'I hoped to get a five-wicket haul' - Ashwin
R Ashwin has seen stardom; he made his name around India through the IPL and his bold opening spells for the Chennai Super Kings. In his brief international career, he has already seen the pinnacle: even before he had played his 10th ODI, Ashwin knew what it was like to win a World Cup.
For a young man of 25, those experiences are enormous by themselves.
Yet inside three days at the Feroz Shah Kotla, Ashwin took the single, largest stride that could define him as a cricketer. He has moved from a very respectable reputation in the shorter versions of the game right into the relentless drama that is Test cricket with success, comfort and nine wickets.
As much as he is known and relied on for discipline, control and an asphyxiating wicket-to-wicket line, Ashwin's debut will always be remembered for the whirling, twirling "carrom ball" that fired through past a befuddled Marlon Samuel and crashed into his stumps.
Ashwin's 6 for 46 involved sharing the new ball with fellow spinner Pragyan Ojha after India's dramatic first innings collapse. His wickets were timely (Kieran Powell in his first over), important (Darren Bravo and Marlon Samuels in four balls) and significant (Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Darren Sammy). It all added up to a match performance of 9 for 128, the second best figures for an Indian bowler on debut. As the time nears to pick a squad to tour Australia, these are numbers will reverberate like a PA announcement in a silent stadium. On Tuesday though, Ashwin stirred up the thin but enthusiastic crowd, storming through the West Indies line-up and giving India something gettable to chase.
Watching Ashwin's performance through the entire Test was his coach Sunil Subramaniam, whose crushing handshake at stumps reflected both satisfaction and joy. Ashwin had proved, Subramaniam said, "that he belongs at this level." Ashwin's skill, he said, "was never in doubt, but at the international level, it becomes a matter of the temperament. You never know about that until the occasion comes for the world at large to be convinced." Ashwin himself turned up to his media conference and said he had hoped to get a five-wicket haul, "and probably some more runs as well. Unfortunately the second part did not happen."
What did work today, worked just fine. Ashwin may have risen to the India ranks through the IPL and T20, but he has essentially been a four-season-old trooper in first-class cricket. He made his first-class debut just under five years ago, has 157 wickets from his 34 first-class games. "I've played a good amount of Ranji Trophy cricket," Ashwin said. "The grind of the four-day format helps develop a cricketer."
Somewhere in his memory lay a small fact that led to Samuels' spectacular dismissal. Ashwin said, "I thought I plotted him well in that over. He was probably playing for the turn and worried about the bat-pad to short-leg but probably if you have played in Delhi and the Kotla, you do know that it won't go to short-leg. Unfortunately he did not know that and he was looking for the spin and it went straight on."
It was, his coach said, the wicket that got Ashwin's "creativity" going. To maximise his 6ft2in, Ashwin could have done with a track that offered slightly more bounce than the Kotla's random low-rise offerings, but he wasn't grumbling at the end of the day.
"It is not my bread and butter as I need spin and bounce. At least if there is bounce you can see the ball carrying to short-leg and silly point but there was nothing for the batsmen or the bowlers. If the batter is not patient enough you can get a wicket. Today I tried to bowl a wee bit quicker and onto the stumps and it payed off." Ashwin speaks expansively and openly about his game, saying he had decided to increase "airspeed" talking about bowling a little faster at key moments, "so that whatever little variation and bounce that the wicket could offer, could really pay off."
He got two to jump at the Delhi Gate end, hitting Devendra Bishoo on his fingers, and then had Darren Sammy bowled from one that shot off the turf after pitching. The most important wicket was that of Chanderpaul, the one batsman who had played him with confidence in the first innings, hitting a six and scoring 38 off 34 balls. Ashwin decided to try a different angle against Chanderpaul, and had him lbw from over the wicket.
Subramaniam said he had always fancied Ashwin's chances against Chanderpaul. "At the international level, where the bounce is predictable, the highly skilled and technically accomplished batsmen will delay shot making... on a wicket like this, where the ball keeps low, it only needs a microsecond of delay to make it matter for anyone bowling that line."
The first innings had not turned out the way Ashwin wanted, but he insisted, not because of nerves. "Yes, the body wasn't moving the way I wanted it to in the first few overs. I didn't know whether my hip was turning, whether the release was perfect and all I was doing was concentrating because I have never seen a wicket that is so less receptive to so many revolutions on the ball. Frankly I thought I was doing something wrong and contributed myself to it by not moving my hip enough. All these were the things that were weighing in my mind before I went in for the lunch break but as time went on, I just had to handle myself." Perhaps that is what is actually called nerves.
He handled himself like a pro in the second innings, though Subramaniam admitted that "it helped when you have a side like the West Indies to bowl against, who have batsmen just off a good tour of Bangladesh, who will start playing their shots early." The batsmen scored off only 24 of his total of 129 balls in the second innings, the shortage of boundary freebies troubling all who faced him.
The two men spoke on Monday night, Ashwin being told that he was under no pressure "functionally" - as in all he didn't have to do anything more dramatic than what he was used to doing, exercising control, but do so under the conditions at his feet. The Kotla wicket, Subramaniam said, was behaving like several others in India, merely settling in after being re-laid. The more matches that are played, the better their behaviour will be. He didn't think poorly of the Kotla, he said. "It is not vicious... whenever something has to happen in Indian cricket, it always happens here. It was the wicket that marked Anil's (Kumble) comeback in the Irani Trophy. It's the place where the ten wickets happened."
The Kotla is the place that has marked his ward's arrival in the big league. Comparisons with Kumble were inescapable. They were based on Ashwin's height, accuracy, hand-clapping wicket-celebration and general South Indian-ness. There is much distance to be covered for that to be a reasonable resemblance. Yet, regardless of the future, Ashwin and his coach will always have the Kotla.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo