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R Ashwin reaps the rewards of being R Ashwin

What's he done differently on this tour of Australia? The answer may surprise you

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
"Even in Test cricket, it is going to be the age of wristspin, especially in overseas Test cricket. The way he [Kuldeep Yadav] bowled in Sydney, he becomes our No. 1 spinner in overseas Test cricket.
"Already [ahead of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja]. He plays overseas Test cricket and he gets five wickets, so he becomes our primary overseas spinner. Going ahead, if we have to play one spinner, he is the one we will pick. There is a time for everyone. But now Kuldeep is our frontline No. 1 overseas spinner."
That's Ravi Shastri after India's last tour of Australia. During that tour, Ashwin, India's preferred spinner when playing only one of them, sent India on their way to a win in Adelaide but injured himself when doing so. It was his second curtailed Test tour in a row, on both occasions after an impressive start with the ball. By the time the last Test came around in Sydney, India's two spinners were Jadeja and Kuldeep. The latter took a five-for, something Ashwin can't claim to have done outside Asia or the West Indies.
India's coach might have had his reasons for saying what he did - he might have been motivating a young spinner, possibly egging on a veteran by threatening him, or perhaps seeing a new trend in world cricket - but one thing was clear: the sentence "there is a time for everyone" was aimed at someone who should end up as India's second-most-successful spinner, someone who has more Man-of-the-Series awards in Tests than any Indian and is behind only five other all-time greats in all Test cricket.
This was also the summation of the equivocality around such a decorated career. "Overseas" no longer included Sri Lanka or the West Indies. Ashwin had to do well in the harshest conditions for spinners in order to be recognised among the greats. He would be compared unfavourably to Nathan Lyon. "Why can't Ashwin go side-on and generate the bounce Lyon does?" Moeen Ali too. "Why can't Ashwin stand there and aim at the rough?"
For a large part of his career, Ashwin didn't have what Lyon or Moeen had: pressure from other bowlers. These same spinners became significantly less effective when they came to India and were expected to bear bigger workloads and were denied feeding off tight, high-pressure spells just bowled by their quicks.
When Ashwin got those high-quality quicks to partner with, starting with the Test tour of South Africa in early 2018, he began to become a factor. He was himself a much more experienced cricketer by now. In Centurion he dragged India back with four first-innings wickets but in the second innings he bowled with both his index and middle finger split and took just the one wicket. Later in the year he began the England tour in great rhythm but in Southampton he was outbowled by Moeen. He played that Test at less than 100% fitness but it showed the team valued him highly enough to risk that injury. A great start in Adelaide later in the year was followed by an injury that ruled him out of the rest of the Australia tour.
Since the start of 2018 and before the start of this Australia tour, among spinners who have taken at least 10 wickets put together in England, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, Ashwin held the best average and the best economy rate. Now the new question was if he had enough endurance in his body to bowl the long spells required in less helpful conditions, where the pitches do less for you and you have to put more of your body into it. Before the start of this Australia tour, 27% of the 40096 respondents on an ESPNcricinfo poll felt Ashwin should not start in Adelaide. There was some logic to it but that had to do with the conditions in day-night Tests and not Ashwin's ability.
Never mind the lead-up to the series. At the halfway mark Ashwin is responsible for two of Steven Smith's three dismissals, exposing both his edges, in only 23 balls, and two of Marnus Labuschagne's four dismissals. These are the two biggest wickets for India in this series. No bowler in the series has taken more wickets, bowled more overs, or conceded fewer runs per over than Ashwin. Last checked, Lyon was not asked to learn from Ashwin.
It is often tempting to find out something different a cricketer might have done to succeed in a particular series. Usually the answer is not much. His allies have been the same: drift, dip, subtle changes in seam position, changes of pace, and use of the crease. His mode of operation has been simple: a tight leg-side field to the right-handers, often 6-3, and keep turning it into middle and leg. Bowl the flatter parallel-seam ball in between to give it every chance of not turning and threatening the outside edge. That's all you have to work with when you turn the ball one way and into the batsman: the lbw is rare, and it needs a turning pitch or expansive batting to bowl elite batsmen out. Against left-hand batsmen, Ashwin has lost none of his potency, averaging 14.33 and conceding 1.54 runs an over. He is now the most successful bowler in Test cricket against left-hand batsmen.
This is the classic job of a spinner on pitches that are not turning: provide control at one end so that fast bowlers can attack from the other, take the wickets that come your way as a bonus, but capitalise ruthlessly if there is an opportunity presented. If there is a discernible difference, it is perhaps that he seems to have bowled more like Ashwin than like Lyon or Moeen. In Southampton, for example, he kept aiming for the rough but couldn't manage the efficiency of Moeen while doing so. In that moment, it was the thing to do, but in hindsight might he have been better off bowling the way he usually does?
Ashwin is not falling into the trap of bowling wide outside off like Lyon just because that is the classic definition of aggressive offspin bowling. He knows he is a different bowler and has different tools at his disposal. He is a master of those tools. It appears he has changed his pace more often. Not the range per se, but going up and down in the same over, not letting the batsmen get into to any sort of rhythm. He has conceded just 14 boundaries in 85.1 overs, only three on the leg side in 344 balls bowled to right-hand batsmen. The planning has been immaculate, the execution just as good.
In the absence of Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami, it was imperative India got Ashwin at his best. The wickets of Smith, Tim Paine and Matthew Wade on day one after losing the toss in Melbourne set India on their way to one of their greatest Test wins. There wasn't a five-for yet nor a match award but you would expect Ashwin to cherish this among his most special efforts: outside Asia and the West Indies, missing two key bowlers, losing the toss, not the first Test of the series, every box was ticked.
Ashwin's wife, Prithi, confirmed as much. "I have seen/ spoken to Ashwin after every Test he has played and after a lot of wins," she tweeted after Melbourne. "But I have never seen him this happy, satisfied and light (can I say?) with a smile in his eyes in almost 10 years."
There is a time for everyone, and Ashwin's wasn't over two years ago.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo