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Match Analysis

Artistry and attrition combine in Ashwin spell for the ages

When the ball comes out just right from his hand, what the batter sees is nothing like what he gets, as Australia found out

You can't plan to get someone to glove a sweep down the leg side, so it may have seemed like an entirely random event when R Ashwin dismissed Cameron Green in this manner on Friday. But while you can't plan to get someone out like that, you can plan to bowl a certain sort of line to unsettle a certain sort of batter, and hope that something comes out it.
During his innings of 114 in Ahmedabad, Green batted with a clear plan against Ashwin - stay leg-side of the ball, take lbw out of the equation, and trust the flattest surface of the 2022-23 Border-Gavaskar series to open up scoring areas while playing against the spin through the off side.
It was an entirely different plan to the one Virat Kohli had used against Australia's offspinners during his innings of 44 in the Delhi Test. There, Kohli had looked to get across his stumps and play nearly everything with the turn. This is why Green's wagon wheel against Ashwin in Ahmedabad ended up looking so different to Kohli's against Todd Murphy in that Delhi innings, where the only off-side runs he scored came via an edged four.
It was fraught with risk for batters to play against the turn in Delhi. Not so in Ahmedabad, and Green made the most of the conditions with a terrific maiden hundred.
Ashwin, of course, wanted to stop Green's plan from working quite so smoothly. As his spells progressed, it became evident that his line, from both over and around the wicket, shifted closer to leg stump. You could call that line defensive or even negative, but there are times in Test cricket when you need to bowl like that. You certainly need to when you're bowling during a double-century stand such as the one Green and Usman Khawaja put on for the fifth wicket.
While drying up runs may be the primary motive behind that sort of plan, it can also create chances by messing with a batter's alignment. You want to stay leg-side of the ball? Fine. I'll just move the ball leg-side of you.
A lot of Test-match bowling is about trying to get batters off-balance, with their head tipping over to the off side of the ball. For an offspinner, this increases the chances of lbw (though not so much when the ball is likely to turn down the leg side) as well as catches at short leg or leg slip. When Ashwin bowled this leg-stumpish line to Green, he took out slip and stationed him at leg slip.
Sometimes, like in Ahmedabad, you bowl a certain line with a certain broad idea in mind, and the batter goes for a sweep and gloves it to the keeper.
"While bowling to Green, [it] just felt like he was playing besides the line for everything," Ashwin said after the day's play. "The wicket was true enough for him to play against the spin constantly, so it was an idea to just shut him down, his head falls over a lot more [against that line], so yes, that was the plan, but not necessarily the way you want to get him out.
"However, it did pan out, and those things also need to go your way."
At that point, it certainly felt like something needed to go Ashwin's way. He had bowled with a control that sometimes bordered on hypnotic, and led a mixed-bag Indian effort to keep Australia to a reasonable first-innings total after they'd won the toss on this flat, true and slow Ahmedabad surface. There were times, particularly on day one, when India had exerted a vice-like grip on the scoring, but there were other times, particularly with the second new ball, when they'd leaked runs.
The Khawaja-Green stand had taken Australia to 378 for 4 and almost pulled them away from India's grasp. Until Ashwin, bowling his 34th over, took Green out.
Four balls later, it was 378 for 6, and a bowling performance that had been defined by attrition for four-and-a-half sessions had found room for artistry.
In this fascinating chat about spin and batting against spin, Ian Chappell describes the experience of being bowled by Erapalli Prasanna during Australia's 1969-70 tour of India.
"At the Brabourne Stadium in the first Test in 1969, Pras threw this one up and I came charging down the track and I thought I had it covered and I went for this big drive. And I don't know where it went. It just disappeared and the next thing I know I heard a clunk behind me and I was on my way."
Ashwin bowled four balls to Alex Carey on Friday. The first three targeted the left-hander's stumps from around the wicket: flat and full on middle and leg at 92.7kph, then even fuller on the same line but loopier and slower, at 80.4kph, then one drifting in towards middle and off and turning away, at 81.2kph. The first two made Carey pull his front pad away from the line, and the third made him stretch forward, but not across, to defend with the turn.
Then came the slow, wide change-up, delivered with lashings of overspin. The TV speedgun said 81.6kph, but it looked slower. It must have looked to Carey like it would land right in his arc to launch over mid-off or extra-cover. It must have looked like that, until it didn't. It dipped wickedly, and in slowed-down, zoomed-in replays it appeared as if Carey lost sight of the ball momentarily, much like Chappell did all those years ago.
Carey went through with his shot - what else could he do, really? - met the ball with his outside edge, and stomped off, not even bothering to look behind him to watch Axar Patel complete the formalities at short third.
Artistry after attrition, but in reality, Ashwin's 6 for 91 contained equal amounts of both spread over all his 47.2 overs. He needed both ingredients, because you can't just plug away and get batters to respect your bowling on a pitch like this unless you can also summon up dip and drift and sow uncertainty in their reading of length and line.
At his best, Ashwin has always bowled like this, but he says he went through a period late last year, when India toured Bangladesh, when he lost some of his shape through the air.
"At one point, Ashwin even switched load-ups, going from his typical over-the-shoulder position to one where he held the ball close to his chin, with his elbow tucked by his side rather than jutting out at a perpendicular"
"To be honest, I felt at various stages in this particular series, be it in Delhi in the first or the second innings, the numbers probably don't give it a five or a six [wickets] but I thought it has been coming out beautifully, the whole series. Whatever work I put in, the change of my loading and action and cocking my wrist, all of those things have made sure that my spells have been a lot more penetrative than probably it was in Bangladesh. I didn't think I was probably at my best [in that series], however the small changes that I've made have made sure that I've got enough purchase out of the pitches or from the hand. It's doing a lot more in the air than it did in Bangladesh."
The Carey ball was proof of this, as was the devastating in-drifter that trapped Murphy lbw.
But while those wicket balls will stand out in the memory, he probably bowled plenty of other balls like them through all his spells on Thursday and Friday, without reward. Over all those spells, he tried all sorts of angles, release points at the crease, seam orientations, trajectories and changes of pace, but whether he dangled the ball up at 79kph or darted it in at 101kph, he almost always hit his length. Artistry and attrition.
At one point, Ashwin even switched load-ups, going from his typical over-the-shoulder position to one where he held the ball close to his chin, with his elbow tucked by his side rather than jutting out at a perpendicular. If you've watched a lot of him, you'll have seen him try this before, but it felt like the first time he'd tried this second load-up position during this series.
"I did that in Australia as well when we went there for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy last time," Ashwin said. "One of the purposes is to try and get the batsmen to miss the pace of it or the trajectory of it. Whenever I bowl with that action the trajectory is a bit different, sometimes you do tend to go back for the ball that's slightly fuller, which Usman was doing all through the game, which was the idea behind it.
"I wanted to see if I could get a bit more purchase because the wrist cocked this way will get the seam in a different position. All these are complexities inside my head. However, how it comes out is how the batsman sees it."
When the ball comes out just right from Ashwin's hand, what the batter sees is nothing like what he gets.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo