This was Ravichandran Ashwin’s Test match. It belonged to his mischievous mind as it did to his long spinning fingers. Opening the bowling on the second day, he went round the wicket to his latest adversary, Dean Elgar. With two scores in the 30s in the series so far, Elgar appeared far more adept than most of his mates. He had even taken on Ashwin in the series and earned a rare send-off from the bowler. South Africa was 11/2 in the tenth over. Ashwin bowled the perfect off spinner to the left hander – pitching at that dodgy length, ripping past the bat, thudding into Saha’s gloves. Second delivery: Ditto. Third delivery: more of the same. Fourth delivery: On the money, again.
By now, Elgar and South Africa, if they hadn’t already, crumbled collectively; suspect the stinging precision of those first four deliveries, and the perceived futility of any effort to counter Ashwin did the Proteas in. Elgar fell on the fifth delivery, chopping on to the stumps. In the blink of an eye, South Africa folded from 11/2 to 12/5. Ashwin had removed the ground beneath their feet. They were in freefall. Tom Petty was singing. This was Rock ‘n’ Roll cricket. And an off-spinner was on lead guitar.
Ashwin-2015 version is a bowler with loads of smarts. He’s a man with an awareness of his craft. Ashwin knows. Not just what he can do, but what he should do. When. How. To each batsman. There is the enjoyment that comes more with setting up a batsman than knocking him over. Quite often with sameness as opposed to the variations he would succumb to earlier. Ashwin confessed he had not bowled the carom ball to AB de Villiers in the series. He did in the second innings however. He nailed a hopping de Villiers in the crease. Plumb.
Speaking with Anil Kumble after the match, there was a mutual admiration scarcely seen between two Indian spinners before on TV. A straight shooting Kumble, often miserly with his praise, was impressed and didn’t bother hiding it. How could he, Ashwin had 12 wickets in the match, 24 in the series, and way too many this year – 55 in eight Tests. Oh, and that’s the most by any bowler this year.
Now imagine if Ashwin can sort out this batting. He’s back to batting before Amit Mishra for starters, how long before he adds to those two hundreds? It’s still early days but if the bowling form and fitness continue, an even greater role in the team beckons. Already Ashwin has all the answers, be it during the match or after it. Question is, can he like Zaheer Khan before him, become the bowling captain, lead not just the spinners but the seamers too, and help Virat Kohli set fields? Can he be inspirational to the others as he has been to himself – how far does Ashwin want to take this team? Does he know? Chances are, he has some very good clues.
India’s unsung heroes
The flair starts at four when Virat Kohli walks in, followed by Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma. In dodgy conditions at the VCA in Nagpur, it was the top three that made the ugly runs. In the first session of the first day, it’s sometimes easy to overdo either caution or carefree: the Murali Vijay-Shikhar Dhawan partnership added 50 in 14 overs, and Hashim Amla only brought the spinners on in the eighth over. Vijay’s 40 is part of urban legend, the highest score in the match. Dhawan followed his 12 with a 39 in the second dig; looked so comfortable he even attempted a reverse sweep to be dismissed. Vijay’s match tally: 45, Dhawan’s 51.
At three, Cheteshwar Pujara put a few loose ones from Tahir away and trekked to 21. In the second innings, he treated himself to some long hops from Duminy and made it to 31. His match tally of 52 was the second highest after Duminy’s 54.
Along with the top order, the lower order of Saha, Jadeja and Ashwin served as the perfect bookends for India’s glorious middle order – they scrapped from 125/6 in head-spinning conditions to 215/9. Saha stuck it out for over two and a half hours and 106 deliveries for his 32. He is a veteran of 10 Tests.
Did the Hashim Amla-Faf du Plessis partnership overstay its welcome? At 58/4, when AB de Villiers fell, South Africa were still 251 runs behind with over two days and two sessions to go. They had two options in front of them 1) Go for it, self-destruct and wrap up way before tea 2) Defend without a care in the world as you would in the nets (akin to yet the opposite of how tail-enders throw their bats at everything in a lost cause). While the Amla-Faf hermit hut in the centre lasted 46.2 overs, it scored only 72 runs. Even though South Africa lost by 124 runs, they still outscored India in the second innings by 12 runs. They batted nearly 90 overs to India’s 46.
It was that one over from Ashwin which led to a collective South African brain freeze; and a first innings deficit of 136 runs.
Amla has confessed to having a few so far in the series, and du Plessis has outdone himself with his thoughtlessness. When the batsmen best suited to the conditions had given up long before, a pitch that turns from Day 1 can only take so much blame. More than the pitches so far, a clueless AB de Villiers and an overreliance on Hashim Amla cost them the series. Weak opening stands, way too many injuries haven’t helped either, but an unwillingness to bowl Imran Tahir early on has been baffling. When he did come on, he pocketed Dhawan in the 27th over, Kohli in the 29th, Rahane in the 31st and Saha in the 35th. By then however, India was already well over 200 runs ahead and the match was lost.
Regardless of the Feroz Shah Kotla pitch, quite a few things will change for the better; Tahir will bowl earlier, du Plessis will bat higher up, Amla will score runs. Who knows, South Africa could even win a match. But for that they’ll have to go past Ashwin first.PS: Big difference between ODI and Test series: Ashwin's availability.