Spun out of favour

Cricket

R Ashwin, who not too long ago was skipper Virat Kohli’s primary spin option, has shockingly being banished to the benches despite the Tamil Nadu cricketer being in good form in the build-up to the West Indies series. AFP

In 2016 when India were in the West Indies, R Ashwin could do no wrong in the four-match Test series. He scalped 17 wickets at an average of 23.17 and scored 235 runs at 58.75 to be adjudged the man of the series in India’s 2-0 triumph.

Ashwin’s overall performance against Windies is even more impressive. In 11 Tests, he has netted 60 wickets at 21.85 and amassed 552 runs, including four hundreds, at 50.18. Yet, the off-spinner finds himself out of the playing XI for the opening Test that began in North Sound, Antigua on Thursday.  

By talking up Hanuma Vihari’s off-spin on the eve of the match, Virat Kohli had dropped enough hints that Ashwin would be a non-starter for the series-opener. The Indian skipper had expressed his desire to continue with the same combination that he had used in Australia, where Ashwin had missed the last two of the four Tests due to fitness issues and the second due to team combination demands. And with India deciding to play just one spinner in Antigua, the choice boiled down to either Kuldeep Yadav or Ravindra Jadeja, both of whom had featured in the final Test Down Under in Sydney.

Jadeja’s control and superior batting skills won him the place in the XI ahead of Kuldeep, but where does that now leave Ashwin in the pecking order? It’s true that Ashwin hasn’t been able to complete his last two overseas tours in England (2018) and Australia (2018-19) due to fitness-related injuries, but that can’t be the sole reason to ignore his impeccable credentials.

Ashwin has been India’s greatest match-winner in Test cricket in recent years, manifested in an Indian record six man of the series awards. It’s no wonder that the snub to Ashwin left Sunil Gavaskar aghast, the legend terming the move “astonishing”.

"(The selection) astonished me," Gavaskar said during his commentary stint. "A man with that kind of record, especially against West Indies, he doesn't find a place in this playing XI - that is stunning. Astonishing."

Just to buttress Gavaskar’s point, in a Test career spanning 65 matches, Ashwin has grabbed 342 wickets at 25.43. Only Harbhajan Singh (417), Kapil Dev (434) and Anil Kumble (619) have more wickets than him among Indians; additionally, Ashwin is the fastest ever in Test history to 250 and 300 wickets. He has also mustered a creditable 2361 runs at 29.14.

In his last Test, in Adelaide, the Tamil Nadu player took six wickets and scored a vital 25 in the first innings as India won the match narrowly. And this despite Kohli, by the captain’s own admission, asking Ashwin to do a holding job rather than bowl attacking lines on a wearing fifth-day surface. Additionally, in his last two first-class matches – for Nottinghamshire – in county cricket, Ashwin took 20 wickets and came up with knocks of 23, 41, 27 and 66 n.o.

Everything seemed loaded in his favour but Ashwin, the street-smart cricketer that he is, would have seen it coming, going by the carefully-crafted statements of the reappointed Head Coach Ravi Shastri soon after the Australia series when he declared that Kuldeep was the new No. 1 spinner for India in overseas Tests following the left-arm wrist spinner’s five-wicket haul in the drawn Sydney Test earlier this year. While the chief of senior national selectors M S K Prasad did assert that Ashwin remained India’s numero uno spinner -- home or away -- in an interview to DH post Shastri’s claim, it's quite evident that the team management thinks and behaves as if it’s a law unto itself.

So, what exactly is the reason behind Ashwin’s exclusion? Certainly, it can’t be just for the sake of continuity. It wasn’t applied in one-dayers when Shikhar Dhawan was re-accommodated -- and justifiably so -- in the playing XI in the just-concluded series against West Indies post his recovery from a finger fracture in the World Cup. K L Rahul, who batted at No. 4 and eventually was moved back to the opening slot after Dhawan’s injury in England, found himself neither opening nor batting at No. 4 despite doing reasonably well in both positions.

Even applying some cricketing logic, Ashwin’s omission cuts no ice. There are three left-handers in the Windies top-order, and therefore, he would have been as effective against them as Jadeja would have been against right-handers. Jadeja did score a fifty in the crunch on Friday, but Ashwin has proved to be a better batsman in tricky conditions. The numbers vouch for it.

As mentioned earlier, Kohli also had highlighted Vihari’s bowling -- he has taken five wickets in four Tests so far -- but in conditions like these, it’s a no-brainer that it’s better to rely on Ashwin’s batting abilities than Vihari’s bowling skills. That brings us back to the question -- what next for Ashwin? He is already out of the limited-overs scheme of things and in the present circumstances, his international career is certainly at a delicate stage.

It’s something eerily similar to that of Cheteshwar Pujara, who is also restricted to the longer format in international cricket. From being one of the indispensable batsmen in the team, the Saurashtra player became an uncertainty during the 2016 Caribbean series when he was found to be too slow (strike-rate) to fit into the scheme of things.

Fortunately for Pujara, there was a certain Anil Kumble in the team as Head Coach who stood by him and ensured his career was back on track from being at the crossroads. Kumble snuffed the raging debate saying, “Strike-rate (in Test cricket) is only for the bowlers.” As it turned out, Pujara turned out to be the lynchpin of India’s batting during their maiden series win in Australia.

Who is there to ensure Ashwin’s career finds a new lifeline?

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