Match Analysis

How Ashwin stopped worrying about technique and started loving his old game again

He seems to have gone back to trusting his hands and eye, and allowing his innate attacking game to flourish

It's not often that anyone outscores Rishabh Pant in a partnership, but R Ashwin on a good day is a plausible candidate for doing so. And after four years when his gifts of eye and timing lay frustratingly dormant, the good days are growing in frequency.
Having averaged 16.72 and scored just one fifty in 39 innings from the start of 2017 to the end of 2020, Ashwin has been back among the runs. He's averaged 26.73 since the start of 2021, and his manner of run-scoring in this period has been as encouraging as the scores he has made.
His 46 on Monday was of a piece with other counterattacking knocks he's played of late: the 27-ball 22 in the World Test Championship final, and a pair of 30s against New Zealand in Kanpur in November. He moved into strong positions from which to drive down the ground and through the off side, prompting mental flashbacks to his early years in Test cricket when the languid elegance of his strokeplay routinely drew comparisons with VVS Laxman.
That fluency had been missing for most of the 2017-20 period, a time when he tinkered constantly with his technique in an effort to get back among the runs.
Over the last year or so, Ashwin seems to have gone back to trusting his hands and eye and allowing his innate attacking game to flourish - particularly against fast bowling. Since - but not counting - his stonewalling efforts to save the Sydney Test last January, he's scored at a strike rate of 69.17 against pace, with 30 fours in 292 balls, a rate better than one every ten balls.
Ashwin says he hasn't made any conscious effort to go after fast bowling; his scoring rate, he reckons, has simply been an outcome of getting into better positions at the crease.
"Look, in between, somewhere, for a couple of years, trying to get very technically right or whatever it is to try and build on scores, I think I lost a bit of my flow with respect to getting into good positions at the crease," Ashwin said, at the end of the first day's play at the Wanderers.
"Even before that I have always batted at a good clip, so there's not been a conscious effort to go out there and keep playing those shots. If it's there, it's there. For me, I get into positions where I can play some of those shots which maybe some of the other specialist batters might not be able to play, but this freedom is what gave me success in the past."
That line about playing shots that specialist batters might not be able to play is, of course, no idle boast. Even his briefest innings have sometimes been lit up by an incandescent stroke; think of the back-foot drive that he hit off Josh Hazlewood on a pitch of hugely uncertain bounce in Bengaluru, back in 2017, before being bowled by a grubber while attempting a repeat.
There were at least three shots in Monday's innings that might stick in your memory: an effortless push straight of mid-on off Lungi Ngidi, an inside-out drive through the covers off Keshav Maharaj, and an on-drive over midwicket off Kagiso Rabada.
"It's still about choosing [shots] correctly and also getting the flow of my hands right, which I think I've been able to get back ever since Australia, or a little bit before Australia," Ashwin said. "[Batting coach] Vikram Rathour has been very helpful in terms of having those communications and also trying to get those things sorted in the nets."
Ashwin acknowledged that his innings got off to a flier because he got a few balls in his area first up, but he also felt South Africa's bowlers may have helped him get into rhythm by attacking him with the short ball when he came to the crease.
"The moment I went in I got a straight ball which I hit down the ground, then I got one which I hit on the up off Lungi Ngidi on the off side," Ashwin said. "So the balls presented themselves, and I responded. There was no attempt to try and go there and play at that strike rate; sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't, that's the beauty of playing the game.
"And also, I thought, getting a hang of the pitch. Initially they started with the short ball again, so I feel like whenever I get started off with the short ball, it gets me going a bit, so yeah, I had gameplans. Glad it worked out, and it's also about building on and trying to be more productive for the team."

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo