Ravichandran Ashwin can now be termed as a bowling all-rounder

Ravichandran Ashwin has two centuries and a 90-plus score in Test cricket © IANS

Before the start of the two-match Test series against the West Indies, every iota of Ravichandran Ashwin’s energy would have been spent in devising ways to add eight wickets to his tally and enter the 100-wicket club. However, on Day Two of the first Test at Eden Gardens, Ashwin emerged as an able ally to Rohit Sharma, adding an unbeaten stand of 198 runs for the seventh wicket. On Day Three, he completed his second Test century to further make a mark as a bowling all-rounder. Prakash Govindasreenivasan has more on ‘Ashwin the batsman’.

It is often assumed that when a tail-ender is thrown into the field with pads on and a bat in hand, life around him gets chaotic. Psychologically, oppositions appear humongous, life-threatening characters. The tail-ender would, more often than not, prefer to stay at the other end of the wicket while not poking his bat at deliveries hurled at him. India’s Ravichandran Ashwin, however, does a fabulous job of being an exception to this rule as his life as a batsman paints a contrasting picture. If while bowling, he resembles a hyper scientist at work constantly trying different things in the field of play where he possess rich domain knowledge; while batting he is a calm, monk-like character taking one delivery at a time with a technique that is comforting to the eyes of Test match romantics.

To be fair, Ashwin is not your typical tail-ender. In fact, early cricket life in school revolved more around playing the cover drive than working on a carom ball, which he later did anyway. Ashwin started off as a batsman before a serious injury kept him out of action. When he returned, someone had taken his place and a suggestion from his mother to develop into a full-time off-spinner kick-started his life at the other end of the wicket. He was still keen on wielding his willow and had the opportunity to open the batting for the India Under-17 side. However, his failure to sustain that position for a long period led him to take foxing a batsman with spin and guile a lot more seriously than he already had.

Having said that, one would still be considered foolish to wager against his prowess with the bat. A Test ton in only his third match at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium against the West Indies adds weight to the claim that Ashwin may have given up the idea of opening the batting, but wasn’t far removed from that discipline of the game. Dare I add that there is a hint of VVS Laxman to his game, identical pads and congruous body type adding to the resemblance. His composed approach at No 8 adds a different dimension to a stereotypical Test innings of a side in India where the top-order labours through the first couple of days and the lower middle-order is then given the license to go after the bowling and get some quick runs. It is a structured process where a smooth long drive transitions into a full throttle affair. With Ashwin, however, there is a good chance to prolong the drive by a few more miles without having to dangerously shift gears.

Amidst all the fan-fare around Sachin Tendulkar’s penultimate and 199th Test at Kolkata, Ashwin walked out on Thursday afternoon to almost a sparsely-filled stadium. He wouldn’t have been surprised. On a normal working day, most of the public would have turned up to watch Tendulkar bat for one last time in their city. Even with his dismissal, a few would have stayed back to watch his heir apparent Virat Kohli get a big score. Even that was met with disappointment as Shane Shillingford wasn’t content with just Little Master’s wicket. MS Dhoni’s exit after a brisk 42 meant the day perhaps had nothing left to watch from the stands, even as a promising debutant was starting to build an innings.

Ashwin walked out to a familiar setting, more so because of his batting. Not once had Ashwin taken more than three wickets in an innings at the Eden Gardens but when he walked out, surveying the field, he could perhaps see his gritty knock of 91 against England in December 2012 flash in front of his eyes. The knock back then came under a lot of pressure. Tied at 1-1 in the first two Tests, a lot was at stake when he took guard in the second innings of the third Test against England. His efforts, though in vain, were worthy of applause as he showed steely nerves batting down the order.

On Thursday, there was pressure albeit of a different level, as his side were down to 156 for six. He walked out with off-break bowler Shillingford itching to add another wicket to earn a fifer. Ashwin, with a bat in his hand, had to negotiate someone who excelled in an art familiar to him. He did that in a consummate manner, walking across and flicking the ball to the fine-leg boundary off only the fifth ball he faced. It was a risk to start off with, but a well-taken one by Ashwin.

Ashwin then spent a lot of time at the non-striker’s end, watching Rohit Sharma’s elegance take centre-stage. Ashwin was content with driving full deliveries from Tino Best to the fielders and playing forward defensive strokes at turning deliveries from Veerasammy Permaul. All the while his default batsman-like instincts also coaxing him to attempt cut shots at length deliveries. Ashwin slowly began to settle down without finding the need to add runs to his tally while Rohit was approaching his first milestone — a half-century — in his maiden Test innings.

Ashwin and Rohit, at their own pace, had taken the team’s total past 200 and in the process taking the sting out of the West Indian bowling. Rohit’s fifty seemed to have added to Ashwin’s confidence as the latter managed to play a few shots of his own to slowly creep into the 20s. He swept a poor ball down the leg side from Permaul, flicked a ball against the turn through mid-wicket and finally connected a cut shot behind square off a poor length delivery. Like sand from between fingers, the game was slipping away from West Indies’ grasp. From 165 for six, India reached a stage where they were on the verge of taking a first innings lead.

Ashwin’s uppish but calculated drive through the covers took India past the West Indies total, much to the visitors’ dismay. He soon got his fourth half-century in Tests and his second at the venue. More importantly, it was the partnership between Ashwin and Rohit that rescued India from what was looking like a collapse. The occasional boundaries continued to come off Ashwin’s bat as the day proceeded towards the end.

The day may have vastly belonged to the grace and finesse of Rohit Sharma but the knock stood on the strong foundation of his undefeated partnership of 198 runs for the seventh wicket with Ashwin.

On Friday morning, Ashwin went on to get his second triple figure score in Test cricket and in the process eased one of his skipper’s concerns ahead of the series.

(Prakash Govindasreenivasan is a reporter with CricketCountry. His Twitter handle is @PrakashG_89)