Ashwin's presence breeds India's belief
It's no surprise that R Ashwin had a side strain; he has been carrying this team for a while now. We will continue to talk about his overseas record until it is corrected, but it is hard to imagine a player who has had more impact in such little time on India's Test fortunes. This is his 29th Test, the 12th series that he has taken part in, and already he has been the Man of the Series four times. Only Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar have won more series awards for India; they played 103 and 200 Tests. If he stays fit, Ashwin is a good bet to join them on that list by the first week of December.
Until he went off the field in the first ODI, in Kanpur, it seemed like we were going back to the old script: India's quicks struggle on the first morning, and then MS Dhoni pulls the opposition into a web of spin, which Ashwin nearly pulled off. That Ashwin wasn't there played no little part in India's losing the ODI series. That Ashwin was available for the Tests played no little part in the pitches asked for. He gives India the confidence to ask for such tracks, he gives India the confidence the other two spinners can flourish while the pressure from Ashwin is on, and, in Mohali, his presence gave India the confidence they were well placed even after their batsmen squandered the advantage of batting first.
Until Ashwin was brought on to bowl on the second day, that confidence seemed to be evaporating as India offered South Africa 33 minutes of the easiest batting in the Test until then. A pace bowler at one end, eager to bowl one down the pads every over, and Amit Mishra at the other, and South Africa had added 28 runs in 10 overs without a bother.
If the ball was reversing, the pace bowlers neither tried to hide it nor bowled full enough. There were two other possible explanations for such a delay to bring on the bowler who bowled beautifully on the first evening and looked like getting a wicket every ball. Either India were trying to create the rough on a pitch that had enough of it on day one or, more worryingly, Ashwin was not a 100% after his side strain.
On the first day, he had shown some stiffness while fielding, but the ball had come out just as beautifully as it did in Sri Lanka. This was a pitch that offered a lot of sideways turn, but he repeatedly kept beating Hashim Amla and Dean Elgar in flight. The ball kept dipping on them, they kept defending either in front of the body or going back hurriedly into the crease to keep the ball out.
On the second morning, now done with the nervous final minutes of a day, the South African pair welcomed facing bowlers other than Ashwin. As Elgar and Amla made themselves comfortable, the 201 on the board, which Sanjay Bangar wisely said was worth more than it read, began to look its size. You didn't want AB de Villiers to come in with no pressure of the scoreboard on it. A Test match is a long time, but on a pitch such as this every delivery faced comfortably by the batsmen can make you desperate.
Then came on Ashwin. He did concede that it was better he was allowed to take it easy in the morning, coming out of an injury, but said he was not sure if that was the plan. One thing was certain: suddenly the game changed. Elgar wasn't to the pitch of the first ball he played from Ashwin. He went to sweep the next ball, and was beaten again as the ball dipped. Ashwin said he knew this is what he was going to do. He had watched videos of Elgar batting in Johannesburg. The ball kept dipping again and again, and Elgar finally played the slog-sweep that Ashwin was after.
Let Ashwin take it from here: "Elgar, I have seen him bat. Had a wonderful time in watching him on YouTube last night. He has done that a lot at Johannesburg. I made it a point to tell him it's not Johannesburg unfortunately. I thought it was coming, I knew he was going to play that shot."
De Villiers has spent the whole tour saying he has not had any problem against Ashwin, and that he had been getting out trying to play his shots. This, though, was going to be timeless. India beginning to pull South Africa back after posting a low total on the board. A turning pitch had previously gone wrong when India didn't bowl against the genius of Kevin Pietersen and the grit of Alastair Cook in Mumbai in 2012. There were two geniuses in the middle in Mohali, and the memories of Mumbai were back.
This Ashwin, though, is different. The Ashwin of the Mumbai Test wasn't getting enough action on the ball, and in his desperation to do so he was dropping balls short or overpitching them. This Ashwin has found the best action and technique for his bowling. He rarely pitches too short or too full now. Add to it a pitch that is helping him, and de Villiers was fumbling in the dark for a bit before the genius took over. In that three-over spell to him, Ashwin said, he felt he could have had de Villiers any time.
De Villiers went on to display his genius, as Ashwin acknowledged too, but by that time the bowler had sent back the other genius, Amla. Expectedly Amla tried to use his feet to get to the pitch of the ball now that Ashwin wasn't giving him the full balls. When he did it to Ashwin, the ball dipped alarmingly, beat Amla in the flight, and bounced into wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha's chest before disturbing the stumps. The pitch might have had subconscious impact on the batsmen, but none of Ashwin's wickets came purely because of the pitch.
"It's all about how it's coming out of your hand," Ashwin said when asked what was the key to bowl on this pitch. "For me it's coming out really well. So I don't think I require much turn from any pitch at this point of time."
In the big first exchange in a big series, India's batsmen seemed to have dropped the ball, but they can be thankful Ashwin was there to pick it up. For good measure he made it dip and turn sharply on a surface that is offering slow turn.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo