IPL 2018: The rise and fall of Ravichandran Ashwin
Sometimes, it is easy to point to an exact moment in time and say - "This is when everything started to go downhill". That moment for Ravichandran Ashwin during this edition of the IPL came on May 8, 2018.
Chasing 159 against the Rajasthan Royals, Chris Gayle missed a flick off a ball down the leg side and got himself stumped in the first ball of the 3rd over. Taking everyone by surprise, Punjab's captain - Ravichandran Ashwin - walked out to take strike.
It was the 10th game for the Kings XI Punjab, who had won 6 of the previous 9 matches, including 5 of the first 6. The Kings XI were performing well and beyond anyone's expectation, mainly thanks to their captain.
After the Chennai Super Kings decided against retaining their star spinner in this year's auction and then subsequently opting out of bidding for the Chennai-based offie, Ashwin's services were snapped up by an excited KXIP and Preity Zinta.
When he was handed over the captaincy, ahead of fan favorite Yuvraj Singh and the experienced David Miller, not many were fully on board with the idea. Bowlers are rarely handed the captaincy these days, and Ashwin didn't have the experience either.
It was considered an experiment bound to fail, but the doubters could not have been more wrong during the first half of the season.
Despite having a middle order that might as well have not existed at all, Punjab began the tournament in style. Over the course of the first 6 games, they beat both CSK and SRH (who would go on to claim the first two spots on the table) as well as Delhi Daredevils twice. Their only loss came against the Royal Challengers.
It was mainly thanks to their two openers, KL Rahul and Chris Gayle, who scored freely, and Andrew Tye, Ankeet Rajpoot and Mujeeb Ur Rahman who castled batsmen with their web of deception.
These strengths completely overshadowed some very glaring chinks in their armor - the disastrously poor form of Yuvraj Singh (and Manoj Tiwary who was his back-up), the lack of quality fast bowlers not named Tye, forcing them to become over-dependent on spin, and the drought of runs from No.3 through No.6.
To be fair, Ashwin thrived with what he had in hand - his juggling of spinners during the early stage of the tournament invited much praise from fans and pundits alike. He was even on course to becoming the captain of the tournament, alongside stalwart Dhoni and Kane Williamson.
Then came the ill-fated night against the Royals. Ashwin's promotion up the order ended up being a suicidal move - Gowtham's wildly spinning ball hit the leg stump and the captain was back in the hut for nothing.
Punjab went on to lose the match, as well as the next four games - conceding 245 against the Kolkata Knight Riders, getting all-out for 88 against RCB, and then losing out to the Mumbai Indians in a close encounter to surrender all hopes of entering the playoffs.
5 losses in the last 5 matches of a tournament is never an easy thing to digest, especially after starting the journey in the way Punjab managed to. Intertwined with the team's fortunes was also their captain's - what Ashwin giveth, Ashwin taketh away.
This has also not been a great tournament for him as a bowler. 10 wickets in 14 innings, with an economy of 8 is hardly anything to write home about. In the end, Ashwin's new chapter in life away from Chennai did not get off to the brightest of starts.
Sehwag and Co. have a lot of things to figure out by the time the next season rolls in - first they need to get in a decent fast bowler who can share the duties with Tye with consistently. Then, they will have to figure out the massive dumpster fire that is their middle order.
They will have to find good enough players so that Ashwin is never tempted to throw himself under the bus at No.3 ever again. Finally, they should stick with him as captain - given the right tools, Ashwin has the shrewdness to lead the team.