A few weeks ago, when Ravichandran Ashwin was not licking his wounds at being incessantly left out of India’s Test playing eleven against England, he was rejoicing a return to the T20I fold – after more than four years in the wilderness.
At the time, it seemed an inspired move, considering Ashwin has probably been at his best as an international bowler over the past couple of years. He has seemed better equipped to handle adverse conditions.
That, combined with his itch to prove people wrong and show that conventional finger-spinners still warrant a place in T20 cricket, meant that thousands of people had begun pinning their hopes on Ashwin.
Since then, however, the wave of optimism has plateaued spectacularly. Not because a lot of cricket has transpired in that period but also because Ashwin – who was looked upon as the solution to most quandaries, has only ended up opening a different pandora’s box of problems altogether.
Over the next month, that might be something that worries the Indian cricket team too. For now, though, it is a headache the Delhi Capitals could well have done without, especially with a defining clash against the Kolkata Knight Riders beckoning in Qualifier 2 of the Indian Premier League.
More than a decade ago, when Ashwin broke onto the scene with the Chennai Super Kings, he seemed a bowler adroit enough to hold his own, irrespective of the situation and the kind of batters in front of him. Quite often, he dug deep into his bag of tricks and almost always pulled out the right delivery to outfox the batters.
In the process, he gained quite a reputation and was even India’s go-to bowler during the early 2010s, with MS Dhoni (his CSK skipper too) utilizing him brilliantly.
In the past few years, though, Ashwin has deterred from the aspects that made him successful in the first place. During the early 2010s, the spinner regularly relied on his drift, dip and guile to deceive batters. He was also very content to keep bowling his stock ball (the off-spinner) before using the carrom ball as the variation.
During the current season alone, Ashwin has seemed hell-bent on wanting to bowl as many variations as humanly possible in the space of six balls. He has tried the off-spinner, the under-cutter, the over-spin off-spinner, the carrom ball, the carrom ball from wide of the crease and has even bowled balls where his follow through ends up in front of the umpire.
Ravichandran Ashwin has not bowled his full quota of overs thrice in UAE
The Capitals have, unsurprisingly, not been overjoyed with Ashwin’s constant chopping and changing – something that might have even led to a lack of trust. In fact, in the 7 games DC have played in the UAE leg so far, the veteran has bowled his quota of four overs only four times.
On other occasions, Rishabh Pant has had to rely on the likes of Marcus Stoinis (against Sunrisers Hyderabad), Ripal Patel (against the Royal Challengers Bangalore) and Tom Curran (against CSK). That, though, has come at the cost of the Capitals’ team balance, who in their pursuit of accommodating a fail-safe bowling option for Ashwin, have seemed a batter light.
In the Qualifier against CSK, the Capitals opted for Tom Curran, despite the Englishman’s limitations as a batter. To make up for it, they had to then deploy Axar Patel at No.4 just to lengthen their batting order and ensure that Rishabh Pant and Shimron Hetmyer weren’t expendable during the first half of the innings.
Additionally, there has been a reluctance to bowl Ashwin against right-handers, which seems a bit of a paradox initially considering his greatness but makes complete sense considering how he has bowled this season.
Against right-handed batters, the off-spinner averages 97 (yes, this is not a mistake) and has taken only two wickets. One of those scalps, interestingly enough, was Robin Uthappa – a batter who tore Ashwin to shreds in the Qualifier. The economy rate, meanwhile, hovers around the 8.2-run mark.
When confronting left-handed batters, the corresponding economy rate is considerably lower (6.3 as opposed to 8.21). However, the wickets tally is relatively barren, with Ashwin having only accounted for 3 left-handed batters.
Thus, a case could be made that the off-spinner is perhaps not bowling to his true potential. And, as much as he would like to say that he doesn’t always look for wickets in T20 cricket and that this is his role, five wickets throughout an edition is probably not what DC or the Indian cricket team would’ve been hoping for.
More tellingly, though, there have been glimpses lately of Ashwin being rattled. Remember, the veteran rarely gets flustered and usually performs at his best when backed into a corner. Over the past few games, however, that doesn’t particularly seem to be the case.
Against CSK, there was an instance when Ashwin deliberately bailed out of his bowling action, just to see if Ruturaj Gaikwad was advancing down the track. Moments later, Gaikwad pulled out of his stance and made Ashwin wait.
That wasn’t the end of it. In the next over the DC bowler bowled, he repeated the entire process – perhaps to prove that he was a step ahead of the batter. Gaikwad didn’t react this time but the lack of focus meant that Ashwin was then carted for a boundary and a maximum by Robin Uthappa.
While there is no law that specifying that Ashwin’s actions were illegal or that they weren’t in the “spirit of the game”, it certainly said a lot about where the off-spinner is at currently.
He wants to steal a march on the batters – something that he has always been renowned for. Yet, the lack of wickets and the lack of trust shown in him by the DC top brass has left Ashwin a little perturbed – so much so that he’s not banking on the elements that made him a household name in the first place. Instead, he has been furiously rummaging for a solution that is simply not available.
From a broader perspective, nothing would please the DC and the Indian faithful more than Ashwin bowling at the peak of his powers. In red-ball cricket, that has been the case for the past couple of years too.
In white-ball cricket, though, a bit of ring-rust and a lack of clarity on what could work is probably weighing him down. The fact that there have been several question marks over his recent inclusion hasn't helped either.
Having said that, the off-spinner remains one of the more intelligent cricketers on the circuit and has all the ingredients to storm back into form. He can also single-handedly shape where the Qualifier between DC and KKR ends up. In fact, it seems imperative that Ashwin puts his best foot forward against KKR, especially if DC harbor ambitions of ending their IPL hoodoo.
Remember, Ashwin has a string of left-handed batters to test himself against – that too on a Sharjah surface that has aided slower bowling and has not allowed batters to be as free-flowing as they would want. It could still work, you know.
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Yet, for the excitement and frenzy that was generated when Ashwin was included in India’s T20 World Cup squad, it seems that he is back to square one. And, as has often been the case with Ashwin, he has to now answer his critics, all over again!