When Anil Kumble retired, it left a gaping hole in India's spin department. If losing the man who took 600 plus Test wickets wasn't enough of a dent, Harbhajan Singh's inability to assume the lead bowler's role compounded India's woes as no longer were we spinning a web around the opposition.
In fact, it was our fast bowlers who won us Tests, even at home. That's when R Ashwin arrived. While his selection was prompted by his sterling show in limited overs cricket, he took to Tests like fish to water. He not only showed good control over his skills but also displayed the will to flight the ball and take a hit, something Harbhajan Singh was criticised for not doing.
While his performances against West Indies were phenomenal, he failed in his first real test in Australia in 2011-12. Australia can be a tough place for a finger spinner, for the old Kookaburra ball with the seam embedded doesn't offer much on hard pitches.
His next assignment was against NZ at home and he did well in both Tests, becoming the quickest Indian to take 50 Test wickets. But Graeme Swann was miles ahead of Ashwin in the Test series against England. Ajmal and even Hafeez bowled a lot better than him and now, England's second choice spinner James Tredwell has also stolen a march over his Indian counterpart. In the last three home series, the rival off-spinner has out-bowled Ashwin. These are worrying signs, for it isn't just Tests where he's struggled.
The primary reason for the dip in Ashwin's form is his lack of consistency. While possessing the ability to incorporate variations works well in T20s, essentially because a batsman can't line you up, in Tests and ODIs you need to be more patient and plot a dismissal. Since Ashwin has too many tricks in his bag, he feels compelled to showcase all his wares in a short span. There's rarely an over in which he bowls 6 off-breaks around the same area at different trajectories and pace. Spinners thrive on subtle variations, for they keep the batsman guessing. Trying too many things too often leads to inconsistency and makes it easier for the batsman.
The writer is a former India Opener