“While the series was touted to be a battle between the fast bowlers of either side, Ashwin has surely broken the notion with an inspired showing at Edgbaston”
“Well bowled, Ashley. Adutha moonnu angeye podu. Ena panre pakalam. [Bowl the next three in the same area, let’s see what he does].”
Dinesh Karthik’s quips in Tamil to his Ranji teammate, Ravichandran Ashwin, did the rounds on social media for the unique nickname Ashwin had, possibly in Ranji circles before he made his India debut – Ashley. But the most important part of Karthik’s advice lay in what he told next. He was constantly inspiring the off-spinner, prompting him to bowl around the same area to force the batsmen into a mistake.
That’s exactly what Ashwin did. That’s exactly what he would be doing right through this Test series.
With England’s line-up loaded with seven left-handers, Ashwin was always going to be a factor. But little did the rivals expect them to give the hard, new Duke ball on a damp surface to their spinner!
In the first innings, Ashwin came on as early as the seventh over, tossed it up and used the stickiness in the damp surface to extract sharp turn. Before his second over was done, the off-spinner had ripped one past the defences of Alastair Cook and taken out his off-stump.
He followed it up with three more scalps – Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Stuart Broad. Buttler was deceived by the regulation off-break and missed a forward prod to be trapped in front. Stokes fell to a seemingly innocuous back of a length delivery. But yet again the damp surface meant Ashwin could force the ball to go slower after the pitching.
Damp surfaces, unlike common notion, are spinner-friendly to an extent. After India’s Champions Trophy final win over England on a damp, wet wicket at the same venue in 2013, Sunil Subramaniam, Ashwin’s bowling coach then, had explained why the surface being wet had helped the Indian spinners – Jadeja and Ashwin – who combined to take 4 wickets.
“The important thing that a spinner must do is to assess the conditions before drawing out a plan. In England, the air is thin. Under those circumstances what happens is, the ball comes out of a spinner’s hand a touch slower than what it would be in sub-continent. Therein lies the opportunity to deceive a batsman,” Sunil had told Deccan Chronicle then.
Ashwin, to his credit, had familiarised himself with the conditions in his county stint with Worcestershire. The first, and perhaps the most important, lesson he learned was to vary his pace in these conditions and use his body behind the ball to deceive batsmen in flight.
The damp surface helped him get grip and turn and he used it to his advantage, landing the ball on the seam consistently to reap maximum benefits. Rather than counter the drift in the air, the Tamil Nadu spinner used it to his advantage, varying his pace between 85-95kmph to generate gentle swing like drift. Combined with a quicker ball, it proved to be a completely different weapon in Ashwin’s armoury.
“Even over the last 12 to 18 months back home, I’ve spent a lot of time playing club cricket and all that sort of stuff,” the off-spinner had said. “I’ve been working on simplifying my action a bit, and making sure that I can get more body into the ball so that I can create something in the air. That’s what I did, and it worked really well.”
“When I came here for the county stint last year, the one thing I realised was the speed at which a spinner had to bowl here,” Ashwin said. “The wickets are extremely slow, even on the first day. You can have a bit of bounce, but if the pace is not right the batsmen have a lot of time to play the same ball on the front and the back foot. That’s something I realised very quickly when I came here.”
With his revamped bowling style, Ashwin proved to be a menace to England batsmen. He picked up the first three wickets to fall in England’s second innings, dismissing Cook with a similar delivery to the one he got in the first innings, forcing an outside edge off Keaton Jennings and befuddling Joe Root with a leg-slip.
His seven-wicket tally in the Test could be a statement for English batsmen who seen reluctant to use their feet or get behind the line of the ball. As the series progresses, Ashwin could prove to be a thorn in England’s flesh, particularly with them having four lefties in the top six.
There is no better way of playing spin than getting to the pitch of the ball and negating turn but to do that England will first have to work on their mental block against spin which would take time. For now, the best method seems to be to follow the Smith – Maxwell template from Ranchi. Huge strides forward and stepping out to put Ashwin off his length was what worked for the Aussie batsmen.
While the series was touted to be a battle between the fast bowlers of either side, Ashwin has surely broken the notion with an inspired showing at Edgbaston. He may not have won them the game but England’s batsmen were desperately lacking in confidence against him and this could prove to be a major factor in deciding the outcome of this series.