Ashwin underlines his batting potential
Rohit Sharma's 177 is the highest score by a No. 6 Test debutant. There is a reason why No. 6 debutants don't register such big scores. To bat long even as they fight first-Test nerves, they invariably have to manoeuvre the innings with the tail. It involves farming the strike, which calls for both confidence and the calculated risk to keep scoring. You end up getting out or are left stranded when batting with the tail.
Except Rohit didn't have to bat with the tail. His partner for India's record seventh-wicket partnership of 280 - from 156 for 6 - was almost a proper batsman. There was no need to look after R Ashwin. As a Test batsman, he has looked more assured and solid than some of the replacements India have tried for Sourav Ganguly. Ashwin's overall average is better than that of Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh, and on India's disastrous tour of Australia he was arguably India's most consistent batsman. He already has more centuries than Raina, and is only one behind Yuvraj.
Ashwin works hard on his batting, and he has the requisite skill to be working on. Unlike India's other bowler-batsmen who have always relied on a few big - and risky - shots at the start before settling down, Ashwin faces the bowling with the mindset of a batsman. He might not get enough time to work on the batting because his offspin is of much more value to India, but he takes a lot of pride in his contribution with the bat. Sans the allrounder label, though.
"Honestly I don't expect to be called anything at all," Ashwin said. "I'm just doing my job, and I'd like to do what I do the best. I'd like to improve all the time."
Against England at the same venue last year, Ashwin had similarly ended a day's play close to a century but failed to get there. That memory, he said, didn't give him a nervous sleepless night. "I slept really well," Ashwin said. "I thought, 'Okay, it's just a number.' I had been here, I was 91 not out the last time [at the end of the innings]. I had a good batsman at the other end so I knew I could probably complete my century. I was very pleased with what I did yesterday, probably a little more pleased today that I got a century."
Ashwin has been to the three figures previously, too, against the same opposition in Mumbai. He admitted that previous century was just a bit of a lark, and this one was the real deal. "The last time I got a hundred I had nothing to think about, I was just enjoying myself," Ashwin said. "But this time it was quite different. We were in a lot of trouble. We were in trouble there as well, but I didn't have anything to lose. Here we could have lost the game from there. I just thought I'd stick it out and see how much difference there could be. Just put on a partnership and hang in there."
It helped that Ashwin was batting with one of his favourite batsmen. "Personally I'm a very big fan of Rohit," Ashwin said. "He has always batted very high in the order and I never got a chance to bat with him. This is his Test debut here... and I just went out there and thought, 'Okay, if he has a good day and I could stick together there could be a partnership together.' We enjoyed our time out together. It's very important to communicate with each other and we had a great time."
MS Dhoni was thankful for Ashwin's contribution. "I think if you see, nowadays the way cricket is played, if Nos 8, 9 and 11 can contribute, that becomes a key factor, to have partnerships lower down the order," he said. "I think he batted really well. He can bat like a batsman, and proved it at the Test level. It was good to see the way he batted. He was positive, played his shots and at the same time got a partnership going with Rohit. I think he batted extremely well."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo