What a difference a year has made? Ravichandran Ashwin, forced to sit out because of his poor form playing away, has become the biggest threat to every batsman now that India are back to plying their trade in the sub-continent after two years.
The off-spinner is at the height of his capabilities at the moment, what is described as the zone in sports. He is utilising the entire range of his deliveries, and the drift and dip add to his immaculate release of the ball. The wickets he has stacked up have only added to his newfound aura. His 35 wickets in the last five Tests, including four wickets in the first innings of the Bangalore Test, are not merely down to skill. His awareness of his craft is striking.
Often his statements, he himself concedes, borders on arrogance but none in this India team --- Virat Kohli is an exception --- offers such insight into the game and talks openly about his own game. There sure is impatience when it comes to criticism, but often it is about his bowling intent, planning and deception. He didn’t exaggerate when he explained how a batsman’s first 20 minutes at the crease gives the spinner the best chance to dismiss him.
“Whenever anybody walks into the middle, I give myself a 60-40 chance. I think I have the best chance when he’s around for the first 15-20 minutes, especially the way the ball is coming out of my hand and the kind of pace variations I’m able to use now,” Ashwin said after his 4/70 helped dismiss the South Africans for 214 on Saturday.
“I’m very confident that I can beat anybody in the air in the first 20 minutes; from there on, every batsman comes out with a different plan for a particular game. So, you gauge as to what shots he’s looking for, and where essentially I should not be bowling to him in that innings.”
Confidence the key
He has left his gameplan out there for everyone to see. But the confidence is back by performance. Out of his 35 wickets since the start of the Sri Lanka Test series, 21 wickets have been of batsmen who were at the crease for less than 35 minutes. And out of those 21 wickets, 12 were claimed when batsmen had been in the middle for less than 20 minutes.
Setting up a batsman or picking the clues very early have made the difference. Fidgety faces, tentative footwork, ball missing the middle of the bat, a wry smile trying to mask the nervousness, nothing escapes Ashwin. In Sri Lanka, he accounted for the retiring Kumar Sangakkara in each of his last four innings.
“I noticed when he got Sangakkara. On the first occasion, Sanga looked tentative; his footwork was giving it all away. On the second occasion, it was worse. On the last occasion, he had mentally given up even before Ashwin bowled; smart bowlers pick up visual cues from the batsmen to create wicket taking opportunities,” explained former India spinner Maninder Singh.
“Now, I see the same expression on Hashim Amla’s face. The state of a batsman’s form is reflected on their body language and face. The nervousness, wry smile, chatting and singing are all methods batsmen use to project they are cool; yet it takes perceptible eyes to see through that. Ashwin is simply brilliant at it.”