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Has Ravichandran Ashwin done enough to remain India's first-choice spinner overseas?

Ravichandran Ashwin celebrates after picking up the wicket of Steve Smith at Adelaide
Ravichandran Ashwin celebrates after picking up the wicket of Steve Smith at Adelaide
ANALYST
Modified 22 Dec 2020, 23:21 IST
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A day before the first Test between India and Australia at Adelaide, Ravichandran Ashwin is seen practicing in the optional net session. He explains to bowling coach Bharat Arun like an excited child what his bowling plans are going to be, especially against a world-class batsman like Steve Smith.

Cut to day two of the first Test, India have dropped Marnus Labuschagne twice and Steve Smith has just survived a close run-out call. Knowing the capability of the duo to bat India out of the Test, Virat Kohli brings Ravichandran Ashwin into the attack. The 34-year-old swiftly gets into the act and begins to set up Smith by applying overspin on the ball. On two occasions, Smith fails to reach the pitch of the ball but manages to negotiate it any way. 

Just then, Ravichandran Ashwin tricks him with a ball that holds its line due to sidespin and gets extra bounce from the pitch. The ball takes the edge of Smith's bat. Ajinkya Rahane, whose hands are as safe as houses, claims the catch at first slip and India get the big fish cheaply. Ashwin is ecstatic and celebrates in a style similar to that of veteran South African spinner Imran Tahir.

Ravichandran Ashwin's joy was not only because of the prized wicket, but also because it was the successful culmination of the hard yards he had put in, the way he had planned for days to get a batsman of Smith's stature out. Ashwin picked up three more wickets, that of Travis Head, Cameron Green and Nathan Lyon, and ended up with impressive figures of 4-55. 

Australia were bowled out for 191 and handed India a 53-run lead. What followed was probably India's worst batting performance in their Test history as they finished their second innings on 36 runs - their lowest ever total. Australia won the first Test comfortably by eight wickets and took a 1-0 lead in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

Team India will be without the services of Virat Kohli for the remainder of the Test series, as he will be heading back to India to attend the birth of his first child. The Men in Blue will also miss Mohammed Shami for the rest of the series, as he fractured his wrist while facing a short ball from Pat Cummins.

While players like KL Rahul, Shubman Gill, Mohammed Siraj, etc. might get a look into the Indian team, there were a few mentions about Ravindra Jadeja. The all-rounder suffered from a hamstring injury and a concussion blow in the first T20I against Australia, which ruled him out of the Adelaide Test. Not to forget, he was India's first-choice spinner in their last overseas tour away to the West Indies. 

What happens to him if he is fit? Does he replace Ravichandran Ashwin? Does Ashwin hold his place on the back of his first innings performance in Adelaide? These are some questions that need to be answered.

Many would say, "Why is there even a debate on whether Ravichandran Ashwin would hold his place or not? He is a world-class bowler.". 370 wickets in just 72 Tests, including 27 five-wicket hauls - these numbers are enough to justify his selection. However, the lack of consistent chances he has got overseas speaks volumes about the his ineffectiveness in foreign conditions.

Ravichandran Ashwin's promising start to his Test career

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Ravichandran Ashwin made his Test debut under MS Dhoni and picked up nine wickets against West Indies
Ravichandran Ashwin made his Test debut under MS Dhoni and picked up nine wickets against West Indies

Ravichandran Ashwin burst on to the international scene after success in the IPL for the Chennai Super Kings under MS Dhoni. Although he was a T20 specialist to begin with, he molded himself into an all-format bowler.

After he won the 2011 World Cup with the Indian team, Ravichandran Ashwin bagged nine wickets against West Indies at home on his Test debut. He also became the fastest Indian to reach 100 Test wickets, and managed the same in just 18 Tests. With this, he broke the record of Erapalli Prasanna.

Ravichandran Ashwin's sensational start to his Test career saw him play ahead of Harbhajan Singh as India's first choice spinner in the 2011-12 Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Australia. He soon became India's premier spinner both home and away. 

The beginning of Ravichandran Ashwin's decline overseas

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Ravichandran Ashwin has struggled to pick wickets consistently in SENA countries
Ravichandran Ashwin has struggled to pick wickets consistently in SENA countries

His next big Test overseas came in 2013 when India were facing South Africa at Johannesburg. The Men in Blue had done all the hard work by setting a mammoth target of 458 for the Proteas to chase down. All eyes were on Ravichandran Ashwin to provide India with the wickets on the final day. But that didn't happen as Ashwin went wicketless and South Africa almost pulled off an impossible chase.

This performance from Ravichandran Ashwin reduced the faith former Indian skipper MS Dhoni had in him as far as overseas conditions were concerned. In one of the interviews, Dhoni clearly stated Ravindra Jadeja had better ability to exploit the rough than Ashwin had. Thus, in the following tours of England and Australia in the year 2014, Ashwin was again in and out of the side and was not given consistent chances.

The rise of Ravichandran Ashwin - the all-rounder

Ravichandran Ashwin scored two centuries batting at No.6 against the West Indies in 2016
Ravichandran Ashwin scored two centuries batting at No.6 against the West Indies in 2016
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Ravichandran Ashwin seemed to have redeemed himself in India's away Test series against Sri Lanka where he picked up an outstanding 21 wickets in just three Tests and helped India win the series 2-1. He grew into an irreplaceable spinner in the longest format for India, thanks to some unbelievable performances at home.

In 2016, Ravichandran Ashwin unleashed his all-round abilities, batting at number six for India away against the West Indies. He scored two hundreds in that series. A bumper home season followed in which Ashwin established himself one of India's finest off-spinners ever.

Ravichandran Ashwin's fitness issues give Ravindra Jadeja an opportunity

Ravindra Jadeja celebrates after scoring a fighting half-century against England at the Oval
Ravindra Jadeja celebrates after scoring a fighting half-century against England at the Oval

Ravichandran Ashwin was eager to shake off the perception of being ineffective overseas, especially in the SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand, Australia) countries. However, he failed to maintain his fitness. With Kohli being an ardent believer of fitness as being one of the most important elements in a player, Ashwin again began to find himself in and out of the Indian team away from home.

In the fifth Test against England in 2018 at the Oval, an unfit Ravichandran Ashwin was replaced by Jadeja. The latter scored an important 86* and showcased his batting ability. Jadeja was decent with the ball as well and made a strong case for himself as India's first-choice spinner overseas.

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In the 2018-19 Border-Gavaskar Trophy, Ravichandran Ashwin again broke down after the first Test at Adelaide and was replaced by Jadeja. Playing the last two Tests, Jadeja scored some vital runs and picked up 7 wickets. He provided breakthroughs at crucial moments and was an unsung hero in India's first Test series win Down Under.

India's focus later shifted to the white ball with the all-important 2019 World Cup in sight. Ashwin had not been a part of India's white-ball plans since 2017 and hence had to wait a while for his next chance overseas. Although India got knocked out of the World Cup in the semifinal, Jadeja scored a brilliant half century under immense pressure, and proved he was as capable with the bat as he was with the ball.

Ravichandran Ashwin vs Ravindra Jadeja - the numbers game

Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin in action
Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin in action

The Test series in the Caribbean followed, and Kohli decided to play an in-form Jadeja ahead of Ashwin. This was despite Ashwin's fantastic record in the West Indies where he had an average of 58.75 with the bat in four Tests, and 17 wickets to his name.

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Ravichandran Ashwin might not have even been in India's playing XI for the Adelaide Test had Jadeja been fit. The 34-year-old has 116 wickets in 29 Tests overseas at an average of 30.69. Jadeja, on the other hand, has 56 wickets in 16 away Tests at an average of 34.62. While Ashwin's bowling numbers seem to be better than Jadeja's, it is the batting of Jadeja that has made the difference.

The southpaw has contributed consistently with the bat lower down the order, something Ravichandran Ashwin has failed to do. Ashwin has always believed in evolution and upgraded his bowling according to the changing needs of the game.

However, he hasn't been that great with the bat of late and it was evident in the Adelaide Test. Ashwin failed to score crucial runs in both innings and was dismissed cheaply. With Jadeja close to full fitness and the likes of Kuldeep Yadav too in the mix, Ravichandran Ashwin will have to perform consistently with both bat and ball to remain India's first-choice spinner overseas.

Published 22 Dec 2020, 23:21 IST
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