Ashwin must continue to evolve
India's second group match, against West Indies at The Oval, will be R Ashwin's 50th ODI. Over the last two years, he has grown into MS Dhoni's chief marksman and India's best bowler across all three formats. As a result, the expectations of Ashwin have grown too.
After a successful home series against Australia - 29 wickets in four Tests - Ashwin had an average IPL season, taking 15 wickets in 18 matches with an economy of 6.72. By the standards he sets for himself, Ashwin's performance was slightly below par.
He might not agree, pointing out that he bowled mostly in the pressure overs during the IPL and created wickets for his team-mates. That may be true, but it is also possible that batsmen have grown accustomed to reading Ashwin's hand and spotting the carom ball. Though Ashwin can still control the tempo most times, his opponents may not mind that as they capitalise against other bowlers.
In the Champions Trophy opener against South Africa, Ashwin began bowling as early as the 13th over - just after the shine had worn off - and controlled the momentum of the game during his first spell, which spanned nine overs. During a crucial period of the game, he kept South Africa's middle order in check and forced the asking rate to rise. However, Ashwin did not push them into playing a false stroke and he finished wicketless - 0 for 47.
Even in the first warm-up game, against Sri Lanka on a flat pitch, Ashwin did not strike. The new ODI rules of having a maximum of only four players outside the circle has affected bowling plans, especially for an attacking spinner like Ashwin. To counter this challenge, Dhoni said Ashwin needed to be flexible.
"He is someone who loves to take wickets," Dhoni said on the eve of the game against West Indies. "Slowly he will realise that with the rule changes, spinners will not be looking for wickets, instead trying to keep it tight. Batsmen will look to make the most against the spinner with the extra fielder inside, and then you keep it tight and force the batsman to play the shots. They may commit a mistake or they might hit a ball that is not really there. That is how you can get a wicket."
Ashwin is a thinking bowler who likes to set his own fields, and is aware of the match situation as well as the batsman's weakness. However, the frustration of not being among the wickets can get to anyone. He had said that the biggest challenge of playing all three formats was carrying the momentum from one to the other.
"The onus is on him, on how he can come back and remain the braveheart and flight the ball at all times," Sunil Joshi, the former India spinner, said. "He should not get frustrated if he is not able to get wickets or a breakthrough."
According to Joshi, Ashwin needs to out-guess the batsman, create doubts by having fielders at silly point or short leg. Put the ball in the batsman's court. That way the batsman might be forced into two minds, earning the bowler an opportunity of taking a wicket. "The idea is to see how the batsman accepts such a challenge: if he has a strong defence, he will wait for the ball and cut or pull on the back foot," Joshi said. "If he is not sure about his defence, he might commit a mistake."
Batsmen might have got used to the carom ball, which Ashwin uses frequently, and one suggestion Joshi has is for him to use the arm ball in England. "It is easier to pitch an arm ball for an offspinner in English conditions. If the ball is not turning I always keep the batsmen guessing by making him guess which ball is going in."
The need to evolve is constant and Ashwin can look to the world's leading offspinner for an example. About a year after his one-day debut, Saeed Ajmal was a one-dimensional bowler, reliant mostly on his doosra. Today, with his several variations, Ajmal's ability to influence the course of the match is pronounced.
The key for a spinner is to keep the batsman guessing as to when you are going to bowl the stock ball, to set up a batsman and then attack him. In the nets, Ashwin is always telling batsmen where his fielders are and is challenging them to take him on. Expect him to rise to the challenge once again.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo