Ravichandran Ashwin's matured batting sets him on course to be India's best all-rounder since Kapil Dev

India does need Ravichandran Ashwin more as a bowler. However, with a challenging tour approaching in a few weeks, his batting will surely be a welcome bonus to the team © IANS

Ravichandran Ashwin promises to fill in the role of a long awaited bowling all-rounder. He is in fact more than that. Arunabha Sengupta says that as someone who approaches his innings as a genuine batsman, Ashwin is crucial to the balance of the Indian team.

In his book Indian Summers, John Wright tells us about his first visit to the nets of the Indian team. As he walked into the ground, there was a thin wiry batsman having a hit. As Wright looked on, he played three exquisitely timed drives off the best bowlers of the country. The newly appointed coach, who had not met the team yet, decided that the player must be the opening batsman Shiv Sunder Das. It actually turned out to be the opening bowler Ajit Agarkar.

Wright had not met either Das or Agarkar before. And anyone who has seen the former Mumbai all-rounder bat in full flow will be able to understand his confusion.

However, during the Indian innings in the recently concluded Eden Test, there were several who confused Ravichandran Ashwin with VVS Laxman. These included even adherents who have followed the career of that great Hyderabadi stylist with scrupulous detail, and have also seen the Indian off-spinner as he advanced through the ranks. And yet, most of them could be forgiven. Such was the brilliance of Ashwin as he struck his second Test century after coming in to bat at a crucial juncture against the West Indians.

The amount of available batting talent in India is often unbelievable. The history of Indian cricket has quite often witnessed heavy dollops of extraordinary potential simmering in the top and middle-orders trickling down to the men further along the line-up. The country does have a penchant for throwing up incredibly gifted batsmen among the men whose day job is to run in with the ball.

Worthy batsmen among bowlers

The first serious batsman to emerge from the bowling depths went back to the very first Test match the country ever played. While Lala Amar Singh’s deliveries came off the pitch like the crack of doom at Lord’s in 1932, he was also an excellent stroke-player who hit the country’s first six and also the pioneering half century.

Great names followed. Although Lala Amarnath’s role spread over both departments, he leaned somewhat in favour of his bat. Vinoo Mankad, on the other hand, started as a left-arm spinner and marched on to become a frontline batsman accustomed to opening the innings.

Down the years, bowling all-rounders have been able and aplenty. Dattu Phadkar was one of the real fighters in the arduous Australian turfs. With time Ramakanth Desai improved with the bat to become a doughty customer. The cricketing scene was also sprinkled with men like Salim Durrani and Bapu Nadkarni, excellent spinners both who were more than capable batsmen. Rusi Surti followed, adding athleticism in the field to his multiple skills. Soon there emerged men like Eknath Solkar and Abid Ali, who did not quite know which role was more serious and turned to fielding with extraordinary gusto.

In the seventies too, India had stalwarts like Madan Lal and Karsan Ghavri, useful with the ball and stubborn with the bat.

And finally, all the prelude gave way to the thrilling drumroll that announced the arrival of Kapil Dev. A batsman of rare skill, Kapil maintained bowling as his primary role while producing periodical electric storms with his bat.

In the late seventies and the eighties, Kapil strode as a giant of the game, one of the top four all-rounders of the world. And there were plenty of others, rather less generously touched by greatness, who followed in his wake. Ravi Shastri entered the scene as a left-arm spinner and gradually made his way up the order to become an opening batsman. Roger Binny could be a gutsy batsman when required. Even Kirti Azad had his moment of glory in the 1983 Prudential World Cup.

Later, for a while, Chetan Sharma showed that he shared more with Kapil than his Ranji Trophy side. Manoj Prabhakar was yet another who ended up very nearly a genuine batsman, opening both the batting and bowling.

And there were others who did not enjoy long careers, but proved handy with the bat when the situation demanded. Arshad Ayub could stand up to the fastest of bowlers, and even looked classy on occasions. When in flow Laxman Sivaramakrishnan could be mistaken for the most attractive of strokeplayers. The Indian tail remained one with the potential to sting.

The lack of balance

For a while in the early 1990s, it seemed that the Indian lower order would remain as robust as ever. Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble showed plenty of guts and grit when the West Indians visited in 1994-95. However, the promise remained unfulfilled. Srinath’s skills with the bat suddenly seemed to evaporate, a process accelerated by a few knocks on the knuckles. And Kumble, who could alternately look elegant and clumsy, had his good willow days too infrequently.

Sunil Joshi had definite potential with both bat and ball, and in both the departments he flattered to deceive.

Yes, for a delightful while Agarkar hinted at becoming the all-rounder India had missed since the day Kapil Dev had hung up his boots. With his technique and style he could confuse Wright about his trade of choice, and on occasions drove the opposition to despair. However, one Lord’s hundred and one of the quickest One-Day International (ODI) fifties could not quite balance the spate of ducks that made him a source of entertainment in Australia.

It took Harbhajan Singh a bit too long to come to terms with his batting abilities. By the time Sachin Tendulkar prodded him into taking it seriously enough to score back to back hundreds, the bite in his bowling was a thing of the past.

In short, India after Kapil Dev has been woefully short of bowling all-rounders. The only versatile ability on offer in the recent past has been from the captain himself wearing the multiple hats of the skipper, wicketkeeper and one of the most explosive batsmen of modern times.

The promise of Ashwin

Hence, it was a glimmer of happy hope at the Eden Gardens, when Ashwin not only got a hundred but did so with grace and style reminiscent of one of the greatest masters of Indian batsmanship. Given the lack of bowling all-rounders in the past two decades, the innings was not only a visual joyride, it was also the harbinger of a brighter tomorrow.

The man from Tamil Nadu used to open the innings in his formative years, and it shows in the way he approaches his batting. Ashwin does not eke out runs through the application of street-smart cricket sense as a crude by-product of his main trade of off-spins and carrom balls. He thinks like a genuine batsman. He moves like one. And he makes runs like some of the more graceful ones.

He flicks with élan, drives with elegance, has the flair and finesse to cut square or late, and possesses the footwork and flourish to unleash a formidable hook. He averages over 40 and that does not come across as a freakish accident of not outs and nature. The hundred he scored, in the face of pressure, was not his first and does not look likely to be his last. He impressed even with his 62 at Sydney when the tale of Indian batting had been a sorry one. His 91 against England at this very ground a year earlier was one of the brightest spots in a dismal series, where he shepherded the tail with assurance and aplomb.

I would even stick my neck out and proclaim him as more of a batsman than Kapil Dev ever was. The great Indian legend was phenomenally talented, and had some most explosive drives through the covers or straight. Yet, when he played with a cross bat, there was more of a crude agricultural strain than the polish of sophistication in his strokes. Kapil could make runs with quick and devastating effectiveness as his eight Test centuries suggest. But, building an innings was seldom his forte. Consistency was never one of his strengths. Ashwin may never be a destroyer in the league of the Haryana Hurricane, but he is someone who can step up and be counted as a top order batsman, making runs with far more regularity. Parallels can be drawn between him and Laxman. Kapil, on his best day, would never have been mistaken for a Mohammad Azharuddin or a Dilip Vengsarkar.

Yes, the foreign tracks will test the skills and temperament in both departments of his game. Yet, at least on the batting front, he seems to have the poise to stand up to pace and even essay horizontal bat strokes with confidence. With 740 runs at 41.11 and 97 wickets at 28.40, Ashwin brings a balance to the side which had been lacking for long.

India does need Ashwin more as a bowler, with his curious bag of varieties that is associated with modern day finger-spin. However, as a new look middle-order embarks on a challenging tour in a few weeks, this additional layer of comfort beyond the regular batting line-up will surely be a welcome bonus to the team management.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)