Time to trust Ashwin abroad

TN off-spinner brings control in bowling and sureness to lower-order batting

Time to trust Ashwin abroad

Why isn’t R Ashwin playing? This was the question asked in South Africa, asked again in New Zealand and in England and repeated when the off-spinner was left out for the first Test in Adelaide.

Whether you want to go by statistics or pure bowling skills, R Ashwin is easily India’s best spinner on the scene at the moment, yet he hardly gets the respect a bowler of his calibre deserves.

The news of dropping Ashwin at the Adelaide Oval to hand debut to Karn Sharma, a wrist spinner, was received with more than a few raised eyebrows. But the bowler himself would have hardly batted an eyelid. Ashwin’s exclusion was a tactical blunder and it’s not hindsight wisdom.

“These things are going to happen,” Ashwin noted while reacting to his exclusion from the Adelaide Test and matches before that. “It’s not just with me, it’s not going to stop with me, it’s going to happen to many cricketers in the future and it’s happened to many cricketers in the past,” he had remarked.

He is the fastest to 100 Test wickets by an Indian, a record previously held by that master craftsman EAS Prasanna, but his skills are often not trusted when India play away from home. Since the 28-year-old made his away Test debut at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 2011, he has appeared in only seven of the 15 matches that India have played till date on the road.

Dhoni has often sacrificed the attacking option of Ashwin for the accuracy of Ravindra Jadeja who is good at drying up runs. While the left-arm spinner is indeed capable of keeping one end tight, it’s a task even Ashwin performed splendidly against South Africa in December last in Johannesburg before he was dumped for the next six Tests.

At the Wanderers, Ashwin bowled just four overs in the first innings and in the second was asked to choke one end up which exactly what he did by conceding just 83 runs in 36 overs on a surface where nothing was happening.

This was only his fourth away Test and he was shunned by Dhoni afterwards. Often numbers are bandied about to prove his ineffectiveness on pitches outside the sub-continent and there is some truth to it if you rely on cold statistics -- a mere 19 wickets in eight Tests at an average of 58.47 as against his 95 sticks from 15 matches at 24.12 at home. Numbers sometimes, however, hide as much as they reveal. Johannesburg is a classic example where he paid the price for bowling to a set plan.

After the team management realised the futility of Jadeja, Ashwin was included for the last two Tests against England where he got to bowl in two innings as India suffered innings defeats in both the ties.

He did reasonably well, picking up three wickets in the final Test at The Oval but again failed to make the cut in Adelaide because stand-in captain Virat Kohli thought Karn looked better in the nets! On a wearing surface where off-spinner Nathan Lyon bowled Australia to victory with 12 wickets for the match, Ashwin could well have been India’s answer.

It was a bad call by the team management and the performances by the Chennai bowler in the second and third Tests have only strengthened that point of view.  
           
On his part, Ashwin has done well to do away with too many variations. His increasing reliance on off-break, his stock delivery, than his bag of tricks that he so effectively uses in the shorter versions, has been refreshing.

The figures of seven for 367 in two Tests may not ring a bell but he created enough pressure on batsmen to help his fast bowlers to attack and then grabbed a few wickets for himself at the Gabba and the MCG.

It was old-time Test bowling exhibition where he played on batsmen’s patience and forced them into mistakes.

“As a bowler, it’s first being really accurate,” he said of his lessons learnt from his previous visit to Australia. “You try to make sure you do your job to the best of your ability and leave it to the batsman to make the mistake. If the conditions are not favouring, there is no point in trying too much,” he pointed out.

Besides his bowling, Ashwin also provides a sense of security to the lower middle-order which is even more crucial in the aftermath of Dhoni’s retirement. India need to have faith in Ashwin’s abilities for a certain Harbhajan Singh had 21 wickets from his first eight Tests away from home, if you exclude the games against Zimbabwe.

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