both have a supreme confidence in their ability, are unflappable under fire, can pick holes in a batsman’s technique, and varies their pace and trajectory according to conditions and circumstance.
Both have little magic about them, but both have the cerebral quotient that sets them apart. And by taking seven wickets and reeling off a century in the same Test — only Ian Botham and Jack Gregory having done so in the past — Ashwin proved that added responsibility with the bat hasn’t compromised his bowling efficiency.