Ashwin finds his groove
At one point during his debut commentary stint, VVS Laxman referred to Indian cricket's "worrying factor" - the dearth of spinners. Spin, he said in his characteristic serious, sincere tone, "is our strength and we should concentrate on trying to get back our strength."
Should a giant Chennai-style cut-out of R Ashwin materialise overnight on the roof of the Chepauk stadium don't be surprised. Ashwin has gone some distance in trying to get his own strength back. On the first day of a series in which India has everything to lose and Australia everything to gain, Ashwin held up the entire Indian attack with a performance of dominance and variety.
Pity that the rest of the bowlers did not step up to play their part. When one bowler takes 6 for 88 and the rest of the 'bowling unit' produces 1 for 221 against an inexperienced batting line-up, it is proof that the attack was at the least, lopsided.
Ashwin's six wickets against Australia should wipe away the memory of his performances against England a few months ago. He had averaged over 52 in that series and despite being loudly hailed as having been a transformed bowler in Chennai, he maintained he had bowled "exactly the same" against England and "didn't think" that had been a bad series. The appearance of a bagful in the wickets column, however, did point to a bowler who has taken a few steps on the road to development when up against the demands of the international game.
The familiarity of bowling at home - on a ground where Ashwin said he believes, "the air is talking to me, each man sitting in the stands is talking to me" - could be one of the reasons that he turned up looking different from the man throwing himself at England.
On a dry, slow wicket which looked more threatening for batsmen than it eventually was, Ashwin found the length he needed to ensure minimum freebies and offer maximum questions. He tossed a few up that raised batsmen's eyes and their pulse rates (Cowan), varied his pace to have the ball hurry and zip onto the pads (Watson, Warner) before they could bring their bats down, duped by trajectory and length. While the rest of the bowlers struggled to find a consistent line of attack, Ashwin's radar today was state-of-the-art. There was minimum repertoire display, the carrom ball was used sparingly, the offbreak repeatedly with changes in speed at his command. The message Ashwin sent out was not 'look at me, folks,' it was more 'you'd better pay attention to me.'
He should have had Warner off his third ball but the edge was dropped by the lone slip, Virender Sehwag, and Michael Clarke caught at short leg on 39 but umpire Kumar Dharmasena turned down the appeal. Ashwin didn't fuss about the Clarke decision, countering a question from an Australian reporter about whether the DRS would have helped, by saying, "What if we had gone for DRS and didn't have one left? The entire DRS system, in terms of how many DRS systems you have, doesn't suit it."
Ashwin's other wickets did not require DRS reviews and came in clumps - three in the second of his four spells. But towards the end of the day he was used sparingly by Dhoni in short five-over bursts. It meant that Ashwin had less of a chance to get at a new Moises Henriques and bowled at him after he had played out nearly ten overs. With just under half an hour of play left, Henriques who had played straight all day tried to sweep Ashwin and was leg before. Mitchell Starc, the new man, was quickly sent back, helping India take some territory back from the day's play. On day two, Ashwin said India needed to "pack off" the Aussies within the next 30 runs.
After play, Ashwin gave much credit to his coach Sunil Subramaniam for his spell, saying he had identified a "small thing" about "body position" which the two worked on. Subramaniam, a former Tamil Nadu left-arm spinner, told ESPNcricinfo later that it had been about ensuring that the toe of Ashwin's back foot should be in a straight line with the heel of his front foot. It automatically aligned the shoulder and "ensured that it is in the direction of the intended target." Ashwin had not been selected in the Irani Trophy but had played the corporate trophy and in gaps between matches worked with Subramaniam in Nagpur. Closer to the Australia series, they practised at a local ground in Chennai.
Subramaniam, who had watched half the day's play at the ground and the rest at home, said, "It has got his intent and his energy back. It was a simple thing, but when you're strike bowler in three formats, you can drift away from the basics and you need to find the time to get it back." India will hope the groove Ashwin is in will last through the series and that at least one if not two other bowlers will join him.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo