Dhoni's spin on spinners is a googly
The R Ashwin question is about to be answered. Soon. Maybe even on the weekend, definitely by next weekend; the captain says so. On the night that India beat Netherlands (with what may have looked like a huff and a puff but was otherwise interpreted as a thorough workout for various arms of his team), MS Dhoni said R Ashwin was definitely going to get a game in the World Cup.
"We are still supposed to give Ashwin a chance, he deserves a place, so he will feature in one of the teams [that will play in the group stages]." That should ideally be either against South Africa on Saturday or, maybe in keeping with the team's current philosophy, against West Indies in the last group game in front of Aswhin's home crowd in Chennai.
Chennai would be quite fitting and in keeping with India's secret nickname at this World Cup - not merely the favourites but the favourites who are, to borrow George Bush Sr's words, the "Kinder, Gentler" team. The debate over Ashwin and legspinner Piuysh Chawla has nagged Dhoni at every World Cup press conference. (By the time he is done, his aggregate would at the very least be thirteen.) A dip in form in group games against England and Ireland, Dhoni said, had actually made Chawla's case stronger going into the match versus Netherlands.
Ashwin didn't stand a chance of getting a look-in at the Kotla because, "basically you have to see which was the player that needed this game most, rather than the team needing the player. I felt it was Piyush, who needed this game much more than Ashwin."
The reasons for that line of thinking were not centred around the merits of Chawla's googly over Ashwin's carrom ball. Or even, as Sanjay Manjrekar said in his audio chat with ESPNcricinfo, the advantage of the leggie's relatively shorter stature on a wicket keeping low over Ashwin's high-arm action. It was all about the stuff between the ears and Dhoni was not bringing IQs into the equation either.
He said he had been pleased with Chawla's performance against Netherlands - he had bowled with a "lot more freedom" - and reminded the world of Chawla's emotional career history. We should remember, Dhoni said, that Chawla had made his debut "quite early... he was still a teenager. He comes back in the side in a big tournament like this and people all over try to criticise him from left to right, so you can imagine his state of mind. So I think it was a very crucial game for him."
Dhoni explained that Ashwin, two years older, was not quite so fragile. "I know he is mentally very tough and up for a challenge or competition. It is good to have someone in the reserves who has mental stability." Ashwin's composure is clearly being seen as an investment that would be cashed in on during the knock-out stages while, in the early half of the World Cup, India wants to spread the equilibrium around.
"You want your bowlers to be in a very good mental state in the second half of the tournament, where you play against the best teams and you will be participating in the knock-out stages - that was one of the main reasons why we picked Piyush ahead of Ashwin." By doing so, Dhoni said the Indians were set for an ideal scenario knowing that the bowling now could be changed on situational demand. "It will be good to have all the bowlers at their best to select a XI," Dhoni said. Ashwin's best for the moment is locked up in the scorebook, his last ODI three months ago, his last World Cup bowling in a warm-up match more than three weeks behind him.
India's 'gently, gently' approach in the gestation period of the World Cup is being talked up as the tournament favourites stretching themselves only as far as they really need to go and, and in doing so, lulling every rival into complacency. Its success over the next few weeks is dependent on one of two conditions: whether Ashwin turns out to be the world's first nerveless cricketer. Or whether the team doesn't believe its own publicity.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo