Arun Venugopal is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
It takes some doing to silence the Chennai crowd. As anyone who has ever been to a Chennai Super Kings game would tell you, they are among the noisiest in the IPL. Rather unusually then, they lost their voice almost abruptly during the 12th over of Kolkata Knight Riders' chase.
R Ashwin had dropped Suryakumar Yadav at short-cover after the latter had forcefully struck a short ball from Suresh Raina. There were collective gasps of disappointment which immediately transformed into silence when they saw Ashwin shake his bowling hand vigorously. His finger was bleeding, and he walked back to the dressing room along with the physio. More silence.
It wasn't the injury itself that shushed the crowd. It was what Ashwin was doing prior to going off the field that had given them reason to strain their vocal chords. His two-over spell had brought Super Kings back into the game. Now, their trump card had gone. They wouldn't know until later that his injury was serious enough for him to miss the next two matches.
On the other hand, Kolkata Knight Riders, needing 135 to win, had begun spiritedly; the home team's seamers had bled 52 runs in five overs with only Gautam Gambhir's wicket to show for. Matters were getting out of hand, and MS Dhoni turned to spin, to Ashwin. He removed Robin Uthappa off his first ball, and proceeded to suffocate Manish Pandey, who, preferring to stay side-on, found Ashwin's appreciable turn disconcerting.
Ashwin had his man in the first ball of his next over, with Pandey, desperate to get out of jail, heaving it to deep midwicket. Dhoni, emboldened by Ashwin's strikes, introduced Ravindra Jadeja and Raina to further strangulate the Knight Riders, whose spinners - Brad Hogg and Piyush Chawla - were no less impressive themselves. Although Dwayne Bravo had more meat in the wickets column, it was a consequence of some stifling bowling from Jadeja and Raina as well as the fielders, Brendon McCullum in particular.
For Super Kings, significantly, the last two games have seen a return to their traditional strength after a seam-dominated beginning this year. Their spinners have contributed 251 wickets* in 121 matches across seasons - the most for any team - and their wicket-share from 2010 to 2014 has been 52.8 percent, 48.2, 39.4, 26.1 and 44.4 respectively.
However, in the three matches prior to the Kings XI Punjab fixture, Ashwin had bowled only four overs. In fact, Ashwin, with 18 overs, has bowled the least among Super Kings' frontline bowlers so far. Jadeja, with 20 overs, is joint second on the list.
Ashwin, who said he left himself out of his own Fantasy team for the last game, felt the wickets were friendlier for seamers. "I think in a bid to make the Indian players better equipped on the overseas tours, there is more grass left on the wickets this time," he told iplt20.com after Super Kings' 97-run win over Kings XI.
"That is becoming a challenge for the spinners. If you see, even when the spinners have picked wickets this season, they have gone for 35-40 runs."
Ashwin has got the ball to spin and bounce in the last two games, and he put that down to the Chepauk wicket rediscovering its original character. "This wicket is close to being the way it was when I started playing. In 2006-07, even on the first day of a four-day game, if there was no spin, there would still be a steep bounce. I am really enjoying it," said Ashwin, who has picked up 39 off his 84 IPL wickets in Chennai.
It is in this context that Tuesday's injury comes as a blow, even if temporary, for him and the team, for he was getting close to his best. Briefly, there were huge cheers from the crowd as Ashwin walked out from the dressing room to the dug-out with a ball in hand. But it turned out to be a false dawn; he didn't take the field again.
As Super Kings travel to Kolkata and Hyderabad minus Ashwin over the next few days, they will have to sort out their combination considering they have played with a settled side thus far. In both games, though, spin is bound to remain a critical element, and Jadeja and Raina, who bowled for the first time in this year's tournament, will be expected to take a greater load.
*Statistics updated till April 27
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