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Match Analysis

Ashwin remains India's constant in the face of constant change

From his beauty to Bravo in Trinidad in 2016 to the one to Chanderpaul on Wednesday, he showed that little has changed by way of his guile

The August 2016 Trinidad Test was notable for rain, a sodden outfield, and little else: there were 22 overs of cricket in the first session of day one, and no play thereafter. Those 22 overs, however, contained a moment of great beauty, a ball from R Ashwin that turned past Darren Bravo's outside edge and hit off stump.
It was the 17th wicket of a glorious series for Ashwin with ball and bat, and you might not have imagined then that it would take him nearly seven years to play another Test match in the West Indies.
Such, however, has been the course his career has charted. When India toured the Caribbean in 2019, they benched Ashwin for both Tests.
On Wednesday morning in Dominica, Ashwin took his first wicket in the West Indies since that beauty to Bravo, and it was like nothing had changed other than the identity of the left-hand batter he dismissed. He angled this ball into Tagenarine Chanderpaul from around the wicket, and turned it past his outside edge to clip off stump.
It was a wicket that ticked all the Ashwin boxes.
One, there was a sense that Ashwin's previous 2.4 overs had built up towards this moment. His first ball of the day had gone with the angle, and Chanderpaul had inside-edged it past forward short leg. Ashwin hadn't really turned any of the balls he had bowled since, and Chanderpaul perhaps had the right idea to play for the ball going with the angle and threatening lbw and bat-pad.
Two, Ashwin did everything possible to exaggerate the inward angle. He went so wide of the stumps that most of his front foot landed outside the return crease - perfectly legal; it's your back foot that isn't allowed to cut the return crease - and got the ball to drift in even further.
There isn't much you can do when a ball turns against that sort of angle, other than hope it misses the stumps. No such luck for Chanderpaul.
It was like nothing had changed since 2016. It was like nothing had changed since March of this year, when Ashwin had brought all his guile to bear on a lifeless Ahmedabad pitch to pick up a remarkable six-wicket haul against Australia.
In one sense, nothing had changed. This was, after all, the same bowler.
In another sense, though, so much had changed. Between Ahmedabad and Dominica, India had played one Test match, and had left Ashwin out of their XI. It wasn't just any Test match but the final of the World Test Championship at The Oval. Ashwin had been India's leading wicket-taker during that WTC cycle.
That omission meant Ashwin had sat out each of India's last six Test matches in England. The last one he had played was the 2021 WTC final in Southampton: he finished that match with figures of 25-10-45-4, and was probably India's best bowler in conditions that all but neutralised spin bowling. But the fact that India lost, and that they lost because their opponents had a deeper pace attack, led them to abandon the idea of playing three seamers and two spinners on English pitches. They switched to a 4-1 combination thereafter, which left room for only one of their two great spin-bowling allrounders.
It's India's great fortune and Ashwin's great misfortune that his career has coincided with that of Ravindra Jadeja. If you put the warm glow of the past aside, you could imagine the Australia of the late 1990s and early 2000s leaving Shane Warne out on the odd English greentop and playing four seamers if they happened to have Jadeja in their squad and at his peak.
It would have been no slight on Warne's ability if those circumstances had existed during his career. Australia had no Jadeja equivalent, however, and English pitches of that time tended to bring spin into the game far more than they do today.
It's no slight on Ashwin's ability that India have tended to prefer a fourth seamer over him - he isn't competing outright with Jadeja, who plays the role of batting allrounder - on certain types of pitches. But the fact that two different captain-coach combinations have left Ashwin out in so many high-profile games has fuelled a narrative that he needs helpful conditions to make an impact.
That narrative is partly true, in that all spinners need some help to take a bagful of wickets. But it's also untrue, because Ashwin, since the start of 2018, has the best average of all spinners (minimum 10 innings) playing away from home in Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa. Even if you include home Tests in these countries, Nathan Lyon only just sneaks ahead of him.
It just so happens that Jadeja's numbers are nearly as good as Ashwin's, and that he can bat in the top six. Ashwin batted at No. 6 on that 2016 West Indies tour, but his batting, though still very useful, isn't at that level these days.
On Wednesday, Ashwin bowled magnificently, as he almost always does, and was a constant menace to West Indies' batters on a first-day surface in Dominica that, although slow, offered both turn and bounce, particularly once its early moisture had dissipated.
Nearly every ball he bowled asked difficult questions. One ball to Jason Holder, in his 11th over, summed up the effect he was having. This ball was quick but not without loop, and it hung long enough in the air to drift away from Holder and put ideas of a cover drive in his mind. Then it dipped on him, forcing him to abandon those ideas and play a hurried flick that hung briefly in the air without quite reaching short midwicket on the full. Both Ashwin and the fielder, Rohit Sharma, ended up with their hands on their heads.
Nearly every Ashwin ball asked the batters to be at their most vigilant. Outright scoring opportunities were rare. A more experienced line-up with more proven quality may have tried to outlast Ashwin, but there's no guarantee of that approach succeeding. This West Indies line-up tried to force Ashwin off his lengths, and that didn't work either: Kraigg Brathwaite and Alzarri Joseph skied slogs in unintended directions, and Alick Athanaze - who had until then looked both composed and fleet-footed while scoring 47 on debut - got cramped for room while trying to manufacture a pull.
When he found extra bounce from a length to have Jomel Warrican caught at short leg, Ashwin had picked up his 33rd five-wicket haul in Tests. He is now sixth on the all-time list, with Warne (37) not too far ahead in second place, and Muthiah Muralidaran, on 67, will probably never be surpassed.
Jadeja, if you're wondering, is a long way behind, with only 12 five-wicket hauls. His average, however, is remarkably similar to Ashwin's. The events of Wednesday neatly encapsulated their careers. Jadeja bowled fewer overs than Ashwin, but he bowled them with the same sort of exacting control, exerting similar levels of pressure and forcing similar sorts of errors from West Indies' batters.
Together, they delivered the perfect opening day of a tour that India may have gone into with a certain degree of trepidation, knowing that they were without their two best fast bowlers. Ashwin finished with figures of 24.3-6-60-5, and Jadeja 14-7-26-3. India are blessed to have both of them, a luxury for which the occasional headache of leaving one out is a small price to pay.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo