India's Ravichandran Ashwin celebrates his half century during the 3rd day of the 2nd test match against England at MA Chidambaram Stadium, in Chennai on Monday. (ANI Photo/BCCI Twitter)
India's Ravichandran Ashwin celebrates his half century during the 3rd day of the 2nd test match against England at MA Chidambaram Stadium, in Chennai on Monday. (ANI Photo/BCCI Twitter)

India vs England, 2nd Test, Day 3: R Ashwin strikes another fifer, with the bat

All-rounder follows up his five-wicket haul with fifth century on Day 3 to leave India on verge of a series-levelling win over England in the 2nd Test in Chennai on Day 3.
PUBLISHED ON FEB 15, 2021 09:20 PM IST

Just a day before he would walk out at No.8 and strike a second-innings hundred on a wicket deemed “unplayable” by the English cricket faithful, Ravichandran Ashwin was busy fielding questions by the Indian media on his five-wicket haul from the England first innings. One of his dismissals on Sunday had taken his Test wickets in India past Harbhajan Singh’s tally.

So, when Ashwin was asked about the feat, he began his answer with a tinge of reminiscing—about how a career in off-spin wasn’t even on his mind when he watched Harbhajan run through the Australians in the famous home series win of 2001.

“I was still a batsman then, trying to accelerate playing for my country with batting,” Ashwin said, mostly in an attempt to show how far he had come as a late-blooming off-spinner. What stood out, apart from his humility, was the word “was”. For a man with four Test hundreds, and on the verge of a fifth (although he couldn’t possibly have known that at the end of Day 2), it was pretty evident that Ashwin shies away from the pressures that come with the all-rounder’s tag.

So much so that just a few minutes into his innings and at the end of the 40th over, Ashwin met batting partner Virat Kohli with a punch of the fist mid-pitch and then, in full batting gear, shadow practiced his bowling action—it of course sent a wave of giggles through the terraces at Chepauk. Maybe he was raring to bowl in the fourth innings or maybe this is just how he warms up. But a great spinner—one on the verge of 400 Test wickets (392)—is who he is in his core.

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Speaking very much as a specialist spinner at the end of Day 2, Ashwin had also outlined a roadmap to success for England’s failing batsmen—

mainly to justify that the much-maligned pitch hadn’t taken all his wickets. He was certain anyone could score runs on it if they were patient. “Similar to playing on a seaming wicket,” Ashwin said. “Tide through the early phase and start scoring runs only once you’re over it.”

That sagely advice of his was tossed into the dressing room bin by Ashwin himself just before he walked out to bat on the third day of this Test on Monday. For, from the moment he marked his crease, Ashwin emerged a supremely assured man. “Patience, tide over, early phase”— what’s all that? The second ball of his innings, bowled by Moeen Ali in his wicket-taking over, was dispatched to the square leg boundary with an aggressive sweep—a shot that Ashwin seldom plays.

If that showed his confidence, then he was simply mocking Ali by the last ball of that over when he employed the reverse-sweep, uppishly and over the short third-man fielder, for another boundary. Even as the home crowd lost the plot in the stands, Ashwin smiled to himself on the pitch, just as he did again at the end of day’s play when he explained his motive to unsheathe the sweep, in an interview with the host broadcasters.

“The last time I was sweeping was when I was 19-years-old. Back then, I hit a couple of sweep shots, got dropped from the side and never played another sweep for the next 13-14 years,” said Ashwin. Why today? “This wicket is such that you got to get your runs square of the pitch. Yeah, ended up posting a really, really good score and now we can attack with men around the bat.”

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They did just that. After his long and tiring innings of 106—spread over four hours—ended late on Monday, Ashwin returned to the bowling crease almost immediately to defend the improbable target of 482 runs. By the end of the third over he was brought on to bowl and by the end of his seventh over he had dismissed opener Rory Burns. Burns, incredibly, tried to play against the spin on a wicket turning square with an angled bat, and the thick edge was pouched by Kohli at second slip.

From the other end, Axar Patel got rid of the other opener, Dom Sibley, and nightwatchman Jack Leach to leave England on 53/3 and India on course to levelling this series at some point on Day 4. While the hosts were always on top in this Test, the situation was nowhere near ideal on the third day before Ashwin’s arrival, as India had lost five top-order wickets for 51 runs before lunch.

At 106/6, Kohli would’ve considered farming the strike with the remaining batters to get India into a healthier position. He was on 22 when Ashwin hadn’t scored a run. In a few overs, they were both on 30, Ashwin in 34 balls and Kohli in 74. And the Indian captain—on a pair coming into bat—was loving every minute of playing the second fiddle.

When a bouncer from the very quick Olly Stone was slapped back past the bowler for four by Ashwin, with a bat held like a tennis forehand, Kohli got the Chennai crowd to go into overdrive from the non-striker’s end. Even as the stung bowler walked slowly back to his mark, Kohli raised his palm like a maestro towards the stands in the west to get them to cheer for the home boy. They did so dutifully and Ashwin’s name echoed around the MA Chidambaram Stadium.

Another forehand smash off a Stone bouncer put him four away from fifty, which he scored from the very next ball with a backing-away cut through square for a boundary. Kohli congratulated him with a hug for now the team was surely safe from defeat. Even after Kohli departed soon after, Ashwin refused to stop toying with the kill.

On either side of Kohli’s wicket, Ashwin was dropped off the bowling of Stuart Broad, once by lone slip Ben Stokes and then by wicketkeeper Ben Foakes. On both occasions, Foakes was standing up to the fast bowler, possibly to ensure Ashwin didn’t stand out of his crease. So, he simply stood and delivered, hammering Broad over his head a couple of times after tea to get into the seventies.

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With 23 runs yet to go for his hundred, Ashwin lost his partner in Ishant Sharma, India’s ninth wicket. The crowd had little reason to be nervous until that point for the entirety of this Test, but now they were. Ashwin and No.11 Mohammed Siraj would make their anxiety worth it with the perfect pay-off. A ball after Ishant’s fall, Ashwin hit Leach to the midwicket fence and stole a single next ball to keep the strike.

When he couldn’t retain the strike on 86, Siraj gave Chennai great reason to cheer six dot balls. Again, with Ashwin on 91, England potentially had a full over at Siraj, but the No.11 milked Ali for a single off the very first ball to a thunderous roar. That rapture didn’t wane all over, what with Ashwin hitting a six, running his fastest double and crunching a four in three successive balls to get to his fifth Test hundred, and first in Chennai. The length of the celebration and the mirth it contained revealed just what it meant to him.

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