Superb R Ashwin delivery removes Steven Smith

R Ashwin usually starts his series in Australia with long-on and midwicket back. On his first tour he snapped back at a journalist who asked him why. The import of his words was that you had to be stupid to start with ambitious attacking fields on such true surfaces.

On his fourth tour, Ashwin has the mid-on up when he bowls to Steven Smith for the first time. Smith averages in excess of 80 against India. He has been out for fewer than 46 only in two of his 10 first-innings outings against India. The first ball is a lovely loopy offbreak, which Smith tracks well and pushes down the ground. Against old Ashwin and old India, Smith takes the easy single down the ground, only his second run in 45 minutes, and gets off strike. Now he doesn't. The next ball is the same. Another easy single not given.

The next one is released like an offbreak, but it is flatter, the seam is more towards square leg than fine leg, and is headed for the similar line of around off stump. Ashwin hasn't probably made sure this doesn't turn, but he has given the ball every chance to not turn. Smith has not noticed it, plays for the offbreak, and nicks off.


For a brief period at the start of Australia's innings, it seems India have forgotten the lesson they handed out to Australia on the last tour. Coming as it does on the back of a half hour in which they lost their four remaining overnight wickets for an addition of just 11 runs, this looks like a difficult time for India.

In the eight overs at the start of Australia's innings, only one ball would have gone on to hit the stumps. It seems like Australia had stolen from India the winning formula. Over the last tour, Australia had tried for long hours to tempt India outside off, but the patience of Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli's trust in defence had defeated them. By contrast, India attacked the stumps, taking 25 wickets bowled or lbw to Australia's nine. On day one, Australia moved their attack straighter, taking four such wickets, and in one day doubling the tally of lbw wickets they took in four Tests in 2018-19.

And here India are, missing the leader of their attack Ishant Sharma and not testing the defence of the Australia openers, one playing for his spot in the team and the other batting higher than No. 5 for the first time in his Test career. Australia pitched the ball full 41% of the times with the new ball; India 26%.

It is perhaps the caginess of the "openers" or the slow pitch with steep bounce that Australia have not made any move. Because the pitch is slow, India can set straight fields with catching men in front and afford to err too straight. Just that they are yet to figure it out, and they have been given a second shot at it because hardly any runs have been scored against the new ball.


Jasprit Bumrah can end up as India's best fast bowler of all time. He is the complete package: pace, seam, swing, endurance. More importantly, perhaps he is the sharpest student of the game. On the last tour of Australia, in a year he had toured South Africa, England and Australia, we checked his performance over various spells. He averaged 40.33 and took a wicket every 80 balls in his first spells. The numbers improved to 24.66 and 57.33 in his second spells, 18.54 and 42.27 in his third and 16.11 43.22 in his fourth. No other India bowler exhibited this pattern.

Bumrah is given just the four overs first up, given time to gather his thoughts, and when he comes back there is automatic anticipation that he will have corrected his lines and lengths. This is perhaps the biggest change in the Indian Test team in recent years. Not that the batsmen are mugs, but you feel India are more in control of Test cricket when they are in the field. That with even Ishant missing and theoretically an ordinary start with the ball, India can make a comeback any time.

And with his seventh ball back, Bumrah strikes. It is just short of a driving length and is seaming back to hit the middle stump of Matthew Wade. In his next over, he has Joe Burns lbw. Just like that this autonomous freak has corrected himself. In the same over he has Marnus Labuschagne dropped by Wriddhiman Saha. Then he himself drops Labuschagne. Then Prithvi Shaw drops Labuschagne off his bowling. Bumrah, though, keeps smiling. It is the smile of a man who knows his side is in control when it is in the field. That it will keep creating enough chances on this pitch.

And chances there are aplenty. It is hard to see where the next run will come from. The field settings are exceptional. India know the edges are not carrying so they have just the one slip and gully. Instead they put in a leg gully, a short square leg and a short midwicket followed by men on the hook to allow for straight bowling. There are no half-volleys outside off, and the straight ones are hard to place through this field on a slow pitch. This is India's territory. You can't imagine a situation where this India lets up in such conditions and with a chance of having batted first. The only opening for Australia, Umesh Yadav and his tendency to bowl too straight, has been closed because of this pitch.

The plans are spot on. The leg gully is in for Smith and Labuschagne. The round-the-wicket angle is choking the left-hand batsmen. Every time you think a batsman can breathe now by turning the ball to leg, you see it has gone to a fielder. The pressure is palpable.


WATCH: Excellent Jasprit Bumrah dismisses Matthew Wade and Joe Burns, Aus vs Ind 2020-21,

It is this pressure perhaps that has allowed Ashwin to be more attacking just as he comes on. Smith has faced 25 straight dots when he faces up to Ashwin. It is sort of upon him now to convert this pressure into a wicket as opposed to previous times when he had to do the dual job of holding one end up and also look for wickets.

It was only on his last tour to Australia that Ashwin had such a lethal bowling unit to combine with. Now he perhaps feels the confidence to prey on cagey batsmen. It is this pressure from the other end that doesn't often get spoken about when he is compared unfavourably with Nathan Lyon's hard-spun offbreaks that extract extra bounce in Australia. Lyon is a great bowler, the lone survivor in a country that fingerspin goes to die, but he is a different bowler to Ashwin. They are both artists; Lyon is more in your face, Ashwin subtler.

Right now, Ashwin is as much joy to watch as Lyon was on day one. There is drift, there is dip, there are variations in sidespin. Travis Head thinks he can turn one into the leg side, but he has been fooled by the drift. The ball pitches and turns to lob back for an easy catch. Cameron Green has pulled a short ball straight to a fielder, but that doesn't show you the pressure created by the number of times Green has tried to press forward and has found the ball short of his reach.


The fifth wicket. The moment when you can hold the ball aloft. That one exclamation point. How can you be a great if you don't have a five-for in four countries out of eight that you have played Test cricket: England, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia? This is the equivocality that hangs over Ashwin's record. It is too nuanced a question to attempt to answer here, but Ashwin is within a wicket of finally getting his first one when he is bowling to the No. 11 Josh Hazlewood. Something to show for to the surface stats buffs.

However, Hazlewood's two big hits come off and given the premium on runs in this Test, Kohli doesn't want to risk a counterattack against a spinner. It is a move that works as Hazlewood is out to the first ball from Ashwin's replacement. Ashwin ends with four, but you can see he doesn't care for these numbers anymore. He is freer when he is playing. During the pandemic, he has reassessed life's priorities. He is now looking to just enjoy his cricket, thankful as he is for the chance to do that when so many others are struggling to get on with their lives.

At the press conference, he smiles more than he snaps. At one point, though, the old fiery self re-emerges when he asks the critics why they ask only him to bowl like Lyon and not the batsmen to play like Smith. He goes on to say he respects Lyon's skill, enjoys watching him, but he cannot be Lyon as much as Lyon cannot be Ashwin.


India have a valuable lead of 53, the first time Australia have fallen behind in a day-night Test. Two men who might end up being India's best of all time at their trade have put India in pole position to win a Test that former Australian players used to accuse them of avoiding out of fear of losing. The beauty of this team is that on another day it might have been Mohammed Shami doing it. Or Ishant if he was playing.

At a time when it is nigh impossible to dominate Test cricket like Graeme Smith's South Africa did - Australia and West Indies before them is too high a bar - only that can be the hallmark of the best Test side in the world. That in all conditions in the world, if you give them a whiff, they are at you. It might be a toss here, a slightly favourable pitch there, but you can't afford to provide this side that opening. At full strength, India are that team at the moment.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo