Why the Australians are wary of ‘cerebral spinner’ Ravichandran Ashwin on home grounds

Even after playing 88 Tests Ashwin's bowling armoury remains a sort of mystery for many foreign batters, especially lefties.

ByQaiser Mohammad Ali

Published Feb 09, 2023 | 8:28 AMUpdatedFeb 09, 2023 | 3:10 PM

Ravichandran Ashwin cricket

On 5 February, Ravichandran Ashwin, who reached the milestone of 450 Test wickets on Thursday, 9 February, tweeted: “My morning coffee came with this and I wonder who has done this.”

He was referring to a screenshot of his brief cricketing bio — actually, a meme — he had tagged with the tweet, reading: “Bowling style: Right-arm off-break? Right-arm leg-break?”

It is, indeed, the variety of deliveries the cerebral off-spinner Ashwin can bowl that is giving the visiting Australian team not just some food for thought, but made them extremely wary, if not paranoid, of him.

It is to the credit of 35-year-old Ashwin that even after playing 88 Tests (449 wickets at an average of 27.41), his bowling armoury remains a sort of mystery for many foreign batters.

And this “unknown weapon” in his arsenal could eventually prove India’s trump card in the home four-match Test series against Australia that began in Nagpur on 9 February.

Ashwin reaches 450 wicket milestone against Aussies

Ashwin has been the single most talked-about Indian player in the lead-up to the series, though master batsman Virat Kohli and a few others are no less a threat to the Aussies. However, Ashwin, who has now reached the milestone of 450 Test wickets with his dismissal of Alex Carey in the Nagpur Test, could probably be the biggest threat with the ball to Pat Cummins’s team, particularly its specialist batsmen.

The Aussies are taking Ashwin so seriously that they hired a greenhorn Baroda off-spinner, with a bowling action that is uncannily similar to Ashwin’s, for net practice at their short preparatory camp in Alur, near Bengaluru.

For the record, though, the hired off-spinner, 21-year-old Mahesh Virambhai Pithiya, has just begun his first-class career, and is an ardent Ashwin fan.

While the Australian cricket board never tried to keep the hiring of Pithiya a secret, vice-captain Steve Smith tried to downplay the issue.

“He’s just another off-spinner. Mahesh bowls in a similar style to Ashwin, we’ve had plenty of other off-spinners bowling to us as well. I don’t think we’re overthinking things,” he said in an understatement just ahead of the first Test in Nagpur.

But the reality, by all accounts, seems just the opposite.

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Variety makes Ashwin potent

Australian players, retired stalwarts, experts et al have spoken both warily and glowingly about Ashwin — and not without a reason — giving the impression that he is the most dangerous Indian player in their eyes.

And, as the seniormost spinner of the four picked — Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav, and comeback man Ravindra Jadeja being the others — for the first two of the four Tests, he deserves every accolade that comes his way.

Despite his comparative weaker wicket and average numbers overseas, Ashwin, who now has more than 450 wickets in Test cricket,  is a world-class bowler, without a doubt. Add his batting ability — he has five Test centuries and 13 half-tons — and his sharp brain, he makes a complete all-format package, from the IPL to five-day Test match cricket.

Exciting batsman Marnus Labuschagne looks ahead to the challenge of facing Ashwin, who was on the verge of the 450 wicket milestone before the Nagpur Test.

“What makes him great is his variety. For an off-spinner to have five or six deliveries is unheard of,” the South African born Aussie said, referring to the traditional off-spin, the doosra, the knuckle/carom ball, the slider, the top spinner, and the leg-break.

“So, for him to be able to change the seam angle where he is bowling at the crease, arm angle, wrist angles, all those sorts of stuff makes him so good.”

Smith, too, lauded Ashwin, the wily spinner.

“We know Ash is a very good bowler, particularly in these conditions, but all around the world. Of course, he will be a challenge for us, but hopefully, we have the tools in the kitbag to counter that,” he said in Nagpur, in honest appreciation of his rival who could be the biggest threat to him.

Left-hander Matt Renshaw, who faced Ashwin on Australia’s tour of India in 2017 and was once dismissed by him, admitted Ashwin would be hot to handle on the spin-assisting pitches in Nagpur, Delhi, Dharamsala and Ahmedabad.

“Ashwin is difficult to face. He is a smart bowler with a lot of variations and he uses them very well, but you do get used to him once you’ve faced him for a while. I think the big challenge from Ashwin and any off-spinner in spinning conditions to a left-hander is the LBW threat,” the 26-year-old said candidly.

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Bogeyman for left-handers

Ashwin is expected to play all four Tests of the series. And that is not good news, particularly for the left-handed batsmen for whom he is a nightmare. As luck would have it, the present Australian team has many lefties — David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Matt Renshaw, Travis Head, and Alex Carey — which should encourage Ashwin.

Out of Ashwin’s grand tally of 449 victims in Tests, 226 have been left-handers, and his average against them is an excellent 19.45. And on home pitches that suit his type of bowling, Ashwin is a much bigger threat to his rivals. Of the 312 wickets he has captured in India, 149 have been left-handers (average 18.68).

Off-spinner Nathan Lyon, part of the current Australian team, has dismissed 167 left-handers (24.11) out of his 460 wickets.

“Obviously everyone thinks about the one that turns and gets you caught at slip, but the big one is the LBW when it doesn’t spin. You just have to be ready for that one,” said a cautious Renshaw said about Ashwin’s lethal delivery.

But former Aussie captain Ian Chappell feels the touring batsmen would have to take the Ashwin factor out of their heads and get on with the game.

“I see Ashwin’s record. If you think you can play, you have got to think you can play Ashwin or whoever plays…and if Ashwin has a record of getting left-handers out, okay that’s a problem,” he told Cricinfo. “But it’s only really a problem if the left-handers think, ‘oh, hell. We’ve got to face Ashwin and he could get me out’.”

Ashwin starts with another clear psychological advantage. In the current Australian team, he has dismissed left-handed opener David Warner the most number of times: 10, out of which five were LBW decisions.

Steve Smith, a right-hander, and speedster Mitchell Starc, a left-handed batsman, on six occasions each. And he has dismissed off-spinner Nathan Lyon, a right-hander, five times while accounting for right-handed batsman Peter Handscomb and pacer Josh Hazlewood, a left-hander, thrice each.

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Delhi, Nagpur hunting grounds

Of the four venues of the series — Nagpur, Delhi, Dharamsala and Ahmedabad — Ashwin has played more often in Delhi and has also been most successful there. Also, he has also been part of Delhi Capitals, so he knows the Ferozeshah Kotla ground inside out.

No wonder he would be licking his lips in anticipation, despite the fact that Kotla is a small ground compared to the Jamtha Stadium in Nagpur and Ahmedabad.

Ashwin has bagged 27 wickets (average 20.11) in four Tests in Delhi while in Nagpur he has bagged 23 in three Tests, though at an excellent average of 17.09.

Nagpur is also memorable for him as his best innings analysis, amongst the four venues, has come there — seven for 66. The large outfield in Nagpur would encourage him, and his spin partners, to flight the ball, too.

Labuschagne identifies himself with Ashwin.

“There are a lot of similarities between us — we both love thinking about the game, we both love watching the game. I am excited for the chess game on the field, moving fielders around. He’s going to try to get me to hit in certain areas. It’s going to be a great contest,” he said of his friendly rival.

WTC final berth at stake

This series will be played not only for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, but its result will have a big impact on which teams reach the 2021-23 ICC World Test Championship (WTC) final, to be played in June at the Oval, London.

At the start of the series, Australia are placed atop the nine-team WTC table with 75.56 percentage points while India are second with 58.93 points. Sri Lanka are third with 53.33 points and South Africa are fourth with 48.72 points.

These two teams are also in the race for a spot in the final.

While for India and Australia, this is the last series of the WTC cycle, Sri Lanka have a two-Test away engagement against New Zealand and South Africa’s last engagement is a two-match home series against the West Indies.

“Leading Team India out onto the field of play at the WTC final would be special. We have grown and developed as a team during this competition and to be in with a chance of lifting the ICC Mace at the Oval in June, we know we first need to overcome a tough Australia side,” said India captain Rohit Sharma.

“The prospect of playing in the WTC final has been a big motivator for us over the last couple of years, more so now having missed out on over rates last time,” said Australia captain Pat Cummins.

“Winning a series in India is like an Ashes away series [win] but even more rare. It will be a career highlight, an era-defining series if we win out there.”

(The writer has covered cricket for over three decades, based in Delhi. He tweets at @AlwaysCricket)