“He laid siege long enough to ensure his team won on points. Fittingly, he finished things off”
Ravichandran Ashwin had bowled a 75-over-old ball slow through the air in the first innings. It had landed on off-stump, or probably off-and-middle, and had turned into Pat Cummins, dogged in defence till then. Caught in two minds, Cummins had decided to leave it; the ball made past one pad but not the other and went between his legs but somehow missed the stumps.
Rishabh Pant wanted to appeal but was unsure exactly what for; he let it go.
Yes, the ball was doing things in the first innings, for both Nathan Lyon and Ashwin. Lyon continued in the second innings as well, getting one to shoot off Mitchell Starc’s ominous-looking footmarks every now and then, but batting against spin did not look as difficult.
The Indians were not overly bothered. The fact that they set Australia 323 and not something in the range of 380 had to do with their premature decision to slog. Lyon took 8/205 in the Test, but three of these wickets had come off slogs, one off an ambitious drive, and one off a reverse-sweep.
Australia has perennially been a graveyard for finger-spinners (Muttiah Muralitharan’s averages 62 here, Graeme Swann 53, and Harbhajan Singh 73). Before this Test Ashwin had taken 21 wickets in Australia, at 55.
Kuldeep Yadav is India’s wrist-spinner on the tour. Ravindra Jadeja, who had replaced Ashwin at The Oval in India’s previous overseas Test, had taken 7 wickets and scored an unbeaten 86.
Despite all that, India placed faith in their 300-wicket bowler. And Ashwin responded. Marcus Harris tried his best on debut, refusing to get bogged down, hitting Ashwin straight through the line for four before falling prey to a cat-and-mouse battle. Shaun Marsh was tempted to hit through a packed off-side field.
The problem was Usman Khawaja, who was either playing for the crease or stretching his foot enough to negate the turn. In the end he was made to think that he was close enough to smother the ball when he had not. It was a beautiful ball.
But you need to look at numbers beyond the wickets column for the complete story. In the first innings Ashwin bowled almost unchanged from the 12th over to the 84th before finally getting a respite. He finished with figures of 34-9-57-3. That is a wicket every 68 balls – hardly outstanding – but that nagging accuracy had ensured his wickets came at only 19 apiece.
One must remember that he did that all that on a day when the thermometer soared to 40°C. Murali Vijay, the fifth bowler, had bowled 55 overs in 59 Tests before Adelaide – for a solitary wicket. The fast bowlers, who had won them two Tests this year, needed a foil around which they would bowl. And Ashwin rose to the challenge.
But they – fans and critics alike – expected him to run through Australia in the fourth innings. This, on a pitch where he had to toil for his wickets and, as mentioned earlier, five of Lyon’s eight wickets were an outcome of high-risk shots.
Unfair? Perhaps, but you expect that from a contender for a spot in India’s All-Time Test XI. That is what greats are made of.
Ashwin got Aaron Finch caught-behind and Khawaja off a “brain fade” shot in the second innings. And then he waited. He bowled and bowled and bowled till he almost dropped dead. It was one of those days when the wickets did not come, so he decided to stick to the second-best option – to bowl through the day without giving runs away.
Ashwin ended up sending 44% balls bowled by India; 47% since he was introduced; and had a break for only two overs on Day Five – a day on which he conceded a solitary boundary. The commentators wanted him to be taken off, but Virat Kohli refused to switch to Plan B. The plan was simple – to cut down the flow of runs from one end to allow the fast bowlers to take turns.
Mind you, Ashwin was accurate but hardly defensive. He was at you for well over a day. You could not take risks against him (ask Khawaja). Not an inch was spared. His final figures read 52.5-13-92-3. He did not bowl out the Australians but ensured he outlasted them on patience.
A wicket off every 106 balls sounds ordinary, but Ashwin was hit for only five boundaries. Of these only ones came off his last 233 balls and none of his last 149.
India would have loved to see him finish things off in the fourth innings. He could not pull that off – but he made sure the fast bowlers kept gnawing into the batting line-up, bit by bit. He went for 1.74 an over in the fourth innings, allowing the pacers to go flat out; they could afford to go for 2.87 across 63 overs.
Since EAS Prasanna’s golden tour of 1967-68, the greatest performances by Indian spinners in Test cricket on Australian soil have all come against the teams of 1977-78 (hit by Kerry Packer) and 1985-86 (a team in transition).
Take these two tours away, and only one Indian has a match average better than Ashwin’s 24.83 here: Anil Kumble took 12 wickets at 23.25 at Sydney in 2003-04.
In this millennium, Ashwin’s 24.83 is the third-best average for a touring finger-spinner (fifth-best for any spinner) in a single Test in Australia; his match economy rate of 1.71 is the best for anyone with two wickets in a Test over the period; and only Kumble has bowled more balls, in the Sydney Test mentioned above.
The final numbers of 6 for 149 are excellent but not mind-boggling – though five of these wickets belonged to batsmen in the top five. Ashwin did not win on knockout this time, but he laid siege long enough to ensure his team won on points. Fittingly, he finished things off.