Ashwin returns to IPL, primed for bigger prize ahead
- It all started in the IPL for Ashwin, now one of Test cricket's greatest bowlers. Now it's again the platform from where he hopes to get into the World Cup.
A burden on busy international players or finishing school for rising cricketers, the Indian Premier League (IPL) has meant different things to different people. For Ravichandran Ashwin, going into the second half of 2021 IPL starting in the UAE on Sunday will be more of a springboard.
He will turn up for Delhi Capitals (DC) fresh, after controversially not being played in the Test series in England. The “Why no Ashwin?” question did not die down even when the team went 2-1 up. That was merely acknowledgement of the spinner’s qualities, demonstrated last in the memorable Test series win in Australia and then in the home series against England this year, India rallying from losing the first Test to claim the series.
Ashwin returns to a league, and format, where it all started for him. And he will be charged up to demonstrate his effectiveness after a surprise call-up to the India squad for the T20 World Cup, to be played in October-November in the UAE and Oman after IPL. Never considered for white ball cricket since the team management of skipper Virat Kohli, Ravi Shastri and Bharat Arun dumped finger-spinners for wrist-spinners, the recall after four years would have pleasantly surprised Ashwin, especially after the frustration of sitting out four Tests in England including one on an Oval pitch conducive to spin.
Ashwin though never left T20 and has remained as sharp as ever in a format that saw him grab the initial headlines and then find a spot in the India team, going on to win two ICC titles—2011 World Cup and the 2013 Champions Trophy.
He got noticed in 2009 IPL for Chennai Super Kings (CSK), providing a fresh dimension in a batsman-dominated format with variations, skill and confidence in execution. The carrom ball was the main alternate weapon, but the leg-spin or even the googly was not too far. It meant the batsmen couldn’t take many liberties.
A T20 bowler by instinct, Ashwin has been popular with franchises. He has constantly re-invented himself to surprise batsmen, using those clever change-ups in Tests as well.
Any other player, at 34, could feel rusty not having played a game since the World Test Championship final against New Zealand in June. The team management’s lack of faith in India’s fourth highest wicket-taker could have been demoralising too. But the Tamil Nadu bowler has often shut out any negativity to make his mark.
Ashwin’s white-ball career for India looked over after a poor ICC Champions Trophy final in 2017, where the defeat to Pakistan at the Oval saw the team management switch from finger spinners to wrist spinners as an attacking option.
Leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal and left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav establishing themselves meant no Ashwin for the 2019 ODI World Cup in England either. Chahal and Yadav’s omission from the latest 15-player squad marks a total turnaround in thinking after wrist-spin alone could not deliver an ICC title under Kohli’s captaincy.
“When you go to a World Cup you need an off-spinner,” chief selector and former India pacer Chetan Sharma said at the squad announcement last week. “The wickets are likely to be low and slow as the IPL’s latter half will be played in the UAE, which will help the spinners… Ashwin has been an asset for the team and the way he has performed in the IPL is the reason he has found a place in the team.”
Ashwin’s inclusion became possible due to a few factors, and he will be determined to impress in the IPL at the same venues chosen for the global tournament. Vice-captain Rohit Sharma, who has led Mumbai Indians to five IPL titles, is said to have backed Ashwin’s return and the roping in of MS Dhoni as team mentor—Ashwin was part of two of three ICC trophy wins under him—also should help.
T20 cricket is big on match-ups, which fans eagerly look forward to. DC’s play-off win over Royal Challengers Bangalore last year in the UAE provided the biggest—an India bowler versus the skipper. Kohli was set on 29 off 24 balls with RCB marching towards a big total when Ashwin’s subtle pace variation saw a loft over midwicket travel only into the hands of Marcus Stoinis on the boundary. It checked RCB’s innings, they were restricted to 152, and Capitals won by six wickets.
Ashwin was with CSK for his initial seven seasons, winning titles in 2010 and 11, and reaching the final in 2012, 2013 and 2015. After two unsettled years due to the suspension of CSK—Ashwin missed 2017 IPL due to sports hernia—Kings XI Punjab splurged Rs. 7.6 crore on him and named him skipper. Traded to DC in 2019, the franchise from the Capital again bought him for Rs. 7.6 crore in the 2021 auction. The Kohli dismissal, one of 13 wickets in the 2020, didn’t hurt. His 139 wickets from 159 matches places him sixth in the all-time wicket-takers’ list but his economy rate of 6.90 is better than the five above him.
It shows how Ashwin’s T20 credentials have been regarded despite the national team shunning him. In 2021 IPL, which was brought to a halt due to surging Covid cases, Ashwin played five of his team’s eight games before leaving to help his family after a spate of positive cases.
As he resumes duties in the UAE, it will all be about power play. For DC, it will be Ashwin’s impact in the first six overs; for the bowler, it would be about finding rhythm after the forced break in England. And when the T20 World Cup starts, it would be about stamping his class and winning the power game over the wrist-spin proponents. Ashwin’s first delivery against Sunrisers Hyderabad on September 22 could set it all in motion.