An increasingly threatening partnership
R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha have now taken 60 wickets between them in the four Tests they have played together. How much ever you try to temper it down, it is still a remarkable stat. Yes, all the four Tests were at home. Yes, all the four Tests were against West Indies and New Zealand batsmen who are uncomfortable against spin. Yes, Ashwin-and-Ojha are not remotely Anil Kumble-and-Harbhajan Singh yet. But an average return of 15 wickets per Test is no joke. Had they been a pair of young fast bowlers who had demolished batsmen for four successive home Tests, you can imagine the kind of hype they would have generated.
All the talk in recent days has been about the need for India's young batsmen to get exposure against New Zealand before England and Australia arrive. VVS Laxman gave the same reason for announcing his international retirement days before this Test started, despite being selected for the series. But as big a positive for India is the kind of partnership Ashwin and Ojha have started to develop. For all their overseas troubles, India still have an outstanding home record, and Ashwin-and-Ojha will be critical to their chances against England and Australia.
They may have bowled together in only four games at the Test level, but Ashwin said they go back a long way. "Ojha is someone who I have played with since I was 16 and we have always enjoyed each other's company," Ashwin said. "I was a batsman then when Ojha was a prime bowler but I still used to bowl in one-day games. We always used to bowl well together because we used to build pressure very well."
That pressure was applied from both ends against New Zealand as well. Both Ashwin and Ojha have excellent control over their stock deliveries, and don't bowl a lot of hit-me balls. Both rely a lot on bounce, not so much on turn; there was plenty of the former on this pitch. Ashwin used his height to get it, Ojha his pivot. Both are young and inexperienced, though, which means a few short ones every now and then. Both should learn with time.
What helps is that both are quite different bowlers. Ashwin, in the longer form, is not unlike Harbhajan, in that he seems to want a wicket with almost every delivery he bowls, and starts showing signs of impatience when it doesn't come. He will bang it hard into the pitch and increase the pace, hoping to get more bite, especially on flatter pitches. But, not unlike the Harbhajan of old, he seems to come up with the wicket-taking deliveries regularly, and seemingly out of nowhere.
Ojha has the more containing role in the team, and is quite good at it. Once he hits a restrictive line, he hardly deviates from it. He might bowl the odd short ball, but his line is usually very consistent. Unlike Ashwin, he does not go out of his way to try and pick up wickets, and that works well for both. Not that Ojha has a very defensive mindset - he flights the ball so much - but for him, as he says, a wicket is the outcome of tying batsmen down first.
Ashwin acknowledged Ojha's contribution in the game. "Due credit needs to be given to him. When one spinner starts to take wickets, the other spinner can get carried away and doesn't really bog the batsman down."
A look at the scorecard might tell you it was all too easy for the India spinners but this morning, New Zealand went through an entire session without losing a wicket, with Brendon McCullum and Kane Williamson batting safely. The session would have been another lesson in patience for Ashwin and Ojha.
"We have seen many such cases in first-class cricket," Ashwin said. "When two batsmen are going good, even on dustbowls, it is very tough for a bowler to dislodge them. You have to prise them out, be very patient and once one or two wickets fall quickly, it becomes that much easier because the new batsman has to move his feet around, get his technique in place. So you can be attacking him all the time. We knew it was a matter of time, a matter of patience to play on the batsman."
With his haul of 12 for 85, Ashwin went past the 12 for 152 by his fellow Tamil Nadu offspinner and former India captain S Venkataraghavan in 1965 as the best by an India bowler against New Zealand. "I took a glance at it during the presentation and I told Badri [S Badrinath, also from Tamil Nadu], 'Look who is in second place'," Ashwin said. India will want that given responsive surfaces, Ashwin and Ojha would have similar things to say against England and Australia as well.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo