“The choice of the lone spinner in foreign conditions should not be as axiomatic as it was made out to be at the beginning of this tour”
The Lord’s Test of 2014 was one of the most fascinating ones. The two sides went neck and neck, all the way till lunch on the final day, the sight advantage oscillating like a temperamental pendulum with short amplitude but incredible frequency.
Ravindra Jadeja, who had played his part in restricting England with 2 for 46 from 18.5 overs, had come in with the match in the precarious balance, the lead less than 200, 6 wickets down. And he had essayed a spectacular 68, in just 57 balls, blasting 9 boundaries in the process. It was a crucial, crucial innings that tilted the match back India’s way as it hovered on knife’s edge. It also witnessed the celebration of the Indian all-rounder, with the bat swung around his body like a flashing sword. It did go a long way in engineering the Indian victory.
There was also the little bit of drama of James Anderson clashing with him at Trent Bridge in the previous Test. As a result some of the audacious swipes at the swing merchant, some of them executed from well down the wicket, a lot of which just about eluded the fielders and fell in no man’s land. The knock was spectacular, pivotal, but far from perfect.
At The Oval during the current 2018 Test, Jadeja scripted another telling-innings. Coming in at a tottering 160 for 6 in response to 332, he essayed an unbeaten 86, carrying the side to 292. The bat went through the celebratory sword movements yet again. But there were differences.
That Jadeja of 2014 was 25, he had played just 9 Tests prior to the Lord’s encounter. His bowling was characterised by astute use of the home pitches and pin-point accuracy elsewhere. But his batting was laced with impetuosity, a tendency to throw caution loosely into the winds at the slightest provocation, or even without any.
Now, he is 29. He is playing his 37th Test match, perhaps a few less than he should have. He has 1282 runs to his name at the time of writing, at an average of 31.26. In the last 20 Tests he averages 46.29 for 787 runs.
During the same time, he has 104 wickets at 22.85, leaking runs at a miserly 2.40 per over.
These are sensational figures. If the media and the fans were a bit more aware of the value of numbers in the game, Jadeja would have been hailed as a sensational all-rounder. Instead, he has to make do as the second-choice spinner when the team travels abroad.
In the four years since 2014, his batting has improved tremendously. He had often been trolled and ridiculed because of his three triple hundreds on the placid Rajkot track. People had wondered why the results were not translated into the real world of Test cricket.
But, as I have underlined, during the last 20 Tests, his bat has been rather eloquent. He has cut the risks out of his approach, has used the horizontal willow more often and has eschewed unnecessary risks unless the situation merits such. That has brought him results in the hard currency of runs. He has scored at a healthy average, with his inherent positive approach enabling him to keep the scorers busy.
All this was fully in evidence as he essayed his brilliant unbeaten 86. Never once did he release himself from restraint and try to bring off strokes out of the coaching manual. Even when he was batting with the tail, he was perfectly in control, not fidgety even when singles were cut off. When he attacked it was through pure cricketing strokes. The flashy back cut, the cheeky steer, the grammatically correct hooks and pulls, and some firm drives. He hit his old friend, Anderson, for a magnificent six. But even that was essayed with the straightest of bats.
Yes, it was a fantastic innings, which brought India within 40 runs of the England total. At one time a deficit of 120 or so was looming.
But, while we revel in his rear-guard heroics, let us not forget his bowling. He sent down 30 overs in the first innings, patiently settling into a groove, giving India the first wicket and the last and two in between.
4 for 79 and 86 not out is rather incredible for someone who was not picked for the first four Tests.
Should he have been picked?
Hindsight, as they say, is always perfect. After all, Ravichandran Ashwin did come to England with the reputation of being arguably the best slow bowler of the world.
Yet, there are some arguments for Jadeja, especially when we consider Test matches on foreign soil.
Overall Ashwin’s 327 wickets at 25.59 look scintillating, more so when seen adjacent to his 2289 runs at 29.72. But Jadeja’s 175 wickets at around 23 apiece seem as brilliant if not more, alongside 1282 runs at 31.26.
Now let us do a deep-dive on the records.
We spoke about the last 20 Tests of Jadeja, starting with the series against New Zealand in September 2016. His numbers are 104 wickets at 22.85, and 787 runs at 46.29. Ashwin, in contrast, has played 26 Tests in the same period, picking up 134 wickets at 26.16 and scoring 850 runs at 24.28.
One can argue that the 11 Tests Ashwin has played in the SENA countries during this period have messed up the figures a bit. He has taken just 33 wickets at 38.18, with no five wicket hauls in these Tests. For Jadeja, since he is the second choice spinner in these unhelpful conditions, this is his first Test in such countries since the 2014 England tour.
However, overall Ashwin has 42 wickets in the SENA countries in 15 Tests, at 46.02. Jadeja has captured 22 in 8 Tests at 42.00. Nothing much separating the two, one may say.
But there are a few things to note. Jadeja has not played Tests in the SENA countries since 2014, and he has matured tremendously as an overall cricketer since then. If we bring the all-round perspective, his batting average of 29.41 is rather ahead of Ashwin’s 25.66 in these conditions. And his economy rate of 2.69 is way better than Ashwin’s 3.05.
The last point is particularly significant. While the wickets in India ensure that a spinner with reasonable skill taste success almost as soon as he starts to bowl, it is quite different in the arduous countries of England, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. There the spinner has to be patient, wait for the results.
It was evident in Southampton, as well as in other Tests in the recent past, that Ashwin tends to get flustered when things don’t happen. He tries too many variations, he bowls faster, changes angles and speedway too often.
Jadeja is a more patient customer. He settles into a groove and is more likely to keep it tight and purchases his wickets through the virtue of patience. That is definitely a major, major plus that tour selection panels should keep in mind.
On unhelpful wickets, patience is the key. And in this regard, Jadeja seems to be better equipped than Ashwin.
And finally, but critically, there is the dimension of fielding. Ashwin comes across as a liability in the field, has to be hidden away at mid-off or in the far corner of long leg. Jadeja is one of the best all-round fielders in the world, equally at home in the slips and the covers.
Perhaps all this will be seen as a bit harsh on Ashwin, reaction to his recent unimpressive showing. But it cannot be ignored that Jadeja does have plenty of arguments in his favour.
The choice of the lone spinner in foreign conditions should not be as axiomatic as it was made out to be at the beginning of this tour.
(The figures are updated to the start of England’s second innings)