“Ashwin has improved by ages and the competition he talked of has already begun”
Ravichandran Ashwin is a wily old fox. Rubbishing opinions that he should try and learn from Lyon, Ashwin had flaunted his tempestuous self in front of the media few days before the Test, almost smirking away at the question and commenting, “What can I learn from Lyon? Probably just drop the ball in the right areas and probably as the series goes on look forward to a good competition.”
The arrogant tone hides the homework done. It would almost have resulted in some media bashing had Ashwin not turned up and picked three of the four left-handers in Australia’s top seven on day 2. The first question slyly masks how he put the second remark, one which he religiously adhered to on day two – “put the ball in right areas.”
When Ashwin toured Australia in 2014/15, he was ridiculed for trying too many things and bowling a limited-overs line and length. He took 12 wickets in 5 innings but more importantly looked to out-pace the pace bowlers and bowled quickly with 46% of his deliveries over 88kmph according to CricViz. He was also on the shorter side much more than Lyon whose 81% of balls are either on a good (43%) or full length (38%). Ashwin’s full length until today in the country was a mere 22%.
At Edgbaston, Ashwin had first shown signs of overcoming his SENA blues when he ripped past the defence of Alastair Cook twice but a groin injury prevented him from showcasing that kind of form in the fourth Test – which he ideally shouldn’t have played with that injury – and Jadeja who came in and stole the show in the fifth Test was suddenly the no.1 spinner in the side according to many.
The change though had been instilled into Ashwin. He knew what he had to do. The homework was done and whatever he showcased on the outside, Nathan Lyon’s success in the country was one to watch and learn from – that he did knowingly or unknowingly. At Adelaide, he landed 28% of the balls full, he was also evidently slower through the air which enabled him to get drift back into the batsman.
A slight change in pace and length was all Ashwin needed apparently. You could sense the Aussie left-handers thinking twice about leaving the ball because of the drift he was generating. There were awkward fends and pre-meditated airy drives but the big break came when Marcus Harris, who had been very assured against everyone but Ashwin, inside edged one onto the pads and the catch lobbed up for silly point to pouch.
Ashwin had pouched one. Post lunch break, you could see the spring in Ashwin’s steps. He manoeuvred the field with authority, packed the off-side field confidently and focused on the one channel relentlessly – very old-school, very consistent and very much Test match like spin bowling. This wasn’t the Ashwin we had come to know in these conditions. He sported black shades and his combed back hair barely moved an inch in the light breeze, much like his unwavering focus. He bowled ball after ball in the same area and soon started finding the ones that spit up. Shaun Marsh gifted him a wicket and he nipped out the gutsy Usman Khawaja with a peach.
At 87 for 4, Australia were staring down and the unlikely hero for India – amidst all the hue and cry about their seamers – was Ashwin. He had nailed Nathan Lyon’s first lesson – bowl slow, generate drift and land consistently fuller, the Australian pitches would take care of the rest. That Ashwin did to perfection against the left-handers, three of whom he nipped out soon.
Then came the tussle with Peter Handscomb, according to many, one of Australia’s best players of spin after Steven Smith. Ashwin’s weapon against the right-handers was rough India’s pace bowlers had created outside the off-stump. Ashwin targeted that and forced Handscomb to go back. But the Australian was growing in confidence and soon he was stepping out to prevent Ashwin from hitting the rough. The length shortened but the pace remained same as Handscomb milked the off-spinner fairly comfortably.
Ashwin failed to find the rough often enough and wasn’t really assured of his plans against the right-hander, a habit for him in SENA countries this year. Of his 21 wickets in the year, just four are of right-handers. The 17 other wickets he had taken in South Africa, England and Australia today were all southpaws. This is probably where he needs to go back to the Lyon book and turn over to chapter two – a lesson in using bounce and varying pace smartly.
Lyon’s strength is his height. Yet Ashwin is 0.7 inches taller than Lyon. The difference is how Lyon uses it. Even he lands it fuller and turns it, Lyon makes sure he has the right-hander in uncomfortable positions. This is done by landing on the rough quicker to prevent him from stepping out too much and turning it sharply back into the right-hander. The field, of course, complements the plan. There would be a leg-slip and a short-leg waiting for the catch.
Ashwin, on the other hand, is more off-side-ish to the right-handers. He has learnt the art of slowing it up but like against Handscomb today, on a slow surface, he gave the right-hander too much time to judge his options. He was also inclined to bowl well outside the off-stump with the turn, taking it on or around off-stump. On the contrary, Lyon rips it near the leg-stump and sometimes even comes around the wicket to make the right-hander wary about the one that goes with the arm. Ashwin had the rough to play with today and hence didn’t have to go around the stumps but he had to be more at Handscomb’s body.
There is evidence to suggest the Lyon method works – 92 of his 141 Test wickets in Australia are right-handers. Just 18 of them are without involving the fielder. Just one of them was stumped. Lyon trusts his close-in catchers and generates more chances than most off-spinners. It is a queer method, one that probably won’t work as much in the sub-continent which is probably why he averages 49.11 there. But in Australia, it is gold.
Ashwin has improved by ages and the competition he talked of has already begun. If Lyon bowled 28 overs on day 1, Ashwin bowled 33. He gave fewer runs away, picked more wickets and appeared really threatening but he would have to pray hard for Australia to field as many left-handers every time or sit down and go through Lyon’s chapter two. For now, chapter one would suffice to break the current partnership at least, the one between two southpaws.