India vs England: Ravichandran Ashwin spins his web again
At the top of his bowling mark, Ravichandran Ashwin whirled the ball in his palm and then proceeded to canter in from round the wicket for what should’ve been the final delivery before lunch. Only, at the high point of his delivery stride, Ashwin refused to release the ball. Instead, the off-spinner unleashed some mind games—making England’s No.3, Dan Lawrence, wait a little longer before he would get respite from both the pitch and the turning ball on Day 2 of this Chennai Test.
Amid loud cheers from his home crowd, Ashwin walked slowly back to the top of his mark and there he tossed the ball in his palm for a while more, adjusting the various positions of the close-in fielders with his free hand. A pitch-length away Lawrence continued his wait with plenty of time at hand to think about the skew of the pitch and ostensibly even worry over what shrewdness Ashwin had in store for him with the pending delivery.
When the ball was finally bowled, a good minute after the fifth ball of that over was, it turned and bounced more than Lawrence had anticipated, and clipped the glove of his shy poke and lobbed safely into Shubman Gill’s hands at short-leg. Even as Lawrence fell to his knees in disappointment, the MA Chidambaram Stadium erupted; as had the entirety of England’s top-order, now lying in smithereens.
In the space of just 18 overs, the potency of England’s first innings reply had all but faded, what with them reeling at 39/4. The wickets of openers Rory Burns (0) and Dom Sibley (16), followed by captain Joe Root (6) and now Lawrence (easily the biggest resistance thus far, having occupied the crease for 52 balls) ensured that eight wickets had fallen during the first session of the second day, after India’s tail left Rishabh Pant stranded on 58 explosive runs.
Pant and India would’ve scored even more than India’s eventual first innings total of 329 had the wicketkeeper farmed the strike when the tail-enders were about. But 329 would soon prove to be more than enough for England’s hapless batsmen –bundled out on a spinning track for 134 runs in less than 60 overs. Critics will tell you that was due to the pitch. But Ashwin (who collected his 29th five-wicket haul (5/43) in Tests in the space of 24 overs) and debutant Axar Patel (2/40) would like to disagree, and rightly so.
NO FAIR COMPARISON
Much has been made of the wicket, especially by former English cricketers (Michael Vaughan even called it a “stinker” on BBC), but the truth is the challenge of facing spin on a turner in India adds to the diversity of Test cricket. Just as English green tops do, on which matches are more prone to end within three days. Ashwin said it as it is in the press conference—implying that just because England were not able to score runs doesn’t make it a bad wicket, especially when India have.
“Look, we're about to put in another batting performance—we’re 54/1 as we speak (after 329 in the first innings),” Ashwin said with a shrug. “It's about being patient like when you’re playing on a seaming wicket. You need to really tide through the early phase and start putting runs on the board once you’re over it. The same kind of benchmarks needs to be set when you play spin on a challenging wicket. Unfortunately, when it comes to spin, people want conditions in their favour—they want to drive and cut and all that.”
The driving and cutting were at a premium when Ashwin was doing his thing. Or come to think of it, even when India’s pacers were in the attack, given that both Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Siraj struck in their first overs—Ishant in the first over of the innings with the wicket of Burns (LBW) and Siraj much later with a first-ball dismissal of Ollie Pope.
The pacers were on the button, no doubt; but this 15-wicket day undoubtedly belonged to the genius of Ashwin.
He opened the bowling along with Ishant, and nearly struck as quickly as his new ball partner had an over ago. In his very first over, turn and bounce had Sibley nicking one to Virat Kohli at leg slip, who dived forward in vain. So, when the same ploy came to fruition three Ashwin overs later, catcher Kohli lifted the off-spinner in joy even as Sibley walked away in frustration.
In the next over, the ninth of the innings, Kohli introduced Axar into the attack. The debutant was on the mark from the word go. The first ball found the outside edge of Root’s blade and streakily ran away for two runs. The next was even better—the ball spinning past the face of Root’s bat, the spinner’s equivalent of beating a batsman all ends up. It made for incredible viewing: the most in-form batsman in the world with 684 runs in his last three Tests struggling to keep away a debutant’s first over in Test cricket.
ROOT FOR STARTERS
It got even better in his second over as Axar slid in from the Pattabhiraman End and made Root his first Test wicket—for a single-digit score, no less, easily the most prized dismissal of the tour so far. A sweeping Root had misread the heavy away turn on the ball and the top-edge was snapped up by Ashwin at short fine-leg. Axar roared with delight and later snuffed out the innings of Moeen Ali too, who, incidentally, had scored 146 in the first innings of the Chennai Test of 2016.
“Axar has been playing first-class cricket for a while now, which has held him in good stead coming into Test cricket,” said Ashwin. “Getting Root as his first Test wicket must’ve been really special for him—very important wicket in the context of where the game stands. I think he’ll go really well in the second innings as well.”
Second innings in Chennai (anywhere in India for that matter) tend to be a paradise for left-arm spinners. But it was Ashwin who shone at that hour in the first Test with a six-for. While that came in a losing cause, the five-for this time around has put India on the brink of victory, especially after he cleaned up the dangerous Ben Stokes right after lunch.
Stokes had just about got his eye in, having been cautious for 32 balls. And had he cut loose, the day could well have had a different story. But the one Ashwin scripted involved Stokes playing all around a full ball to peg back the all-rounder’s off-stump, and England’s slender hope of a counterattack.