Ashwin finds peace with the offbreak
"Have they shook hands?"
The thought couldn't be helped. India had bowled Bangladesh out in 66 overs, and with enough in the bank to cash in on a follow-on. But the clouds had gathered again and there was only an hour or so left in the game. Barely two days' play has been possible in the Fatullah Test. Chances of a result had gone down the drain, along with rain water to fill three dozen swimming pools. Yet with the potential for 30 overs including extra time, Virat Kohli wanted one last gamble. And he took out his ace in the hole: R Ashwin.
An offbreak fizzed from outside leg, as it was supposed to. It drew Imrul Kayes into a prod, as was planned. The edge hitchhiked off the thigh pad to the first of two slips but was put down. If Bangladesh survived long enough, play was certain to be called off by the mandatory 15 overs. As it was. But Ashwin wouldn't make it easy.
India have said they are on the hunt for wins. So the lead spinner will be pestered for miracles. Trying too much can never be ruled out under such circumstances. But Ashwin had secured his first (of 10) five-wicket hauls outside India - 5 for 87 in 25 overs - through classic offspin bowling in the first innings. He would loop the ball up and then get it to dip. Turn and bounce become academic after that. He trusted his stock delivery, the only variations he tried were those of pace and length and he stuck to a rhythmic, repeatable action. Nothing needed to change.
"He's priceless, to be honest," Kohli said, "In a subcontinent Test match, you won't get any better than him. He can bowl at right-handers, at left-handers, he can deceive people with pace, with spin, with bounce. I mean you name it and he has it."
So nothing needs to change looking ahead either. Even in limited-overs cricket, Ashwin had worked out that he is at his best when dealing the ball enough flight. The results were on show at the World Cup: 13 wickets at an average of 25 and an economy of 4.28. Among spinners, he'd bowled the most overs - 77 - and maidens - 6 - and was only two wickets shy of Imran Tahir and Daniel Vettori's tally.
A clever Ashwin is an asset, but an Ashwin who is clear enough in his mind to base his attack around his offbreak can be deadly. Especially in subcontinent conditions. Batsmen are most nervous when the length of the ball prevents them from deciding whether to go forward or not. Often times that means they push with their hands to make up the distance. As Tamim Iqbal did, to be stumped here. As Mushfiqur Rahim did, to be caught. As Shuvagata Hom did, to be caught again.
But with a well-stocked bag of tricks comes the compulsion to dip into them. There have been times when the carom ball was strutted out so often that the offbreak might have felt like the jealous understudy. Then there were the changes he often made to his bowling action. As though it had fallen behind the times and he wanted to stay hip. Ashwin had even ceded as much to explain his borrowing Sunil Narine's action, replete will the full-sleeved shirt that hid the elbow.
"I just wanted to see if you can get more revs on the ball, if you can do a little bit with your elbow, as much as [is allowed], that is," he had said after the Asia Cup in March 2014. "That's what it was all about. You can get a lot of advantage with these things. So why should I lag behind if someone else is getting a competitive edge?"
He'd returned to his normal routine immediately after that match against Bangladesh, including ditching the full-sleeves.
Besides, his own tinkering, captains have assigned defensive mandates to him. Especially in away Tests. And when protecting runs enters into a spinner's equation, it can get ugly. The switch to a limited-overs mindset can come unbidden. The urge to bowl around the wicket and at the pads would seem appropriate. The fact that the batsman is quite comfortable with that, since you are diminishing your chances of getting him out, slips the mind. And the good ones find ways to milk that line far easier.
Ashwin had discovered that on his first tour to Australia in 2011: 168 overs, 565 runs, nine wickets. On his next trip abroad, he was dropped after the Boxing Day Test in Johannesburg. Eight months outside the Test team. The murkiest time of his career so far. It is difficult to ascertain if he had fallen off the wagon himself, or if his confusion was a byproduct of the team wanting his role to be summarily overhauled: from attack to contain.
"I think he is not being handled properly," former India left-arm spinner Maninder Singh had said in February 2014. "Somebody who came into the Indian side because he had the capability and the urge to take wickets, he was eager to take wickets in 20-overs cricket, becomes defensive in Test cricket where you are supposed to take wickets … Something is going wrong somewhere, someone is giving him the wrong advice."
So Ashwin decided to block out the noise. The World T20 arrived. He did too, with a simple action and a fetish for flighted offbreaks. India waltzed into the final and wowed the audience with the guile their spinners persisted with even in the one format where they were supposed to be most endangered. The flatter trajectory was as good as outlawed, and Ashwin said, "The ball is landing exactly where I want."
There were evidences of similar form in Fatullah. He was able to assess the pitch quickly, the batsmen's weaknesses in double that time, plan his traps and spring them. The confidence he had was exemplified when he was miffed at the appointment of a deep cover towards the dying stages of the fifth day and demanded he stride back inside the circle.
"He understands the game well," Kohli said. "As a captain, you don't need to tell him much because he's very clear about what he wants to do, and I'm pretty confident of his contribution in the coming season, and he's pretty geared up as well. He's going to be really important for us."
It would take courage and self-belief not to abuse his variations. More so against batsmen he will meet soon: AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla and Kumar Sangakkara can frighten bowlers to dig for plan Z and beyond. But the offbreak is a classic and there is a reason why the classics are highly rated.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo