R Ashwin in South Africa: India’s lesson in balance going forward

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Players talk about shutting the outside noise but if it does reach him, Ravichandran Ashwin will be a touch disappointed that whenever India falter abroad, the narrative somehow becomes about him.

But it never becomes about him when he goes to Australia, the most anti-finger spin country in the world, and wins India a Test series. Or when he tops the averages and economy rates among spinners travelling to the mighty SENA countries.

In the context of South Africa, the narrative from the series that India bitterly lost 2-1 to what still remains the most inexperienced and vulnerable South African side, is that Ashwin failed as the team’s No.7 batter and their only spinner.

That, in making only 89 runs over six innings and taking just three wickets at 60.66, Ashwin was India’s big letdown in the series.

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Ashwin is used to misdirected criticism, so he perhaps would shrug it off. But beyond the outside noise, there is something to be noted here and that is India’s incorrect usage of him in those conditions. The much-needed context.

Ravichandran Ashwin

India overburdened Ashwin the batter in South Africa. pic courtesy: Twitter

India batted him at No.7, expecting him to fulfil the spin allrounder’s role that Ravindra Jadeja plays, when there has been a difference of chalk and cheese in their numbers with the bat over the last four years. Since the start of 2017, when injuries first started to get to Ashwin, he averages 19.03 over 58 innings with the bat. A period where Jadeja averages 40.81 with the bat and has emerged as world’s premier Test allrounder, averaging 25.56 with the ball.

Ashwin played an epic Test-saver at SCG last year, scored an exceptional hundred on a rank-turner at Chepauk and made two pivotal thirties in a close-fought draw in Kanpur. But his average for the year still stood at 23.66. If India thought he had a batting revival to his career, they got this one woefully wrong, which again, makes it more of the think-tank’s fault than the player’s. He is a No.8 overseas, not No.7 anymore.

India expected too much out of Ashwin the batter in South Africa

Ashwin conjured up a priceless 46 in the first-innings at Jo’burg to keep India in the game but averaged 14.83 over six innings in the series. This writer was one of the first to see this coming. The moment Jadeja was injured for the tour, the only way for India to retain the five-bowler combo for the Test series was to give young Washington Sundar a go at No.6 or 7.

Neither Ashwin nor Shardul Thakur who played invaluable knocks at the Gabba and The Oval last year, but averaged less than 10 over six innings in South Africa, are your No.7 overseas. In Sundar, India could’ve fielded a batting allrounder with a solid enough technique to face fast-bowling but also an off-spinner who can chip in with some tight overs.

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If not Sundar, an even safer bet would’ve been to play Hanuma Vihari as an extra specialist batter and use him in small bursts with his miserly part-time off-spin. But in expecting Ashwin to fulfil Jadeja’s void, India threw Ashwin so deep into the waters that his post-2017 avatar simply couldn’t swim up to the surface.

This was partly reflected in Ashwin’s own mindset at the crease. Throughout the series, Ashwin looked short of confidence in his defence facing Rabada and company, and tried to fetch as many as he could whilst he was there. He had a strike-rate of 80.18 with the bat but faced only 111 balls over six innings.

Making Ashwin, India’s SCG hero, believe he can’t defend his way to survival was one of South Africa’s big wins in this series. It gave them deeper openings into India’s batting and their thin tail, which is arguably the weakest tail among top Test sides.

There is a case to be made here that had Jadeja been around, either Ashwin wouldn’t have played this series entirely, with India currently heavily invested in Thakur, the ‘seam-bowling allrounder’, Or, if he had played it, he would’ve had a safer, more comfortable time batting at No.8 and bowled more second-innings overs when the tracks, even in the most seamer-friendly series, would’ve offered him at least something.

To judge Ashwin through his average and wickets in a series where he and Keshav Maharaj bowled a total of only 96.1 overs combined, and picked up only four wickets, across three Tests, is doing him gross injustice. Whenever Ashwin came onto bowl, India used him in small bursts, to provide their seamers a breather. A job that Ashwin did commendably well without anything on the surface to keep the batters quiet, conceding only 2.83 an over.

In England, when Jadeja was India’s sole spinner, he also averaged 45.33 with the ball but in excessively pace-friendly conditions, his economy rate of 2.21 helped India keep that end tight and rest and rotate their seamers throughout the series. So why was Jadeja the bowler lauded for his good work and Ashwin is being criticised for doing exactly the same in South Africa?

The general perception is that Jadeja is defensively a significantly better bowler than Ashwin, who is looked at as a more attacking option. Since the start of 2018, Ashwin’s economy rate of 2.51 is the best among world spinners in the SENA countries, marginally better than even Jadeja’s 2.59. That too over more Test matches. This is how perceptions blur our judgement.

But ultimately, this tour of South Africa is a lesson in balance for India going forward abroad. That, while they can entrust Ashwin to be their first-choice spinner overseas, he can’t be put into the same pedestal in the pecking order for all-rounders the moment Jadeja is absent and they are hell-bent on sticking with Thakur the bowling allrounder at No.8. He is India’s No.1 spinner. Just not its No.1 allrounder. Those days are gone, sadly.



A cricket writer by heart and profession. Currently at work for CricXtasy. Previously with Circle of Cricket. You can find him on Twitter @crickashish217