Ashwin: The world’s best bowler… who isn’t good enough to play for India in WTC final

Jun 08, 2023 07:11 AM IST

How can you be the best bowler in the world (Ashwin is ranked No.1) but not be good enough to make it to the playing XI of your side for a major final?

92 matches, 474 wickets, a strike-rate of 51.8 at an economy of 2.76. Add 32 five-wicket innings hauls to the mix and it is pretty clear that these numbers don’t belong to an ordinary bowler; rather they belong to a bowler who devours opposition batting line-ups with a mix of old-school bowling smarts and variations that would be a good fit even in the shortest and most manic of formats.

R Ashwin was not included in India's XI for the WTC final(ICC)
R Ashwin was not included in India's XI for the WTC final(ICC)

Read here: 'Playing WTC final and you don’t pick No.1 bowler': Sunil Gavaskar tears into Rohit and Co. for leaving out R Ashwin

R Ashwin likes to keep the batters guessing but as he woke up on Wednesday, the grey clouds must have told him — way before skipper Rohit Sharma could — that his game was over… even before it began. There was no need to guess.

At the toss, with a cold wind blowing across the ground and some heavy cloud cover, Sharma spoke about how difficult it was leave out Ashwin: “It is tough to leave Ashwin out. He has been a match-winner for us, it is not a great occasion to leave him out, but you have got to do what is best for the team in the given conditions.”

The question, though, is whether this is indeed best for the team. How can you be the best bowler in the world (Ashwin is ranked No.1 in ICC’s Test bowler rankings) but not be good enough to make it to the playing XI of your side for a major final?

It is a question Ashwin will have asked himself multiple times on his way to the ground; as he partnered Umesh Yadav for a warm-up lap around the ground just before the toss — what would it take… because clearly wickets don’t seem to be the answer.

One would imagine that having taken 474 wickets would have allowed Ashwin to understand what he needs to do in conditions when the ball isn’t turning like a top. Experience helps the batters, right? So why would it not be the same for bowlers?

In the last 10 Tests at the Oval, 252 wickets have fallen to pace at an average of 30.58. And 68 wickets have fallen to spin at an average of 34.84. The difference, in terms of pure average, isn’t a lot and surely Ashwin’s pure quality as a spinner would even things up even more.

After all, would Australia have dropped Shane Warne just because the skies were grey? Would Sri Lanka have dropped Muttiah Muralitharan? So why does India keep dropping Ashwin in away Tests?

The last Test Ashwin played in England was the 2021 WTC Final at Southampton — those conditions weren’t great either. But the off-spinner played, and one might say, he delivered as well.

In the first innings against New Zealand in 2021, he had figures of 15-5-28-2. He followed that up with a second innings that was even better: 10-5-17-2. He comprehensively out bowled Ravindra Jadeja and almost every other Indian bowler.

Cut to 2023, the grey clouds had given way to sunshine by lunch. The heat would help dry the pitch that little bit more and perhaps make Sharma wonder whether he had done the right thing by leaving out Ashwin. There are no impact subs in Tests or he would have surely thought about that option come the second innings.

They might call it a ‘horses for courses’ policy but one has to wonder why it always seems to apply just to bowlers. It was the same under Kohli’s captaincy (remember Bhuvneshwar Kumar being dropped for the second Test in South Africa after he had taken the most wickets (6) and batted the most balls (127) for India in the first Test in 2018). And it hasn’t changed under Sharma.

Why is it that captains believe batters can adapt but bowlers can’t? Isn’t there more to bowling than the pitch? Do some bowlers not take the pitch out of the equation, and is Ashwin not one of those bowlers? Why does skill and accuracy not matter in this case?

Jadeja is a good bowler and a better batter than Ashwin. But one might argue that Ashwin, with his control of flight and use of angles, is a better bowler and a pretty good batter too. If nothing else, he would certainly bring as much to the squad as the fourth seamer would. Because if he can’t even do that, then ICC should junk the rankings.

At the end of the day, though, this isn’t about Ashwin as much as it is about Sharma and the Indian team management. If they can’t show faith in their best, then who will?

Read here: WTC Final, Day 1: Australia have Head in the right place

Big matches bring out the best in the big players. The moment inspires them; as does their ego. You don’t just become the best because you are good; you become the best because you know when to bring your best to the table.

In Ashwin’s case, the only table he will be seeing will be the one at dinner, and if that isn’t a shame then god alone knows what is.

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