Wind the clock back to a year ago, as team India was busy preparing for the ODI World Cup with a short home season. The headlines were grabbed by West Indies’ pull out and Sri Lanka’s replacement act, while the batting order was muddled back then too. As concerns the bowling attack, Axar Patel had just broken through, and it was a wonder what the line-up would be in Australia. At that point in time, just over a year ago, R Ashwin wasn’t the bowler he is today.
Something changed in Australia. It wasn’t as dramatic as it feels now, for Ashwin was always working hard in the background, when he was dropped, earlier during the Tests in England, or in New Zealand before that. He was first left out of the Test XI, unfairly it must be added, after the first Test in Johannesburg on the South African tour (in 2013). That was perhaps the turning point.
Ashwin was dropped in favour of Ravindra Jadeja, but the left-arm bowler is only a part-spinner. From New Zealand to England, skipper MS Dhoni used him to hold one end together, while deploying his pacers otherwise. Using spinners as a holding option overseas has long been a tactic for Indian captains.
But at this juncture, the question is why a part-spinner was doing this job and not a proper spinner? After all, hadn’t Ashwin done the holding job well enough in Johannesburg, and still paid for it?
All this time, India struggled on without a proper spin option, and it impacted their fortunes. Meanwhile, the time Ashwin spent away in contemplation bore fruit, but perhaps in a manner that he didn’t envisage.
After Anil Kumble retired and Harbhajan Singh made way, much was expected from Ashwin who appeared on the horizon as the lone long-term hope. Playing in Australia (2011-12) and then at home (2012-13), it was anticipated that his learning curve was over. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t.
Away from the game, whilst close to the action, watching from the dressing room, it allowed Ashwin time to regain his composure. It was first noticeable when he returned to the Test XI on the England tour. He had let go off his tendency to experiment. He searched for greater consistency.
Alien conditions there hadn’t allowed for the desired results to come forth, and it reflected – surprisingly – when Virat Kohli chose Karn Sharma ahead of him in the Adelaide Test. Looking back at how Nathan Lyon turned the ball like a top there, that decision makes for some wonderment.
Yet, what happened in the backdrop was more important from Ashwin’s point of view. By his own admission, he had spoken with team director Ravi Shastri, who informed him of what was needed from the team’s most experienced spinner.
This is where Ashwin’s journey to a top-class spinner finds its roots, with Johannesburg and Adelaide the two pivotal points. Thereon, he was a different bowler, seen from Brisbane to Melbourne to Sydney. He bowled with poise and consistency, slipping in guile whenever allowed the independence by his faulty fast-bowling partners. When they rectified their line and lengths in the ODI World Cup, he played the perfect foil to them.
It puts the Sri Lanka tour in perspective. From a team point of view, it was concluded that the 2-1 series win was a culmination of their overseas learning process, and indeed a fruitful boost to their confidence. As such, the same can be ascertained from an individual perspective for these players, none more so than in Ashwin’s case.
He had left for Lanka hoping to be the lead bowler in those three Tests, and with 21 wickets, he led the assault on their weakling batting. When this home season started, Ashwin was obviously to lead the charge once again, and he has not disappointed. He has wreaked havoc in the ongoing series, and afterwards, at every occasion he has spoken about how he likes the way the ball is coming out of his hand. That statement is very easily decipherable.
This is a bowler at the peak of his prowess and fully aware of what he is capable of. On turning pitches where Imran Tahir, Dean Elgar and Simon Harmer are troubling Indian batsmen, where Jadeja is bowling destructive darts, Ashwin stands a class apart, almost unplayable.
With New Zealand, England and Australia lining up for a visit in the 2016-17 season, needless to say, India will be banking heavily on him.