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Analysis

Ashwin's ability to reinvent himself sets him apart from Lyon

It's not just the home advantage. Ashwin has constantly added new layers to his skillset right through his career

Australia's offspinners took eight wickets in Nagpur. So did R Ashwin.
But where Nathan Lyon and Todd Murphy bowled a combined 96 overs to take those eight wickets, Ashwin took his in a mere 27.5 overs.
In strike-rate terms, that's a wicket every 72 balls versus a wicket every 21 balls.
It may have deteriorated over time and become especially challenging to bat on by the time Australia began their second innings, but Lyon, Murphy and Ashwin bowled on the same pitch. Why, then, did Ashwin look so devastating, and Australia's offspinners so much more manageable?
Home advantage is a big part of the answer, of course. Ashwin knew the conditions intimately, and had a feel for them. Where Australia's spinners had a broad idea of how they needed to bowl on Indian pitches, Ashwin was able to quickly figure out how to bowl on this Indian pitch, and quickly make the granular adjustments he needed to make, having played on others similar to this during his previous 51 Tests and 94 first-class games in India.
Lyon, meanwhile, was playing his eighth Test and 10th first-class game in India, and Murphy was making his maiden first-class appearance in the country.
On Saturday, Ashwin made a visible effort to bowl full and invite drives from the Australian batters. It was clear right from the first over he bowled, when Usman Khawaja drove a half-volley for four, and edged to slip three balls later when Ashwin got a similar-looking ball to dip on him and turn viciously.
After the match, India's ex-head coach Ravi Shastri quizzed Ashwin about the fuller lengths on Star Sports.
"Ravi bhai, I thought this wicket was pretty slow," Ashwin said. "Like I've been saying all through this Test match, the wicket has been really slow and you need to get the batsmen driving on this. [It's] not one of those pitches where you might get the gloves ripping up to short leg and silly point.
"So I thought giving them one or two balls to drive was a good way for me to lure them into shots, and probably induce the other half of the bat as well. So I just felt this was one of those pitches, because of the carry and the bounce that seemed to be a little low."
The intention to lure batters into drives was evident in Ashwin's fields as well. To David Warner, for instance, he pulled his mid-off two-thirds of the way back to the boundary, signalling that a pushed or driven single was available to him if he wanted it. By inviting Warner to look for that single, Ashwin hoped to draw his bat away from his body and increase his chances of being beaten on either edge.
Ashwin had to bowl fuller to be able to draw these errors, but he also had the luxury of a big India lead, which allowed him to pay the price of the odd half-volley while looking to hit that dangerous area just short of a driving length.
It wasn't as if Australia's offspinners hadn't tried to bowl full. They did, and Rohit Sharma drove Lyon for three fours through the off side during the final session of day one. But Australia had been bowled out for 177, and Lyon and Murphy didn't have the cushion of runs that would have allowed them to keep trying that attacking length. On day two, they plugged away on a good length and were part of a collectively disciplined Australian display that at one stage threatened to keep India to a manageable lead.
It didn't happen, but Australia's choices with the ball were forced on them by their low total, and their spinners tried to make the best of what they had to play with.
But there was something slightly mechanical about how Lyon and Murphy plugged away as well, as if they were following an instruction manual on how to bowl on Indian pitches. Ashwin varied his pace a lot more, even venturing into the low 80s on occasion - Lyon and Murphy seldom dropped below 90kph - and seemed to try different things against different batters. It was that feel thing again.
And while Ashwin got to bowl to far more left-hand batters than his Australian counterparts, Lyon and Murphy made more of an impression on India's right-hand batters than they did against Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel. They kept the runs down, conceding just 83 off the 253 balls they bowled to the two left-hand batters, but took just one wicket in those 253 balls.
They were tiring by the time they bowled to Jadeja and especially Axar, but this was still a pitch with plenty of turn and natural variation to exploit.
For all that, Murphy's performance was one of the best by a first-timer in India - never mind a debutant - over the last decade or so. To bowl 47 overs and go at less than three an over were impressive enough feats, given he had only played seven first-class games before coming on this tour; that he took seven wickets was remarkable.
Lyon, a bowler on his third Test tour of India, bowled 49 overs and took just one wicket. Of all the performances that made up Australia's defeat in Nagpur, perhaps none would disappoint their team management as much as Lyon's. As in his last Test match before this tour, against South Africa in Sydney, where he took two wickets in 55 overs in a rain-affected draw, his bowling commanded respect from the opposition but didn't look like much of a wicket threat. The common thread between Sydney and Nagpur? A lack of bounce.
In an era where DRS has made fingerspinners target bowled and lbw more than ever, Lyon is something of a throwback, his wicket-taking threat directly proportional to the bounce on offer. The 2016-17 tour of India was a case in point. Lyon played a largely supporting role to Steve O'Keefe in Australia's unexpected win on a Pune dustbowl, where sharp turn and natural variation were the main threats rather than bounce, and he bowled only 46 overs to O'Keefe's 77 - while conceding nearly a run an over more - in the drawn third Test on a slow and low surface in Ranchi.
"The reason that he's able to extract a lot from the pitch is because of the skillset that he has. And obviously he's a very studious guy, likes to keep working on his game, likes to understand his game and take it to the next level, that is what he is"
Rohit Sharma on R Ashwin
When bounce became a factor, Lyon became an entirely different bowler.
On day one in Bengaluru on that tour, the combination of early moisture in the topsoil and Mitchell Starc's follow-through at the other end gave him footmarks to work with, and he made the ball turn and jump out of them to take eight wickets. In the fourth Test on a Dharamsala trampoline, his first-innings five-for gave Australia a genuine chance of victory before India's lower order and bowlers snatched it away.
Whenever the conditions were somewhat reminiscent of Australia, Lyon was exceedingly dangerous. On pitches where bowled and lbw were likelier modes of dismissal than bat-pad catches or edges flying to slip, his threat was greatly diminished.
Lyon's record in India reflects this duality: he has three five-fors in eight Tests, but he averages 33.31. Ashwin averages 21.78 in the eight Tests Lyon has played in India.
Ashwin, meanwhile, has played 10 Tests in Australia, where he's taken 39 wickets at 42.15. Not very impressive, you might think, but in those ten Tests, Lyon has taken 32 wickets at 42.40. Ashwin's performances in Australia have improved with each tour, to the extent that he has outbowled Lyon on India's last two tours in 2018-19 and 2020-21, averaging 27.50 to Lyon's 37.83.
Ashwin did this not by trying to bowl like Lyon, but by finding ways to make his own style work in Australian conditions. He has constantly added new layers to his skillset right through his career, experimenting even when the world has told him not to fix something that isn't broken, and it's this quality that Rohit picked out when asked, during his post-match press conference, why Ashwin was able to get so much more out of this Nagpur pitch than Australia's offspinners.
"Ash has played so much cricket in India," Rohit said. "He's closing in on playing 100 Test matches now, and I'm pretty sure he's played more Test matches in India, and not to forget his first-class games as well, before he made his debut, so a lot of cricket, a lot of overs have gone into his skills, for him to do what he's doing now.
"To be able to extract something out of the pitch is not easy, unless you have that experience, and having that idea as to what you need to bowl on certain kind of pitches - and obviously he's got so much skill as well. He can bowl that carrom ball, he can bowl that slider, that topspinner as well, the guy's got everything.
"The reason that he's able to extract a lot from the pitch is because of the skillset that he has. And obviously he's a very studious guy, likes to keep working on his game, likes to understand his game and take it to the next level, that is what he is.
"If you see him, he's getting better and better as you see him every time. He looks a different bowler, looks - I wouldn't say improved bowler, because he was always a good bowler - but he looks a different bowler every time he plays Test cricket. That is what good cricketers do, they try and up their game and try and reach that next level."
Lyon has done this too, of course. He is a far, far better bowler in Indian conditions now than the one MS Dhoni tonked around the park a decade ago in Chennai. But where Lyon is now a better version of the same bowler, more or less, the Ashwin of 2023 is unrecognisably different to the bowler who dominated that 2012-13 series. This, in essence, is what separates them.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo