How will R Ashwin review his bowling today?
Poor? Average? Could have been better? Good is not an option because, even Ashwin would admit, he was not good today. A return of just one wicket in 35 overs supports a good rating not being an option.
The conditions could not have been more in favour of spin. The sun was out from ball one and by afternoon some fans were sun bathing. The pitch was bone dry. The footholes could be seen from Mars. England were vulnerable in the mind. They had even opted to protect Joe Root and experiment with Moeen Ali at No. 3, and failed.
Ashwin could have not have customised a pitch as good as this one. Yet, significantly so by his high standards, Ashwin struggled. His struggles affected India's position in this match and, probably, even this series.
That was not the script handed to the Indians when the day started. Cheteshwar Pujara had swung the momentum by helping India take a small lead on Friday. This morning, speaking to the host broadcaster, Pujara agreed Ashwin would be the key for India. A man of few words, Pujara was not afraid to wage a punt and say Ashwin would easily find wickets.
"He will," Pujara said. "With his experience he will pick up a few wickets. He is a clever bowler. He will definitely utilise the rough and there some turn from the centre as well. It is not just the pitch, but the dryness of the pitch which will allow him to spin the ball."
Ashwin would have watched earnestly, and with some glee, the way Moeen challenged Pujara by pitching into the footholes. Although Pujara defended him by lunging forward from the crease, the chance of bat-pad or even lbw was in play. In that first over Moeen had landed the ball twice into the footholes. In contrast Ashwin struggled to land the ball twice in succession in the rough during the course of the day, split into two spells.
Working out the right pace is the basis to finding rhythm for a spinner. Ashwin tinkered with his speeds, for a long time being in the mid-to-high 50mph mark, at times touching as high as 58mph (93kph). What that meant was even if he landed on the footholes, at this high speed he could not take advantage. Ashwin's average speed usually is around 51mph (82kph), but he could never get it down to that consistently.
According to pundits, one of the best ways to take advantage of the rough is to give flight to the ball and pitch it at slower speeds into the rough. That, they point out, allows the ball to turn sharply or jump unpredictably, creating doubt in the batsman's mind. Ashwin did find some turn, but varied his speeds constantly, which possibly meant he did not get enough purchase.
Length is another key element for a spinner. Erapalli Prasanna, the former Indian offspinner, would often remark, length is mandatory. If you compared the lengths bowled by Moeen and Ashwin, the one glaring difference concerned the good-length deliveries. Compared to the 61% of deliveries Moeen pitched on a good length yesterday, today Ashwin managed just under 50% (98 out of 210). Ashwin's lengths were otherwise either full length (77) or back-of-length (27) allowing the England batsmen to manoeuvre him quite comfortably.
Ashwin, like Pujara reiterated at the end of the day, is a clever bowler. But you get the impression that he tries too hard at times. Despite the sizeable patches of rough on both sides of the pitch, Ashwin failed to hurt the outside edge of the left handers by spinning it from the rough outside their leg stump; the outside edge of the right handers was similarly untroubled. He kept changing his line of delivery from around the stumps to over or the other way round, especially against the left-handers like Keaton Jennings, Ben Stokes and later Sam Curran.
Early on Jennings attacked Ashwin by picking up two fours in an over. The first was a reverse sweep. It was a shot that Ashwin had attempted and failed embarrassingly with the previous day. At that point Ashwin had a slip and a leg slip. Soon he would push the leg slip back to short fine leg to get cover. He would reduce the speed and flight the ball more and pitch fuller. He beat Jennings once fair and square. But the pressure was not constant, which allowed the batsman to get away fairly easily.
Less than a month ago, Ashwin had troubled England on another hard pitch that did not take much turn, picking up four wickets in the first innings of the Test series. At Edgbaston, Ashwin used a lot of revolutions on the ball and maintained slower speeds and consistent lengths to create the impact. Of course, the pitch was not as slow as the one in Southampton. Still there was enough wear and tear to play an influential hand.
Incidentally, if you look at the continent-wide numbers for the average balls Ashwin takes to get his first wicket, Europe (so Tests in England) is the highest. Ashwin takes an average of 45.9 balls to get his first wicket in Europe compared to Africa (26.8), Asia (31.5), the Americas (31.4), and Australia (33.4).
Finally, about an hour after the tea break, his first wicket arrived when Ashwin drifted a fuller delivery at nearly 54mph into Stokes, who stayed deep in his crease and edged to Ajinkya Rahane at slip. Ashwin charged towards Kohli at short midwicket and raised both his hands with a big smile, heaving a huge sigh of relief. It was a testing day for him.
How much did the absence of Ravindra Jadeja at the other end hurt Ashwin and India? We will never know. But, surely, Jadeja could have perceivably had a bigger impact, as second spinner, than Hardik Pandya has had as a part-time seamer? If Jadeja was present, he could have shared the workload with Ashwin, who delivered 22 overs in an unbroken third spell that spanned the better part of the afternoon sessions. Would Ashwin have been more effective had he got a mini-break earlier in the day?
Pujara disagreed when asked if Ashwin had a bad day at work. "I don't think he has bowled badly at all. But yes, the pitch has slowed down a lot and that could be the reason some of his balls didn't go through as much he might have wanted."
Nonetheless Ashwin will be disappointed, to say the least, that he could not stand up to deliver telling blows to England and put India in a winning position.
So how would Ashwin review his day?