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With just one scalp in his last 76.2 overs, R Ashwin is struggling to impose himself as India's leading spinner
November 24, 2012
R Aswhin batted beautifully for his 68. So beautifully, in fact, that - and you and I may not agree with it - former Test players doing commentary were put in the mind of VVS Laxman and Mark Waugh. More than beautiful, they were crucial runs, taking India to what looked like a good total on a track with turn and bounce. Ashwin has been doing this for a while: providing India with quick-yet-unhurried lower-order runs, batting not like a tailender but a proper batsman. In Australia, he was India's most consistent batsman.
But that's not what Ashwin is in the side for. He is there to take wickets, which he did so well against West Indies and New Zealand that he became the fastest Indian to 50 Test scalps. Against Australia and England, though, wickets haven't been coming that easy. At stumps on day two of the second Test, Ashwin's last 76.2 overs had brought him just one wicket, that of the switch-hitting Graeme Swann in Ahmedabad. Take out the series against West Indies and New Zealand, two of the poorer sides against spin, and Ashwin's bowling average rises to 62.30 with a wicket every 20 overs.
These numbers overstate the story a little. Firstly, by taking out West Indies and New Zealand, you take away half of his Tests. Also, his Tests against Australia were played in Australia where finger spinners draw minimal assistance. Yet these numbers can't be ignored. If two of his first three series were a little too easy, and one of them too hard, this one against England was going to be Ashwin's first big test. At least three of the England batsmen - Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell - were not expected to throw their wickets away. England were expected to make Ashwin work hard.
Having bowled 92 overs for just four wickets is a clear sign of that hard work. Ashwin has been working hard, but it hasn't yet shown in the wickets column. He is a proud cricketer - competitive and combative - and this will not sit well with him. If he is not defensive about it, he should be the first one to realise he hasn't been patient enough. And this pitch has even had the turn and the bounce that India have been yearning.
During Ashwin's lean spell in this series, there haven't been periods where he has tried to work batsmen out. Monty Panesar did that. He may have bowled quick, but he kept bowling full to draw the batsmen forward, and then pulled one back a little to create gap between bat and the pitch of the ball. Ashwin himself benefitted through that full length when he got Cook on the drive in the first Test.
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Yet Ashwin has been reluctant to go round the wicket to Cook. This, though, seems like some inexplicable team plan. Even Pragyan Ojha has been bowling - for the most part - round the wicket to Cook. By going over the wicket, he has been negating lbw, and also that angle that makes the left-hand batsmen play at the ball. Then there has been the case of dropping a ball short every now and then. Or too straight. This will not work against batsmen like Cook, who strive to set out their stall and don't gift their wickets away.
It makes you wonder if too much limited-overs cricket has done this to Ashwin's patience. In T20, bowling two balls in the same spot is frowned upon. In Tests, you have to go through spells where you keep pitching in the same general area at different trajectory and angle. Possibly, it is Ojha's accuracy at the other end that gives Ashwin a bit more license to experiment. Whatever it is, the lack of wickets from their lead spinner going into the series will begin to worry India.
Perhaps it's a confidence thing. Perhaps one wicket might lead to many others, especially on this pitch. Perhaps we also need to be patient with him. There's a lot of cricket left, both in this Test and this series. There's a lot of time left for him to improve, but it is slightly different now. Harbhajan Singh is in the same XI, and if the veteran takes wickets here, it will put more pressure on Ashwin.
Mumbai has been a bittersweet venue for Ashwin anyway. The last time he played here, he scored a century when India could have fallen behind West Indies by a big margin. In the second innings, too, he batted well, but eventually drew the ire of the fans by not going for the second run with two runs required off the last ball. He has had a good first day this time, scoring handy runs, but he will want an end that's just as sweet.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Sidharth Monga
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