Despite lndia’s latest eye-raising call, R Ashwin deserves time to prove fitness
R Ashwin was initially ruled out, but then named in India's XI. © AFP

SYDNEY: Since being ruled out of the second Test in Perth, which started on December 14, R Ashwin has been hard at work on and off the field. The abdominal strain that prevented him from building on an excellent start to the series in Adelaide was clearly more serious than suspected, but everything seemed to point to a return to full fitness for the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne.

Ashwin did wheel away at the nets at the MCG on Christmas morning, but he still hadn’t reached optimal fitness and so was rested for that game, giving Ravindra Jadeja his first appearance on tour. The impression then was that the ace off-spinner would turn up fine for the final Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground, starting on Thursday, a feeling reinforced by the long bowl he had at nets on Wednesday morning.

The 32-year-old, India’s third most prolific spinner with 342 wickets from 65 Tests, did temporarily leave the practice area a couple of times, once by himself and then alongside Shanker Basu, the trainer. The suspicion that he might not have recovered totally was confirmed by the team spokesperson at the start of Virat Kohli’s pre-match press conference.

With Kohli looking on, he said, “A quick update on Ashwin. He is not 100% fit and won’t be available for selection for this Test match.”

That should have been that. Then, two hours later, the team management named Ashwin in the 13-man squad, with the rider that a final decision on his availability would be taken in the morning. 

It’s happened many times that a player has been named in the squad, even in the eleven, a day before the match, and been ruled out through injury or illness. But it defies logic how someone who was officially deemed unavailable can spring back into contention just a couple of hours later.

Then again, it has been that kind of tour. Remember the Jadeja imbroglio? Ravi Shastri had revealed that the left-arm spinner was feeing soreness in his left shoulder and was not fit for the Perth Test, even though he figured in the 13, came on as a substitute and threw the ball with customary power-laden precision.

Given not just the form Ashwin showed in Adelaide while taking six wickets but also his unquestioned pedigree, he deserves time till the last second to prove his fitness. If, then, there is the slightest doubt that he might not last the rigours of a five-day match, prudence should take over. But why rule him out initially, and immediately afterwards draft him into the 13? Even were that not the case, it gives the impression that within the team set-up, the left hand doesn’t always know what the right is doing.

Virat Kohli may yet be able to call on R Ashwin at the SCG
Virat Kohli may yet be able to call on R Ashwin at the SCG. © AFP

That puts the player in question, especially, in a delicate situation. In a press conference dotted generously with dollops of the philosophic, Kohli addressed the Ashwin situation with characteristic clarity, reiterating that the seasoned Tamil Nadu pro was a vital component of the Test team. Ashwin didn’t complete the five-Test series in England, pulling up short with a hip injury in the third Test in Nottingham, and playing through pain and discomfort in the fourth in Southampton before making way for Jadeja at The Oval. If the abdominal injury keeps him out on the morrow, it will mean the second overseas series on the trot where a non-visible injury has cut his campaign short.

“It’s unfortunate that he has had two niggles quite similar in the last couple of away tours,” Kohli conceded. “That’s obviously something he, more than anyone else, will be focused to correct. The physio and the trainer have spoken to him in terms of what’s required (from him) in order to get over that injury. He is very important for sure. In Test cricket, he is a vital part of this team and we want him to be 100% fit and for a longer period so that he can contribute to us more in the Test format. He is very disappointed with the fact that he has not been able to recover in time, but things have been laid out to him (as to) what needs to be done to get back to full fitness. Honestly, you can’t predict an injury. When it happens, you just manage it; he is doing what he can to get over that injury.”

Having pow-wowed with Jadeja for a while, Ashwin has established himself as India’s lead spinner away from home too, and several team plans would have been formulated around him – be it as an attacking tool like on the second day of the first Test, or in a restrictive, controlling role such as on the final day of the same match. Kohli acknowledged that Ashwin’s absence did throw plans out of kilter.

“The Ashwin factor, it does make you alter your plans a little bit throughout the course of a series,” he agreed. “But the fact that (Hanuma) Vihari has bowled beautifully whenever we’ve given him the ball makes us feel absolutely calm about Ashwin not being able to play. It is obviously a disappointment for us as a team and for him personally. But if you see the way Vihari has bowled, he has looked like picking up a wicket whenever he comes to bowl. He’s pitching the ball in the right areas, so we are looking at him as a solid bowling option right now. Especially in this Test, because he has pace on the ball, he puts in the effort and he’s economical. That’s all you need from a guy who is coming in to bowl 10-15 overs in a day.”

The spin around their spinners is one of the few things the Indian team management seems to have not mastered on this tour. Thursday, and a potential dry surface at the SCG, wait for word on Ashwin’s fitness. As do Australia’s batsmen, and possibly with far greater interest.