India vs Australia: With World Cup in sight, Ravichandran Ashwin loads his final roll of the dice

Sep 22, 2023 08:00 AM IST

Three ODIs stand between Ravichandran Ashwin and his hopes of representing India at the World Cup.

Such is the unforgiving nature of competitive sport that one individual’s misfortune often translates into another’s opportunity. This time last week, R Ashwin didn’t figure prominently in India’s World Cup scheme of things, even though he was one of the unnamed stand-bys identified by the national selectors. A quadricep tear sustained by Axar Patel last Friday in Colombo could now facilitate the off-spinner’s inclusion in the 15-man squad.

Ravichandran Ashwin knows he is up against fitness and fate.(Getty)
Ravichandran Ashwin knows he is up against fitness and fate.(Getty)

The Indian team management will give Axar every chance to make a complete recovery ahead of their October 8 opener in Chennai against Australia. In him, they see an all-round option who could slot into the XI as the third spinner if the think-tank believes the surface warrants further support for Kuldeep Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja. But should the Gujarat all-rounder not recuperate sufficiently quickly, India will have to pick between Washington Sundar and Ashwin as his replacement.

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The two Tamil Nadu offies will be in a direct shoot-out in the One-Day International series against Australia starting in Mohali on Friday. Washington is younger, quicker on his feet, a more capable batter; Ashwin is more experienced and vastly more skilled. Washington is slightly more contemporary in that he has featured in 17 ODIs in nearly six years between December 2017 and now. Ashwin, by contrast, has played only two ODIs in that period, and none since January 2022.

That being said, Ashwin’s standing as a champion in his own right is well chronicled. With 489 Test wickets, he is only second to Anil Kumble (619) as far as Indian wicket-takers are concerned. He was an integral cog in the India ODI wheel until the 2017 Champions Trophy, after which the management group of Virat Kohli and head coach Ravi Shastri felt the need for more incisive wicket-taking options in the middle overs, thereby turning to the wrist-spinning duo of Kuldeep and Yuzvendra Chahal.

Kohli apart, Ashwin is the only active Indian cricketer to have tasted World Cup success, at home in 2011. He has showcased his ability to rise to the challenge on the big stage far too often to warrant elaboration, and few men who have played for India have been more driven or focused. And while it is true that he hasn’t played competitively since the end of July, he hasn’t allowed the grass to grow beneath his feet.

Ashwin has been honing his craft in the ultra-competitive Tamil Nadu Cricket Association League, and only last week turned up at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru, working on his skills in the company of spin coach Sairaj Bahutule and NCA head honcho VVS Laxman. Skipper Rohit Sharma revealed last Sunday that he had been in touch with Ashwin, and many others, outlining the contingency plans precisely for a situation like this, where a last-minute injury would necessitate a late replacement. The open channels of communication might have been necessary when it comes to others, but Ashwin is a master at keeping himself fit and mentally ready for battle at a moment’s notice, a legacy of his fierce competitiveness and immense self-belief.

In Mohali and Indore, which will host the second ODI, Ashwin can’t and won’t expect any favours from the conditions. Australia’s aggressive batters, smarting from a surprise 2-3 defeat at the hands of South Africa last week, won’t be in a charitable mood, but Ashwin has never shied away from a challenge. He will relish the chance to pit his not inconsiderable skills against the likes of David Warner, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith and Cameron Green, all excellent players of the turning ball.

A veteran of 113 ODIs – he has 151 wickets at an exceptional economy rate of 4.94 – Ashwin will believe he has the edge over Washington even though the latter is clearly the better all-round package. That’s how he is wired; he knows selection is not in his hands even if Axar comes up short, so he won’t worry about whether he will win the nod or not. Should he play in Mohali, it’s more than likely that he won’t even have the World Cup at the back of his mind. The professional in him will ensure he stays in the present and doesn’t get ahead of himself. Whether that brings him success in terms of wickets remains to be seen, but at this stage, a seasoned campaigner like Ashwin won’t be judged so much by the results as by his rhythm.

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