R. Ashwin was the best bowler for India in the previous World Test Championship cycle (2021-23) with 61 wickets, 14 more than Ravindra Jadeja, the second best, at a better average and strike rate too. However, the World No. 1 ranking Test bowler, who played a key role in Rohit Sharma’s men reaching the final, was not accommodated in the XI for the title clash against Australia citing ‘team combination’ as the reason.
Even after researching the variables unique to cricket — from pitch and overhead conditions to the make-up of the opponents — it’s hard to think of any other team sport where the best and most in-form players are -bench for the most important tournament. His non-selection for the summit clash drew widespread criticism from former players and fans around the world as Team India succumbed to a crushing defeat, its second consecutive WTC finals.
There is nothing more frustrating for a player than being dropped, especially when running at the highest level.
Ashwin opened up about his disappointment at not playing the match during the chat The Hindu, that made the difficult yards to get the edge away.
However, a month after that, as most great sportsmen do, Ashwin proved he was special when he let the ball do the talking again. With the off-spinner at his magical best, India began the third cycle of the World Test Championship with a massive win over the West Indies in Dominica.
The 36-year-old was in the thick of things as he produced a match-winning spell of 12 for 131 to wrap things up in just three days.
Ashwin’s spells in both innings helped India overcome the Windies challenge. | Photo Credit: AP
While he often makes things look easy on the field, Ashwin explained after his five-for in the first innings how mentally draining it was to go out and perform at such a high level despite the setbacks.
“No man or cricketer has gone through the heights without weakness. It is not a very easy journey. But I am very thankful for all the lows that have come to me because, without the lows, there are no highs in your life,” said Ashwin after the opening day’s play.
Although it is a cliche to call cricket an individual sport played in a team setting, it is also the most accurate way to describe it.
Although there are teammates breathing down the batter’s neck and chatting to distract his concentration, the game is ultimately a battle between the two men at opposite ends of the 22-yard strip. And Ashwin, one of India’s fiercest competitors, revels in these one-on-one skirmishes as he tries to dissect a batsman’s technique ball after ball and eventually dismiss him.
Assessment of conditions
Right from his first wicket on the first day, Ashwin quickly assessed the conditions and systematically scytheed the West Indies line-up. Opener Tagenarine Chanderpaul was the first to know.
Ashwin seemed to set up the left-hander with a mixture of deliveries that angled before he widened the crease and got one that drifted and turned sharply to cut off-stump. From there, the master took over.
If watching Ashwin plan, plan and send a batter to his doom is one of the great joys of the game, the fact that he is also articulate in explaining the thought process as well as his craft makes the he’s a compelling athlete to follow.
In a conversation with former West Indian cricketers Ian Bishop and Samuel Badree, the 36-year-old spoke eloquently about how he varied his action throughout the Test as per how the pitch and how he finds chinks in a batter’s armor.
“I feel like batters are an insecure crowd. They want to be in their comfort zone. They want to play within a zone. They practice a certain way, trying to get into the same modes over and over again.
“The moment you shift them away from that, they think ‘what is he (bowler) trying to do? How can I fit in?’ If you put a batter in a slot where he has to make a change in a game, I rarely see a batter make those changes between games.
“I have nothing to lose. So I change within a game, and if the batter is matching up, he has to catch up with that,” said Ashwin, clearly relishing the challenge of playing with a batter’s mind.
Passion for the game
During this time, every aspect of the sport was analyzed by the backroom staff through video footage and other metrics such as speed, angles or exit points. However, speaking about it honestly, Ashwin comes across as a bowler who is not only at the top of his game, but is also not insecure about discussing the tricks of the trade. It also brings to the fore his immense hunger and passion for the game.
Immediately after the WTC, Ashwin took an early flight from London to Chennai and then reached Coimbatore the same evening to play in the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL). He even had a practice session under the lights that evening as the Dindigul Dragons prepared for their opening fixture.
Due to Ashwin’s dedication, he made it to the TNPL after the WTC Final. | Photo Credit: File photo: M. PERIASAMY
After thinking through four T20 games for the Dragons, he switched modes seamlessly with the red cherry.
As he has done throughout his career since making his Test debut in 2011, the world’s leading off-spinner broke records in the Dominica Test, proving that he belongs in the pantheon of greats.
With 34 five-wicket hauls in just 93 Tests, Ashwin is now one behind Anil Kumble’s record of 35 — the highest by an Indian. His eighth 10-wicket haul also pulled him level with the former skipper and leg-spinner for most by an Indian. With 486 scalps under his belt, he is within striking distance of reaching the magical figure of 500 Test wickets.
With his current form, it wouldn’t be a wild bet to put money on him getting there as early as the second Test which starts on July 20 in Trinidad & Tobago.