Ravichandran Ashwin: Yo-yoing from Worcestershire to Chennai
Ashwin's extended 'rest' from India's limited-overs plans may put the focus on his Test game more than ever before.
Ravichandran Ashwin was back in Chennai for Tamil Nadu's 2016-17 Ranji opener. He was back to the place where all of it would have begun for the off-spinner and where MS Dhoni had spotted him during the IPL and said, "This guy will play for India." That Ashwin did play for India - and how - is for everyone to see. Given India's penchant for spin bowling, it is fairly obvious that the 'next big thing' could as well be a spin bowler, if not a batsman. That he's been outsmarted by a pair of wrist spinners barely out of their teens and has been made to 'rest' way more than he would have liked to is an aberration.
Notwithstanding that, Ashwin was back to where he belonged. In the first match against Andhra at home, after an ordinary show with the bat in the first innings - something that was shared by his India teammates Abhinav Mukund and Murali Vijay - the 31-year-old picked up four Andhra wickets to put some brakes on the visitors' reply to Tamil Nadu's first-innings score of 176. Nothing extraordinary, really, in that. A seasoned off-spinner running through an inexperienced first-class team. Things seemed normal, for once.
It was in the second innings, however, that the problems - those which had been brewing in the pot for a while - resurfaced for him. As Andhra decided to go for the kill in their chase of 218 on the fourth day, Ashwin felt the heat. He was taken for 92 runs in his 16 overs in return for two wickets. Just like he had been taken for runs in ODI cricket since the beginning of 2016 - his bowling average of 55.73 and economy rate of 5.93 in this period bear testimony to that.
Tamil Nadu managed a near escape in the game, which would have pleased their most valuable player. He didn't have much time to rest, though. The next day he was off to Bangalore to take the yo-yo test, which has been made to look like the litmus test for a cricketer's eligibility for the team.
The same day, he tweets out: "Been a good trip to Bangalore, yo yo test done and dusted. Now #backtothegrind #RanjiTrophy2017 #teamtamilnadu"
Ever since the team management's impetus has shifted on fielding and the mandatory yo-yo test - although if fielding has become as important a criteria for team selection as it has been made out to be, a few selections can still be questioned - it has been made to look like a factor big enough to keep a player in or out of the side.
Ashwin, a man who by his own admission respects the system that has been put in place, passed this hurdle - if it is seen as one - with flying colours.
"I am a man for systems and any system put in place, I would strive my level best to try and match up to it. Every leader has his own vision of how to bring the team about. This is the vision of the current leadership group and it’s important to respect it," he had said about the yo-yo test.
But the bigger test, the one that would, perhaps, pave the way for his comeback to international limited-overs cricket, still remained. 10 wickets in 11 ODIs over the past two years, wherein he completed his quota of 10 overs on only five occasions could mean several things. It could speak of the captain's depleted trust in his most experienced bowler, or it could speak of Ashwin's inability to adapt to the changing routines of white-ball cricket.
After a decent outing against Tripura in the second game of the season, Ashwin was at the receiving end once again, against Mumbai, this time at the hands of a cricketer who, just like Ashwin had during his pre-India days, got everyone talking about how soon would he make his India debut. As it turned out, the debut came immediately after the match.
The 22-year-old Shreyas Iyer led the barrage of boundaries that made Ashwin's figures inflate to 0/110 from 26 overs in the second innings, as Mumbai went tooth-and-nail to neutralize Tamil Nadu's first-innings lead. Just like the newly-inducted Fakhar Zaman had taken the game to him at the Oval in India's most important ODI of 2017.
It isn't that Ashwin hadn't been working hard to find the reasons behind his 'extended rest' and work on his game, focussing particularly on performing outside the subcontinent. Two five-wicket hauls for Worcestershire in the second division of the County Championships and a fifty meant that his move to county cricket was fairly successful.
Although, it can be questioned whether Ashwin was challenged in the same way by division two teams as he would have been while playing against England at Lord's. And while that stint was successful and had raised expectations from the ace spinner, his spells back home - on pitches he converted into graveyards for visiting batsmen, sans Steve Smith in Pune - haven't been as commanding.
Ashwin would still be, in all likelihood, an automatic choice for the home Tests against Sri Lanka, and he should, just like he had when India crossed the Indian ocean to play the Lankans earlier this year, be expected to be the strike bowler and win matches for the team. He may also be on the flight to South Africa thereafter and it would be there that the reincarnated Ashwin - who until recently was at the top of the ICC Rankings for bowlers in Tests - would be put to yet another test.
These tests have come at a time when a bowler, or any cricketer for that matter, is supposed to be at his peak. While Ashwin has been at his peak in Test cricket since the Bangladesh tour of 2015, his slide in the limited-overs formats has been astounding.
With India relishing their newly-found mojo in ODI cricket - having not lost a bilateral series since January 2016 - and returns that the wrist spinners have provided, Ashwin might walk into the Sri Lanka Tests knowing well, perhaps for the first time in his career, that there'd be more eyes on him than ever. It would soon be known as to how big an impact yo-yoing from Chennai to Worcestershire and back has made on his game.