R Ashwin is more than a frontline bowler. He already had two Test centuries to his credit, scored against West Indies at home, but the third on Friday, batting at No.6 for the first time in his career, might be the most significant yet. The innings might have just sorted India’s batting order for at least a year to come.
Given how India are lined up to play a big home season after this tour, the timing of Ashwin’s innings is crucial. Ashwin is also a good fielder in the slips. As a batsman he puts a price on his wicket, and backs it with a good defensive technique and textbook strokes, especially in front of the wicket and down the line.
Not every bowling attack will be as insipid as West Indies’ but nevertheless, Ashwin was the perfect foil for Virat Kohli’s aggression. Apart from the dropped catch by Shane Dowrich in the 98th over, off Shannon Gabriel, Ashwin’s was a perfect innings.
Ashwin’s batting ability was always valued highly but never during MS Dhoni’s captaincy did he bat at No.6. That changed under Kohli. It might be coincidence that Ashwin and Kohli made their India debut in 2011, but mates from the same year tend to know each other better. “I have always wanted to bat in the top seven for the Indian team, which is a long-time goal that I have to try to strive to get better at,” Ashwin said after end of day’s play.
“I need to thank Anil bhai and Virat for having the confidence in me to be pushed at number six. There have been times in the past when I have played really well, and haven’t really got the promotion. This really says a lot about me. Virat called me in the morning and said ‘you’ll be batting at six, ahead of (Wriddhiman) Saha’, which is a big boost to my batting confidence. I had worked on it over the past one month in Chennai with my coach and I’m very happy with the way it’s come out,” he said.
Against a listless opposition on a flat pitch, Ashwin grabbed the chance. It helped that Kohli was at the other end. While the India captain kept the score running with boundaries and singles, Ashwin took the time he wanted to settle down almost unnoticed. By the time Kohli departed, Ashwin was at 64. India needed someone to guide their total past the 500-run mark, and Ashwin was the man for the job.
“Sanjay Bangar worked really closely with my stance for the last 12 months. It has been a challenge. I used to be extra side-on and I had to open myself a little bit. That change is very effective. I have not driven straight down the ground for a very long time. The other things like my initial movement and other things had to be sorted. It was a process for like 10-12 months,” he said.
The improvement was there to see. Of the 12 boundaries Ashwin struck, the on-drive past Jason Holder was as good as anybody’s. Then there was the back foot punch through mid-on. And when Holder brought all his fielders inside the circle, when he was on 99, Ashwin punched Devendra Bishoo through midwicket for an easy boundary. It was the right statement made at the right time.
That India got the runs they desired through a spinner whose overseas bowling record is not as great as that at home is significant.