Ideal conditions help Ashwin grab chance at No. 6
It was the easiest of takes, or perhaps not quite. A regulation edge and Shane Dowrich moved a step to his right, following the path of the ball. But just as it approached his gloves at waist height, it seemed to swerve towards the leg side, just a fraction. Dowrich should have probably still taken it, but he grabbed at the ball, hastily, unprettily, where other wicketkeepers' hands may have moved with feline stealth. In an instant the chance was gone.
The bowler, Shannon Gabriel, may have wanted to burst into tears. For the fifth time in eight balls, he had caused R Ashwin to miss or edge him. Bowling on a good length, or just short of it, he had beaten the outside edge once, the inside edge once, and had kissed the outside edge thrice. Twice the ball had died before reaching the slip cordon. This time it had carried at catchable height.
Ashwin was batting on 43. He had faced 87 balls, but only ten from Gabriel.
Gabriel's first spell of the match, on the opening day, was four overs long. He bowled 14 balls to M Vijay, whom he eventually dismissed with a snorter of a short ball, four to Cheteshwar Pujara, and six to Shikhar Dhawan.
In those six balls, he caused Dhawan all kinds of discomfort. Or, more accurately, one kind of discomfort, the kind caused by fast, steeply rising balls at the body. Jumping a foot off the ground, Dhawan looked to fend one of them away into the leg side, and popped a leading edge in the opposite direction. It hung tantalisingly for a frozen instant, and fell to the ground well short of backward point. Then, a similar ball, and a similar response, went uppishly into the leg side, but into a vacant area behind the wicket rather than towards the helmeted short leg fielder.
That was the only real uncomfortable period in Dhawan's 147-ball innings. He made 84.
It wasn't as if Dhawan didn't work hard for his runs. West Indies' other bowlers - particularly Carlos Brathwaite, with his metronomic sixth-stump line - tested his patience. But they didn't test his technique. Dhawan was battling his own instincts rather than the bowlers' skills.
And so it was with Ashwin, batting at No. 6 - and anywhere above No. 7 - for the first time in his career. He had scored two hundreds before this, and six half-centuries, all those innings showing off a batsman's mentality, an innate sense of timing, and a wide range of shots. It got prompted observers to wonder if he could bat in the top six one day.
Now, in his 33rd Test match, he got that chance. The batsman's mentality was in evidence when he came in late on the first day, at 236 for 4, as he knuckled down to see India through to stumps alongside his captain.
Shortly before his troubles against Gabriel, he had played a shot that would have made any top-order batsman proud, including Virat Kohli at the other end. A blameless, back-of-a-length delivery from Jason Holder, on off stump, and he simply stood tall and punched it back past him to the straight boundary. Forget not running, Kohli didn't even look back to see the ball scudding to the rope.
It was a stroke of hand, eye, and timing. Ashwin has great hands, a great eye, and exquisite timing.
But we knew this already. What we didn't know, what was being tested here, for the first time, was whether he could be a regular No. 6 in Test matches like this one, when India felt the need to play five genuine bowlers.
No. 6s are the bridge between the top and lower orders, and need to be versatile. Sometimes they will need to play their shots and build towards a declaration. At other times, they may need to stem a top-order collapse. More often, they come in with their teams off to reasonable first-day starts, when they have reached promising if not entirely secure positions - as Ashwin did late on the opening day.
At times like these, they often need to face the second new ball. West Indies had the option of taking it on the first evening, when Ashwin was batting on 17 off 38 balls. Jason Holder, their captain, opted not to take it, preferring instead to wait till the second morning, when Gabriel, his only real attacking threat, would be fresher.
By the time Gabriel came on, new ball in hand, Ashwin had moved to 22 off 72 balls. Four runs in 34 balls - quiet, professional, end-of-day's-play batting. One test passed, but not the toughest test, and not a new one for Ashwin.
The first act of Gabriel v Ashwin was a short ball, but not of the venomous, throat-high kind that dismissed Vijay. Instead, it sat up for Ashwin to pull for four.
Then came those two overs of good-length bowling, with a bit of inswing here and a bit of away-seam there. Ashwin's hand and eye weren't quite enough to counter Gabriel now. His feet were moving across the crease, half-a-beat late, so he was often on the move while playing the ball. His front foot wasn't striding out towards the pitch of the slightly fuller ball, and his back foot wasn't stepping back and across against the slightly shorter ball. His hands kept getting drawn to the ball and away from his body.
Ashwin knows his technique isn't perfect. He has been working on it, and probably knows more work needs to go into it. "First things first," he said at the end of the day's play, "[batting coach] Sanjay Bangar worked really closely with my stance for the last 12 months. It has been a challenge. I used to be extra side-on and I had to open myself a little bit. That change is very effective. I've not driven straight down the ground for a very long time. [So] that is a pretty evident one. The other things like my initial movement and other things had to be sorted. It was a process for like 10-12 months, and on the way I did lose a few innings as a batsman as well."
The straight back-foot punch off Holder, and another drive tracing the same path a few overs later, off the same bowler, this time off the front-foot, were evidence enough that opening up his stance had allowed Ashwin to play more shots down the ground. But the change also made him a little more vulnerable to Gabriel's movement in the corridor. Often, even when he defended with the middle of his bat, his shoulders were in a completely open position.
Contrary to traditional coaching manuals, being perfectly side-on isn't ideal, since it can restrict a batsman from accessing the on-side and the V as effectively as possible, but being as open as Ashwin was against Gabriel can be hazardous, when the line is outside off stump. There is a middle ground, and it isn't easy to achieve. Ashwin, who spoke of trying to "be as solid as possible" in trying to give India the option of using him more regularly at six, is probably striving very hard to do so.
He hadn't quite achieved it on Friday. There were two plays-and-misses against Gabriel, and three edges, of which one carried. Dowrich dropped it. After five more balls to Ashwin, Gabriel's spell was over.
Control percentage, measured by ESPNcricinfo's data-gathering team, is a simple measure. After every ball, the scorer simply checks a box: was the batsman was "in control" or "not in control"? India's batsmen, across their first innings, achieved a control percentage of 87, a number that suggested conditions were good to bat on, and the bowling not particularly threatening.
But they weren't so comfortable against Gabriel. Ashwin achieved a 73% control rate against him, Dhawan 73%, and Vijay 71%. Even Kohli, who achieved a minimum of 88% against everyone else, only managed 80% against Gabriel.
It was hard evidence of a truth that was plain to see. It was Gabriel or nothing for West Indies. As soon as his spells ended, the game changed. It either became attritional, when the other bowlers got through the odd spell of sustained discipline, or extremely one-sided, with nothing preventing the batsmen from milking runs. Ashwin coped easily with both those reduced challenges, and every now and again unfurled one of those strokes that makes you sigh in aesthetic contentment.
He had batted for 236 balls when Devendra Bishoo sent down a flat, shortish legbreak on leg stump. With a mild-mannered twirl of his wrists, Ashwin sent the ball running away between midwicket and deep backward square leg, too fast for either of them to stop it. With that one stroke, India reached 500, and Ashwin his third Test century.
All three centuries had come against West Indies. The first was in Mumbai, in 2011, when he had walked in with India 331 for 6 in response to 590. The second was in Kolkata two years later, with India 156 for 6 replying to 234. Both were match-turning efforts. This one had come against a weaker attack, in a more promising situation.
A batsman cannot control opposition and situation; he can only tick the boxes he is required to tick on a given day. On this day, Ashwin ticked most, though not quite all of them.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo