By Prakash Govindasreenivasan
Indian skipper MS Dhoni’s announcement of his team at the toss during the Chennai Test against Australia was met with utter disbelief. His in-form bowler Pragyan Ojha’s spot in the side was sacrificed to accommodate Harbhajan Singh, who was making his 100th appearance in Tests for India. It was harsh on Ojha, who tormented the English batsmen in the recent series loss at home while his spin-partner, Ashwin, failed miserably to provide solidarity at the other end. In such a scenario, to have Ashwin, Harbhajan and Ravindra Jadeja as the spin options at the start of a crucial series was a worrying sign. However, the manner in which Ashwin shrugged off his poor form from the series against England and foxed the Australian batsmen in the three Tests so far is quite commendable.
What went wrong against England
Ashwin started the home series against England as the leader of the spin department, but cut a sorry figure by the end of it. Barring the three wicket-taking deliveries, he started off poorly in India’s only win against England in the series at Ahmedabad.
After the first Test, Ashwin’s form worsened. In the 10-wicket loss at Mumbai, Ashwin picked up the crucial wicket of Alastair Cook in the first innings, not before bowling 40 mediocre overs. With Kevin Pietersen displaying amazing counter-attacking skills, Ashwin went into his shell. He went wicketless for as many as 42 overs because of his defensive approach that led him to bowl short and give the batsmen enough time to get behind the delivery on the slow wicket at Wankhede. The ball that got rid of Cook was a rare, flighted one that got Ashwin the desired result. While Ashwin was struggling, Ojha picked up a fifer in Mumbai.
In Kolkata, Cook gave Ashwin a tough time in the middle. Ojha, on the other hand, was once again in the thick of action with four wickets. Ashwin ended up with three wickets — of half-centurion Pietersen and the last England pair. But, the writing was on the wall. Ashwin was clearly not the dominating bowler he was in the series against New Zealand. He picked up 14 wickets in the series, but his bowling was lacking on multiple fronts. His failure to dominate the England batsmen for long periods prompted some staunch critics to write him off. Some even claimed that his career, like Harbhajan’s, was only going to plummet further. Ashwin proved them horribly wrong — and in quick time.
The Australian resurrection
Ashwin was down in the dumps after a woeful series personally, as well as from his team’s perspective. Yet, he managed to put that behind him and do his homework thoroughly ahead of the Australia series.
The occasion of playing his first Test as the local boy in Chennai spurred him on to play out of his skin. His five-wicket haul in the second innings against Australia at Hyderabad bears testimony to the fact that Ashwin wasn’t a lost cause, but merely one that needed to be rediscovered. With each wicket, Ashwin was getting better. There was flight, spin, variation and even the perfect use of his signature move — the carom ball. From a bowler who looked like he had forgotten to pick wickets, Ashwin turned into a spinner with a fulfilled checklist.
Ashwin matched the variation in his line and length with frequent fluctuations in speed that unsettled the Australian batsmen. He brought back one of the most crucial aspect of his bowling that was clearly missing during the England series — run-denying line and length.
He vexed the Australian batsmen by bowling an extremely tight line and strangling them at the crease. With the pressure mounting, Ashwin cashed in on the fact that the batsman was bound to lose his concentration at some point in time. The England series saw him getting frustrated too often. It was palpable. He bowled a lot of overs against England but made very little impact. Against Australia, there were no signs of frustration as he was ready to bide his time and pave the way for the right opportunity to send batsmen packing.
With 22 wickets thus far in the ongoing Test series, Ashwin has been a refreshing change. India has dominated the series so far and Ashwin, with his invigorated form, has been India’s trumpcard.
(Prakash Govindasreenivasan is an Editorial consultant at CricketCountry and a sports fanatic, with a soft corner for cricket. After studying journalism for two years, came the first big high in his professional life - the opportunity to interview his hero Adam Gilchrist and talking about his magnificent 149 in the 2007 World Cup final. While not following cricket, he is busy rooting for Chelsea FC)
First Published: March 21, 2013, 1:01 pm