India skipper Virat Kohli may be the enforcer but former stalwarts Kapil Dev, VVS Laxman and Brett Lee are unanimous on who is India’s most valuable player --- offspinner Ravichandran Ashwin.
Ashwin will be India’s biggest weapon as they look to dominate at home this season with 13 Tests lined up in the next eight months. His batting could also be a big factor in India playing five specialist bowlers as they push to regain the No 1 Test ranking they ceded to Pakistan after briefly holding it.
The first match against New Zealand starting in Green Park on Thursday will set the tone. After the three-Test series against the Kiwis, India play five Tests against England and four against the Aussies with a one-off game against Bangladesh as well.
Two in one
“Ashwin is the most valuable player (in this India team). He is also always looking to improve, picking so many five-wicket hauls,” Laxman said at a promotional event for the NZ series.
“He is a gritty customer. He’s the most valuable in the bowling department, (also an asset in the) batting department and is part of the leadership group. And he is a great learner.”
Ashwin faced a crisis on the 2014 England Test tour, taking just three wickets in the 1-3 series loss. He was far from his best in the next series, to Australia, but gradually found his bearings, finishing with 12 wickets in four Tests though at an expensive average of 48.66. But he kept improving, adding 13 scalps at 25.38 to help India reach the 2015 World Cup semi-finals.
Solid and consistent
Ashwin has not looked back since as his performance in the next four series show:
In Bangladesh: 1 Test: Five wickets at an average of 19.00
In Sri Lanka: 3 Tests: 21 wickets at 18.09
Versus South Africa at home: 4 Tests: 31 wickets at 11.12
In West Indies: 4 Tests: 17 wickets at 23.17
“Going to Australia, even I didn’t consider Ashwin. But he got his line right, bowling outside off-stump…within seven-eight months to me he has become captain material. The captain gets confidence from him. He is the most important cricketer, someone who can change the game single-handedly.
“He is the kind of bowler who can pick five wickets in five overs,” the former India skipper said.
Brett Lee said having a bowling attack capable of picking 20 wickets will be vital if India are to win the three home series. “If batsmen play less conventional shots, the bowlers always have a chance.”
The 30-year-old has 193 wickets in 36 Tests, seven short of becoming India’s ninth bowler to reach the double century mark in wickets.
Equally important will be his batting, at No 6 if India pick five specialist bowlers. And Ashwin’s credentials as a batsman have soared since scoring two centuries in West Indies.
Laxman praised his batting, but cautioned against terming him an all-rounder. “The second century he got with Saha (in West Indies) wasn’t just technically good, but he stood out temperamentally as well… But I would say he is a frontline bowler who can always contribute with the bat.”