West Indies v India, 1st Test, Antigua, 2nd day July 23, 2016

Ideal conditions help Ashwin grab chance at No. 6

Working on initial movements and having a slightly more open stance have helped Ashwin rediscover his batting mojo
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Play 02:03
'Batting ahead of Saha a boost to my confidence' - Ashwin

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 thanked the captain and coach for handing him an opportunity in the top six for the first time © Getty Images

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • SRAM20 on July 23, 2016, 18:43 GMT

    With Kumble as coach, I am expecting Ashwin to advance pretty far in his career. Ashwin is of very similar mould to Kumble - not a big turner of the ball but mighty intelligent, a resilient fighter, a calculated thinker who puts more emphasis on the mental side of the game, and who is a handy bat when the situation requires. With Kumble having seen through his career, he can give Ashwin feedback on what works and what does not, and Ashwin if he takes it well, can reach farther than Kumble did in his career.

  • cheguramana on July 23, 2016, 17:38 GMT

    Congrats to Ashwin ! great job in getting a ton, whether weak attack r not. But this does throw up the limitations of a 5 bowler strategy. Among the Top 5 Indian batsmen, 3 showed poor to middling returns : M Vijay, Pujara and Rahane. So its actually one of the 'core' bowlers doing the rescue act. This is not a sustainable performance. If the 5 bowler strategy has to work consistently, not more than 1, max 2 batsmen can have an off day. And the wicket keeper has to step up !

  • Suressh Natarajan on July 23, 2016, 10:15 GMT

    Samroy: Why not instead of finding n testing n playing a new face, Ash could be froomed n trained, more so coz of his earlier carriculam, present day knowledge and his technical skills? I certainly feel he can surely grow upon other higher up bats n knocking for their place.

  • MaheshS.Panicker on July 23, 2016, 7:07 GMT

    Unless India can find a good wicketkeeper who can bat, Ashwin might have to continue batting in the top 6 or 7, always ahead of Saha who is not much of a bat. All that Saha has got is some good fighting spirit, he doesn't have the technique or range of shots to be a successful international batsman. And even his keeping is overhyped....... Hopefully Rishabh Pant or Sanju Samson would be able to make the step up sooner rather than later.

  • rkannancrown on July 23, 2016, 7:01 GMT

    If Ashwin has similar control percentage against Gabriel as have Vijay Or Dhawn, we should not find fault only with Ashwin. Clearly, he has a far superior batting record than Saha who has one half century courtesy the umpiring rather than the batting. So he should be batting ahead of Saha based on cricketing merrit.

  • tvumpire.com on July 23, 2016, 6:28 GMT

    Well done Aswin. He is a far better allrounder than Mathews. He can score hundreds and take 5 wickets in the same match

  • rajuramki on July 23, 2016, 6:15 GMT

    When a player is not a natural allrounder like Kapil , he takes time to understand whether his primary role is that of a bowler or batsman . Ashwin is primarily in the team as a bowler and his ability as a batsman is only a bonus . Yet his bowling and batting averages are good enough for him to be considered an allrounder . Ashwin's bowling will not suffer if his focus is to bat better and be a genuine allrounder . India is in need of a good allrounder at no : 6 and they can't expect a player of Kapil's calibre to fill that slot . Jadeja ia also a potential allrounder , but he has to learn the art of bowling on nonspinning wickets and also improve his batting . With age on their side , Jadeja and Ashwin can occupy the no :6 and 7 positions for a long time to come .

  • Maui3 on July 23, 2016, 5:35 GMT

    Great, Ashwin got a hundred - but ain't worth a thing if it takes his focus away from his bowling.

    India would much rather have a Ashwin of last 12 months - Exceptionally good bowler even away from home but a poor batsman than the Ashwin from 2011-13, who was a unsuccessful as a bowler away from home, but a good batsman.

    If he can handle the workload and responsibility of a #6 batsman and a wonderful bowler he has become recently - it would bode very well for Indian cricket.

  •   Aumlaan Gooho on July 23, 2016, 5:06 GMT

    Feeling vindicated. Have been yelling from d rooftops for years that Ashwin is our premier all-rounder, one who should b batting 6 or 7 (depending on team composition) no lower. Delighted to see him do so well, do justice to his potential with the bat. Elated indeed. Kudos Ashwin ...may this be the beginning of myriad such knocks.

  • electric_loco_WAP4 on July 23, 2016, 5:02 GMT

    @SamRoy - You could'nt have said it better. But can't blame them both-Botham,Gavaskar-you see... Commentators are of all types. But they just happen to be the most 'patriotic' of the lot!-even as being one among the greatest legends their respective teams ever had. As the saying goes,'it takes all types..' ,applies to cricket commentary too !-:)

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