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A dreamy, ambitious Ashwin's hard work pays off with a hundred at home ground

"I am just thinking how I am going to recover and sleep through the night," Ashwin said

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
R Ashwin spent the limited-overs leg of the Australia tour, which he was not part of, working hard on and frustrated with his batting. He was being left out of the side because of Ravindra Jadeja's added batting advantage. It was not an unreasonable selection call: there was room only for one spinner in away Tests, and of late Ashwin had made a fast descent from could-be-an-allrounder to is-he-a-tailender zone.
Consequently India's last four wickets were offering nothing while players such as Sam Curran and Kyle Jamieson were proving to be the extra depth that beat India in Tests they were competitive in. In 19 Tests leading up to the Australia tour, Ashwin had averaged 15.4 with a top score of 38. The batsman who not long ago could cover up for selection errors - like he did here - had gone missing.
Like the earnest competitor that Ashwin is, he felt he needed to prove he was worthy of a place in the side. He would ask batting coaches what he needed to do and would tell them he would do it. Every chance he got, Ashwin worked on his batting, much like he did on his legspin to try and add value to himself as a limited-overs cricketer. His team-mates and coaches have sometimes in the past secretly ridiculed him for being too ambitious, but this was an understandable desperation and ambition.
As it is, Ashwin was playing only one format for India, and there too he was now at the risk of being limited to Tests in India only. If not for the injury and concussion to Jadeja in the T20Is, there's a fair chance Ashwin wouldn't have played the Adelaide Test. That dismissal of Steven Smith in the first over and then the continued grip on him in Melbourne might not have happened had Jadeja, the better batsman of the two, had not been injured. And it might not have been that unreasonable a selection either.
Vikram Rathour, the India batting coach, worked hard with Ashwin, gave him the freedom to try new things, but then concluded that his batting looked fine. He just needed to worry less about the results even though he could understand Ashwin's concern because it was playing him out of the side.
"He has been very very helpful in terms of trying to explore new options," Ashwin told Star Sports after his hundred in Chennai, confirming Rathour's role in his batting turnaround. "As it is I am someone who tries a lot, and he is facilitating me to go out and express myself and explore various options. I'd love to credit him for my batting in the last four-five Tests. He has kept me in the loop, he has said I have been batting very well, and not to overthink it."
In that Adelaide Test, there were signs of the return of Ashwin the batsman when he added 27 with Wriddhiman Saha in the first innings, but again he was part of that horrible collapse in the second innings. Ashwin did feel, though, that he was batting better and that something good was around the corner. The last day of the Sydney Test, all the pain in his back, and the team situation, just took his mind off all the nuts and bolts he was worrying about.
In the lead-up to the second Test, all Ashwin worried about with the bat in hand was how to counter Jack Leach, who had got him on the forward-defensive and also on the book foot. It is actually instructive that Ashwin spoke of the whole batting unit looking to find ways to counter Leach, not Dom Bess, who also got five wickets in the Test. Again, Ashwin credited Rathour for working with him on the sweep, a shot he hasn't played much since he was 19.
"After the last Test we were talking about how we are going to counter Leach and probably start bringing the sweep into our game," Ashwin said. "The last time I swept was when I was 19 years old. And I missed a couple of sweep shots, got dropped from the side and didn't play the sweep for the last 13-14 years. [I've] been practising only that shot over the last week to 10 days. Very very thankful that the plan has paid off. The wicket is such that you can get your runs square. A very very good day."
You might argue that this hundred was not exactly the typical lower-order runs India were after on their trips in England and New Zealand, but it did keep at bay any critics of the pitch his home ground rolled out. Surely they can't doctor the pitch for both his bowling and his batting? And for a dreamy ambitious boy who grew up playing cricket in the streets of Chennai, to score a Test hundred at his theatre of dreams was extra special.
"I am just thinking how I am going to recover and sleep through the night," Ashwin said. "I am glad it has happened at my home ground. I don't know if I am going to play another Test here. I don't know when the next Test will be here."
As Ashwin said, the side has been living a dream over the last two-three months. Why not make it better and knock a home hundred and five-for off the list then?

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo