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'Template has been set' for India, but it's not the end of the road for Ashwin

Lots of great bowling options but none good enough to bat at No. 7 has led to Ashwin's spot being uncertain

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Will R Ashwin find a place in India's XI for the remaining England Tests?  •  BCCI

Will R Ashwin find a place in India's XI for the remaining England Tests?  •  BCCI

Virat Kohli's answer to Mike Atherton's post-match presentation question regarding India's bowling attack, which opted to play the first Test without the best spinner in the world, R Ashwin, was instructive. "Most likely it will be a template going ahead in the series as well, but, again, adaptability has been a strength of ours, especially when we have played away from home and hence we have been very successful when playing away as well," Kohli said. "So, look, we need to adapt quickly according to what's in front of us, pitches, conditions, pace of the wicket and so on, but, yes, this looks like the right template for us moving forward."
Now, the Indian team management will not be held to account in court for what it assures in press conferences, so there is nothing stopping them from playing Ashwin on a green track with rain around, but from the looks of it, it is apparent it will take an injury or spin-friendly conditions for Ashwin to get into the XI in this series.
It is a big call because the last time Ashwin played in an away series, he cracked the contest open by getting Steven Smith and Marnus Labuschagne before they could get into any rhythm. He outbowled Nathan Lyon in that series, which must have been a personal burden unloaded. In the World Test Championship final earlier on this trip, Ashwin provided India the first breakthrough in both the innings despite a green pitch and overcast conditions.
Since the start of 2018, outside Asia and the West Indies, which is the real test of a spinner, Ashwin has the best stats. Also his batting had started to turn for the better with his SCG rearguard, his Chennai century, and the 22 in Southampton.
Then again, this selection doesn't say as much about Ashwin's ability as it does about India's depth, one of India's weaknesses, and the conditions they are playing in. That India can leave such a colossal figure out is because they still have the second-best spinner over the same period: Ravindra Jadeja has better numbers than Lyon or Jack Leach or Moeen Ali in these conditions since 2018. Jadeja's current batting form in these conditions trumps Ashwin's, and he again showed the value he has been bringing since his return to the side in these conditions in 2018. He also provides a vital left-hand batter, what with India's top five being all right-hand batters.
India started the tour with confidence that a three-two attack can cover all the bases, but must have realised they will not get tracks that justify two spinners. Especially when the hosts are in a spot with their balance-providing allrounder missing and thus not in a position to play even one spinner. The pitches will continue to reflect that.
In these conditions, India have taken the punt of going with Shardul Thakur, a lesser batter than Ashwin but likelier, as a bowler, to get help from these conditions. What India give up in the bargain is a spinner who can be so good that he can give you your first wickets even in these countries. Since 2018, he averages under 17 in the first 20 overs in these countries; his wickets include Alastair Cook, Smith, Joe Root and Labuschagne. That's why Ashwin is likelier to have trumped Jadeja if India had a seam-bowling allrounder who could bat at No. 7.
What Kohli said doesn't at all mean the end of the series for Ashwin. The team management has become more and more flexible as it has grown in its job. If the suspected heat wave arrives for the Test in London, Ashwin might come in contention as soon as later this week for the Lord's Test. The Oval was so spin-friendly Ashwin took six-for in a County Championship game earlier this season. Old Trafford can assist spin. That's where the adaptability kicks in.
Five Tests is a long series, and the bowlers will need to be rotated. What won't change is this: three frontline fast bowlers out of Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj will play, and only five specialist batters will play.
In all likelihood, that means Ashwin only plays when Thakur is not available or not likely to be effective as a bowler. It is the price Ashwin has to pay for being part of a squad with so many bowling options, but none of them good enough to bat at No. 7.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo