Updated: October 13, 2021 1:39:58 pm
Days after MS Dhoni retired from international white-ball cricket last year, Suresh Raina and Ravichandran Ashwin caught up on Facebook to sing paeans of the former India captain. Amidst laughter and banter, anecdotes and nostalgia, Raina dwelled on one of Dhoni’s masterstrokes – using Ashwin in the Powerplay overs. “If you see your Powerplay bowling average (economy rate), it has always been below six. You have always provided us with breakthroughs, that’s why MS believed in you,” he said.
Smiling wistfully, Ashwin looked away as if his mind was travelling back to a time when spinners rarely took the new ball or even bowled in the first six overs of a T20 game. Dhoni, ever the non-conformist, changed the norm, deputing new-ball duties to not only Ashwin but also a host of other spinners, even part-timers like Raina.
Ashwin, though, was the most successful. No spinner has snaffled more wickets in the Powerplay (42) or possesses a better strike rate (22 balls per wicket) in the IPL; only Sunil Narine has been thriftier (6.03 runs per over to 6.05).
Yet, for all these glittering numbers, Delhi Capitals have been disinclined to thrust new-ball duties to their premier off-spinner. In the UAE instalment of the Indian Premier League, his services were rendered just three times, for an over apiece. They have, rather, relied on their phalanx of fiery fast bowlers, the fire and ice combination of Anrich Nortje and Kagiso Rabada, and the effervescence of Avesh Khan. Skipper Rishabh Pant has either opened with Nortje or Avesh or Rabada and Avesh, in which case the third seamer is reserved for the death overs. Avesh has been a constant, and often bowled half of his overs in the Powerplay, whereas the overs of South Africans have been scattered. The ploy has worked, as whenever Capitals were in strife, Pant could summon one of them and expect them to reverse the tide with a wicket or two.
Somewhere in the latter half of the Powerplay, a spinner would surface. Of late, it has been Axar Patel and not Ashwin. Capitals weigh Axar’s run-stemming graft as pricier than Ashwin’s wicket-taking verve — Axar’s economy rate has been 6.52 this IPL while Ashwin’s has been 7.44. In general, the left-arm spinner has been a more productive wicket-taker too, 15 scalps at 18.26, compared to Ashwin’s five at 60. As a consequence, Ashwin has bowled two overs fewer than Axar despite playing a game more. Three times in the last seven games, Ashwin could not complete his full quota of overs either — he bowled only two in Qualifier 1 against Chennai Super Kings and just one against Royal Challengers Bangalore in the previous game. Seldom has Ashwin been made to look as peripheral as he had been in the last two games. At such a crossroads the captain should not only be concerned about the form of his lead spinner but also his own utilisation of Ashwin. T20 is a fast game, where there is little scope to pause and revise, but Pant and Capitals ought to rethink Ashwin’s role.
Not a Power(play) player
There seems to be blatant confusion, outwardly at least, on how to optimise his vaunted skills. In the last three games, Ashwin was introduced twice in the ninth over and once in the eighth, suggesting that Pant considers him as a middle-overs enforcer, tasked to stifle the batsmen. Versatile as Ashwin is, he could adjust to any roles, and he did bowl sumptuously against CSK and Kolkata Knight Riders. But as a wicket-taking, tone-setting force, he is best used inside the Powerplay. It’s also where his carrom ball could wreak havoc, where he could harness more over-spin, and where he could make the ball skid with the seam-up grip. Ashwin has produced the carrom ball in the middle overs too — induced an edge from Kane Williamson no less, only for Pant to reprieve him — but the lethargic surface sucks considerable venom off it.
Capitals have under-utilised him in the death overs too, bowling him only once during the UAE sojourn, the last over against Mumbai Indians, in which he leaked 13 runs and grabbed a wicket. In the last six years, Ashwin has conceded fewer boundaries per ball, dropping from one in nine balls to one in six; his economy rate from 7.6 to 7.4 and strike rate from 18.56 to 12, according to cricket data miners, The Analyst.
However, the emergence of Avesh, more than Nortje and Rabada, has restricted Ashwin’s role, and thus, the influence he could wield on a match. Last year, Avesh featured in a solitary game; this year he has played in all 15 of DC’s games. But at the same time, Nortje, Rabada and Axar are undroppables, leading to the eventuality of one bowler ending up under-optimising or playing out of position. In this season, it has been Ashwin.
Interesting, hence, would be to see how Capitals use him in Sharjah, a spinner-friendly surface with spinner-unfriendly dimensions. For all the dilemmas, if Capitals could fully unlock Ashwin’s potential, they could unleash a massive big-game influencer.
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