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R Ashwin makes India believe but difficult times still ahead

Bowling Australia out for 195 was a superb effort, but now the batsmen have to back it up

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Not the Summer Of 36. It is the Summer Of 195 without Ishant Sharma. Of another possible under-200 without Ishant and Mohammed Shami. You have to believe it deep inside to even try it. And that's what India kept saying. That they had seen the Australian batting, and if they kept doing the same things they did with the ball in the first innings in Adelaide, they could give themselves a chance again.
This belief does not come from motivational speaking or mind control or hypnotherapy. It comes from knowing that they have done it before. That the newcomers coming in are coming in through the right supply chain of domestic cricket followed by A-team cricket. It comes from having in their attack two bowlers who will end up among the two or three greatest Indians of all time at their respective disciplines.
And yet you also know that in the absence of Shami and Ishant, you don't have the kind of relentless pace battery Australia have. So you know you will have to manoeuvre and not barge through, or as R Ashwin often repeats, skin the cat your own way. New captain Ajinkya Rahane has to play his part. The selection is a bit of a hedge: you have to play a fifth bowler to cover for the absence of two first-choice bowlers, so you muster the batting from elsewhere.
On the morning of the Test, after losing the toss, he goes to R Ashwin in the first hour, only the second time he is being used as an attacking option before a third seamer in a Test outside Asia and the West Indies. The regulation captain, Virat Kohli, did it the other time, at Edgbaston in 2018. The primary reason is the same: there is early moisture that can aid turn, a left-hand batsman in sight and they expect him to use these conditions better than the third seamer. What makes it even more sensible to bowl Ashwin early is that it allows debutant Mohammed Siraj time to play himself in and if Ashwin can get one wicket, he gets to bowl at Steven Smith over whom he has the wood in recent times.
Ashwin sees Matthew Wade is not trusting his defence against him so he keeps a man back for his sweep and keeps playing with his trajectory. In the first five balls he faces from Ashwin, Wade nails one hard sweep but gets just a single because of the sweeper, plays one paddle for four, and is beaten on another sweep. Ashwin just keeps hanging it there, and on the sixth ball his dip does in for the advancing Wade.
However, it is against right-hand batsmen that Ashwin shows his mastery especially when the moisture begins to dry out. On a day one pitch he bowls with a 6-3 field and a leg trap of two short legs, a catching midwicket - at times two - and a boundary rider behind them. He is getting bounce but he is not bowling what is thrown at him often as the "aggressive" line outside off.
Ashwin often says that in away matches, especially on the first day, he has the unenviable dual task of holding one end up and also taking wickets. So he can't afford to get cover-driven. So he bowls straight lines and tries to work for his wickets there with delightful changes in pace, trajectory and seam position on the release. Smith lasts just two balls, caught at backward short leg this time. Ashwin has now got him both on the inside and the outside edge in this series.
The cat-and-mouse with Marnus Labuschagne is delightful. He doesn't want to play the forward-defensive to rising offbreaks with close-in fielders on the leg side. On one occasion he stays back seeing flat trajectory, but Ashwin beats him in the flight with a real full ball. On another he sees a shorter ball - and thus runs - only to discover it is an arm ball that beats his outside edge. Ashwin keeps tying the feet of Cameron Green and Tim Paine down, drawing forward-defensive after forward-defensive. Paine's wicket, caught at backward short leg, is only to be expected.
At the other end, though, Rahane remains less ambitious. He breaks the rule of thumb at the start of the second session after a dominant first one. He doesn't open with the two likeliest bowlers to get him a wicket. Instead he chooses this time to give Siraj a first bowl. He probably is wary of bowling his spearhead into the ground. This hour is perhaps the only time the batsmen look comfortable at the wicket. Labuschagne and Travis Head add 42 runs in 12 overs just after the break. Most of them are bowled by Siraj and Umesh Yadav.
Eventually, though, Rahane goes to Bumrah, and he does his thing to prey on Head's looseness outside off. Siraj comes back for a better spell with the old ball now moving for him. His straight lines bring Labuschagne's wicket at leg gully before he sets up Green with an outswinger after outswinger only for the inswinger to trap him lbw. The plans and the fields are again spot on. There is a vicious bouncer that hits Labushagne. He is not quite Shami yet but India have found three good men in a five-man attack.
People have stepped up in crisis. Ashwin and Bumrah are as much captains as Rahane. Ashwin offers pep talks in the huddle. He bowls 24 overs for just 35 runs allowing Siraj and Bumrah to stay fresh. Between them they share nine wickets.
There is reason to rejoice but there is also a note of caution. India have not been relentless. Australia's bowlers put them through a torturous task with the new ball. India are lucky they are just one down after the first two overs of high-quality seam and swing bowling. Judge a pitch after both sides have batted and bowled on it. Now you look at Umesh's 12 overs for 39 and that first hour after lunch with more significance.
India enjoyed some desperately needed luck in that early inquisition. In the first 11 overs, they played and missed nine times, the same number as the whole 36 all out innings of 128 balls. When the edge is taken it is dropped. Another one falls short. A run-out is missed. The score is 36 again. For one. After Australia have been bowled out for 195. There will be more runs. Each one of those will have to be earned. They will have to work harder than Australia's batsmen did. But then again there are different ways to skin the cat.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo