Picture this: Ravichandran Ashwin rocks up to bowl on an abrasive but flat surface at The Oval, with England hoping to mastermind a record fourth-innings heist. Joe Root, as has been the case in 2021, is batting like a dream and is hardly letting any bowler settle into a rhythm.
Ashwin, though, courtesy of the rough outside Root’s off stump and his extraordinary skill, manages to create a sliver of doubt in the Englishman’s mind. All of a sudden, Root is playing at deliveries he could’ve padded away and is deploying the sweep more often than he has ever done.
Over the next few balls, Ashwin hoodwinks Root and beats him in flight, with the ball going through the gap between bat and pad before rattling into the top of off stump. The perfect off-spinner’s dismissal, as some would say and India march on to clinch a memorable victory at The Oval – incidentally, their first since 1971.
Now imagine another scenario, where Ashwin marks out his run-up to bowl to the likes of Andre Russell, Chris Gayle, Evin Lewis and Kieron Pollard in the semi-final of the T20 World Cup. He produces the kind of performance Virat Kohli desires and the mighty West Indians succumb to the dexterousness of Ashwin.
Not only are the West Indians unable to decipher the new variations the off-spinner has brought to the fore, they also are unable to play him out – again, something that emphasizes the astounding tactical nous at Ashwin’s disposal.
A week ago, if one were to select between the aforementioned scenarios, in terms of what was more likely to play out, one would’ve been forgiven for picking the former because well, Ashwin is arguably the best red-ball spinner in the world and has silenced numerous doubters in SENA countries recently.
The latter, on the other hand, perhaps represents the only regret of Ashwin’s career, for he was placed in exactly this situation five years ago at the Wankhede Stadium – a game in which the West Indians conjured a rampage that even Ashwin couldn’t handle.
Interestingly enough, that, coupled with the ICC Champions Trophy debacle a year later, proved to be the death knell in Ashwin’s white-ball career. To place things into further context, he last played a T20I (against WI) in July 2017, whereas his final appearance for India in ODIs was also against the West Indies at Antigua in June 2017.
Since then, white-ball appearances have been at a premium, despite him skippering the Kings XI Punjab (Punjab Kings now) in the IPL. That, though, apart from an indictment of Ashwin’s abilities as a white-ball spinner, was also an indication that India wanted to prioritize wrist-spinners – spinners that might not have provided as much control as Ashwin but were deemed much better wicket-taking options.
To put things more bluntly, plenty felt that the finger-spinner or a bowler like Ashwin was going out of vogue and that he had run his race. Or to be even cruder, several remarked that he would never be successful in white-ball cricket and that his successes would only be restricted to turning pitches in India.
Though the white-ball part of that particular argument still holds true because, well, he hasn’t bowled a ball in anger since 2017, he has slowly but surely rendered the latter argument moot.
So much so that it has prompted Kohli to select him for a tournament people felt he had no business with, while also serving a gentle reminder that Ashwin, more than most other top-level cricketers, should be written off at one’s own peril.
To say that the spinner has broken down the T20I door would be an overstatement. His performances in the IPL in the past few seasons haven’t really set the world ablaze and he has looked a pale shadow of the bowler that bamboozled batters in the early 2010s. In fact, his economy rate has dipped below 7 only once since the 2014 edition of the IPL, hinting that he may have lost the surprise element in his bowling.
However, those who have watched Ashwin in the flesh would testify that he isn’t just a bowler defined by his wickets tally and other bowling-related statistics. Instead, he is someone who carries an aura – an aura that few other spinners have been able to replicate and one that has forced Ashwin to keep improving all the time.
Ravichandran Ashwin will enjoy the pitches in the UAE
Additionally, the T20 World Cup is slated to take place post the 2021 instalment of the IPL, meaning that the pitches in the UAE will be pretty tired and most likely very sluggish. And, when pitches start aiding spin bowling, finger spinners, especially of Ashwin’s ilk, come alive.
Not just because they now have an able friend, but also because the other elements, such as drift, dip and flight have something responsive to rely on. When that happens, oh boy, Ashwin is incomparable. The fact that he can do so with both the new and the old ball only strengthens his case for inclusion.
The most telling aspect though, may still be that Ashwin harbors some kind of grudge at having not been able to power India to multi-nation tournament triumphs in 2016 and 2017 – something that certainly isn’t in consonance to how he has, quite often, single-handedly led India to victories in the longest format.
From that perspective then, all of it makes sense. India are getting the best red-ball spinner to ply his trade in helpful conditions. And, that particular spinner also has plenty of points to prove.
Having said that, there will still be skeptics who might suggest that Ashwin is a little under-cooked, having not played white-ball cricket for four years and that he might not be able to recreate his Test magic, especially if batters attack him at the outset and continue doing so throughout the innings.
There will also be worries as to how Kohli handles him, considering the Royal Challengers Bangalore captain has regularly omitted his Delhi Capitals counterpart in the Test setup.
Yet, nothing compares to the kind of input and technical expertise Ashwin will bring to the fore come the T20 World Cup. That it comes at a juncture when it seemed least likely only adds to the theatre and of course, the legend of Ravichandran Ashwin.
Years ago, at the Wankhede Stadium, Ashwin would’ve felt that he had let his country down and that he would never get a congruent opportunity to bury those demons.
Now, in the most Ashwin-esque manner, especially when no one seems to believe in his white-ball credentials, he has gotten the chance to set things right.
Maybe such a fairy tale ending for one of India’s greatest match winners was meant to be so. As far as the perceptions a week ago are concerned, it is fair to say that they have changed quite a bit, eh?
Perhaps, it’s also time to set the record straight, once and for all!
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