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Ravichandran Ashwin scored his 7th Test fifty at Rajkot. (Courtesy: AFP_

It could not be grander for the No. 1 Test bowler Ravichandran Ashwin. For months he prepared for this. Since the South Africa series in 2015, the off-spinner has been on a rampage. In between November 1, 2015 to October 31, 2016, he claimed 75 wickets at 16.25 apiece, and all this from just 11 Test. England, who have beaten India in three consecutive series now, came on shores and their players meekly agreed to the ‘underdogs’ title. Ashwin must have licked his fingers in anticipation when he saw the English surrendering to spin at Dhaka and their struggles in Chittagong. Here was the off-spinners chance to improve his record against the only side he has struggled. Full Cricket Scorecard: India vs England 1st Test at Rajkot

The tables had turned. Undefeated at home for close to four years, Virat Kohli’s India finds itself at the top of ICC Test rankings. Rajkot hosted its first Test and quite surprisingly, the curators dished out a belter, which had little for the spin bowlers. Ashwin toiled close to 70 overs, gave away 230 and claimed 3 wickets. Ashwin s bowling average of 76.67 in this Test is his second worst in home, behind the 83.50 against England at Mumbai in 2012. India had lost that Mumbai Test and just managed to avoid a similar result at Rajkot.

The desperation was apparent. Otherwise, an intelligent bowler like him would not go for an injudicious review in the final session of the fourth day. The ball pitched way the off-stump line, so was the impact. The 19-year-old Haseeb Hameed padded and did not offer a shot. Despite the turn, the ball would have missed the stumps. The frustration of Ashwin’s unfamiliar situation of not taking wickets at home acted as the catalyst, as Indians went for the unsuccessful review.

Two hundred and twenty three wickets from 40 Tests, 7 Man of the Series awards, 21 five-wicket hauls, six 10-wicket hauls in a match and the No. 1 tag, both as a bowler and team, adds to Ashwin’s reputation. The 30-year-old had an off Test and India just scraped through a draw. His record against England reads 20 wickets from 7 Tests at 53.40.

The No. 1 all-rounder steps up

Ashwin’s wizardry with the red cherry raises expectations but off days are a part of sportsmen’s career. Despite his dismal show with the ball, Ashwin turned out to be a hero for India in this Test. The No. 1 bowler in Test cricket is also the No. 1 all-rounder.

India resumed Day Four at 319 for 4 with two of their best batsmen Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane. The duo was expected to replicate the heroics of Indore. Chris Woakes, who had struck Cheteshwar Pujara’s helmet grill thrice on Day Two, tested Rahane with the same medicine. At Indore, Rahane was in clear discomfort against Matt Henry’s short balls but his pull off Woakes reaffirmed that the Mumbai batsmen had worked on his technique.

Quite shockingly, he misread the length from Zafar Ansari and played an awful stroke to lose his wicket.

Ashwin walked in.

Mind you, India were playing five specialist batsman and the last one from the lost departed. Ashwin has this unique gift to look settled from the first ball that he faces. The calmness about his presence gives you the ‘all is well’ feeling. Ansari sent down a flighted delivery on the leg-stump and Ashwin straightaway clipped it right of mid-on for two runs.

Kohli soon departed to a bizarre hit-wicket. The delivery from Adil Rashid bounced more than expected and Kohli who was deep in the crease stepped onto the stumps. At 361 for 6, India were at a precarious situation as England sniffed a win.

Ashwin and Wriddhiman Saha are quite a pair. India would not have won the St Lucia Test without their stand. Be it the keeper-bowler partnership or the one on the pitch, India has benefitted from this pair. The need of the hour was resilient batting and the duo put up 64. Saha fell after tea, so did Ravindra Jadeja and Umesh Yadav.

Umesh fell in the 156th over and Ashwin was on 49. He ensured Mohammed Shami got the least strike and usually trusted his partner to play two balls at most in an over. He stepped up the scoring with some gorgeous late-cuts, square drives and flicks, bringing memories of the VVS Laxman days.

At the stroke of tea, at 70, Ashwin looked to clear the deep midwicket off Moeen Ali but could not. The attractive and effective 70 restricted England’s lead to 49. He played one of his finest knocks.


Second innings

Chasing 310 in just another session and half was a practical solution for India. They were 49 for 2 at tea on the final day and looked in a comfortable position to play out a draw. In the fifth over post tea, Rashid removed Murali Vijay and the following over Rahane fell to another awful stroke.

Strode in Ashwin at No.6 to join his captain Kohli.

Earlier this year, during his heroics in West Indies, Ashwin said, “I batted quite a lot and devised a game plan if and when I got a chance to bat at No. 6. The idea was to knock as many balls as possible. My goal is very simple. If I get a good start, if I get to 20 runs then I am going to capitalise on it. Then I am going to play percentage cricket. It is all about trying to play the percentages and trying to string together a partnership and not look too far ahead in the game.”

With the pitch playing some turning tricks, the need of the hour was to negotiate the English bowlers for close to two hours. With the England spinners pressing hard, Ashwin was watchful for 11 deliveries before he slapped one to extra-cover to get his first boundary.

Ashwin along with Kohli made it look easy and it served a message to specialists like Gautam Gambhir and Ajinkya Rahane that surviving on this track was no rocket science. The scoreboard ticked too.

The duo batted close to an hour. Ashwin was meted out harsh treatment as a bowler especially in the first innings and he was in a mood to return the favours. The bowler he picked was Ansari. He punched the left-arm spinner through point for a boundary and two balls later glided one through thirdman for another four. That brought up his hundred, in the match that is.

Perhaps getting carried away, he played a loose stroke straight in the hands of Joe Root at extra-cover. His 32 was pleasing to eyes. Kohli batted through for his 49 not out and had Ashwin batted the remaining 45 minutes, he would have got to his fifty.

As a bowler Ashwin failed to shine, but as a batsman he did. And that is why he is the No. 1 ranked all-rounder. Quite contrasting to his bowling numbers, he now averages 50.11 from the 7 Tests against England. However it is the bowling numbers that he will eye to improve against this set of visitors who have negotiated him with ease caused discomfort aplenty for India in recent times.

(Suvajit Mustafi consumes cricket for lunch, fiction for dinner and munches numerous other snacks throughout the day. Yes, a jack of several trades, all Suvajit dreamt of was being India s World Cup winning skipper but ended up being a sports writer, author, screenwriter, director, copywriter, graphic designer, sports marketer, strategist, entrepreneur, philosopher and traveller. Donning so many hats, it s cricket which gives him the ultimate high and where he finds solace. He can be followed at @RibsGully [Twitter] and rivu7 [Facebook].)