July 12, 2014

Why isn't Ashwin playing?

It's close to inexplicable how India's best spinner is being left out in favour of bits-and-pieces players

Why would India not pick Ashwin, who can trouble a line-up heavy on left-handers and bowl mystery spin, over a bowler who is at best a third-choice spinner? © BCCI

Someone please explain why R Ashwin is now a spectator? For a man who became the fastest Indian to take 100 Test wickets, who averages 40 as a lower-order batsman, and who has time and again fronted up under pressure in many forms, he has been managed dreadfully. Frankly, he would be my fourth automatic pick after MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara in this Indian Test team. He is a banker, yet he is being treated like a robber.

It was only natural that after a golden year or so as India's No. 1 Test bowler he would struggle for a period, as he did in a couple of Tests in South Africa in late 2013. Yet, by the 2014 World T20 he was back to his best, his mystery balls coming out with confidence. Throw in his resolute batting and reliable fielding and he is an ideal team man. But he is being treated like a wheelie bin, dumped on the side of the road. Instead, Stuart Binny is deemed the better Test player. Talk about a mystery.

India have a tremendous opportunity to topple this shaky England unit. To do so they need every department covered. Normally, spin would be India's sure thing. No longer is that case if Ravindra Jadeja is deemed your best spinner. It smacks of something extremely odd. Jadeja can bat, often flamboyantly and recklessly, and as a leftie at No. 7 he can do some damage. But his left-arm spin is nothing short of ordinary. At best he is a third-choice spinner in Indian conditions, where three are often needed. In England you just need your one best spinner - something England would kill for - and Ashwin has proven that he should be first choice and should bat at No. 8.

In a day and age where mystery spin is a must, it is astonishing that India don't want the one guy who can provide it. Add to that the point that England have five left-handers in their XI. Absolutely nothing makes sense in his non-selection and believe me it will be the one thing they will rue if and when the series gets away from them. To bank on Binny's bowling is only going to stir Geoffrey Boycott into referring to his grandmother again and again.

India's seam attack looks efficient and varied without needing to add mediocrity to it. It calls on swing from Bhuvneshwar Kumar, seam from Mohammed Shami, and bounce from Ishant Sharma, giving Dhoni options on these flat, lifeless pitches. Next he only needs to pull his head in over his choice of spinner and bring in Ashwin, a man who has won him matches, and the balance of attack will be complete. The only choice India need to make is whether to choose Jadeja or Binny as the extra batsman at No. 7. Their bowling is a rare back-up, the sort of stuff required five minutes before tea, an over or two between overs 78 and 80.

The choice Dhoni must make is between Stuart Binny and Ravindra Jadeja as the No. 7 batsman © Getty Images

M Vijay has done some serious work on his balance and footwork since the tour of New Zealand in March. It's an impressive comeback, for he looked lost at sea and on the outer. His first-innings century was a culmination of courage and hard work to get his game back into proper shape. Now, only Shikhar Dhawan needs to do the same and India have a line-up that will serve them well for the medium to long term.

This 42-day Test marathon, another ridiculous scheduling call by Giles Clarke, will not be a classic, but it will come down to moments and decisions. So far England are on the back foot simply due to their denial about what is sensible regarding Alastair Cook. He just needs to focus on finding his feet again. And apart from selecting Jos Buttler they don't have much else to call on to inspire this bunch. They are in a major rebuilding phase and they will do well to snatch any success in the next period. That's why Joe Root is the man to invest in leading this uncooked bird, long term.

India have a massive chance to do what Sri Lanka have just done. Somehow they have been swayed to think a bits-and-pieces player is going to do some damage. In the meantime, Ashwin, with one of the most impressive all-round records in Indian Test history, sits in the corner twiddling his thumbs. A mystery indeed.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand