1:17 PM IST
For the first few years of his career, commentators would often compare R Ashwin to VVS Laxman, finding parallels between two tall batsmen who didn’t move their feet all that much but timed the ball like a dream. There would be times when India’s top order would struggle for timing on sluggish pitches, and settle for scoring runs in prosaic ways, and then Ashwin would walk out and punch the third ball he faced to the boundary, effortlessly.
India fans have seen many Ashwins at the crease over the last few years – he’s tinkered with his set-up at the crease multiple times, closing his front shoulder in his stance, then opening it up, then closing it once more; tapping his bat sometimes, holding it up and waggling it behind him at other times, experimenting with this and that.
They haven’t seen that Laxmanesque touch for a while, though, not in Test cricket. When he came out to bat for the second time at Basin Reserve, he had averaged 17.78 with the bat since the start of 2017, as against 34.92 until then.
The previous evening, Ashwin had said in his press conference that he had been batting too cautiously of late, too worried about getting out, and wanted to get back to batting instinctively.
He had been bowled first ball by a near-unplayable ball from Tim Southee in the first innings, a dismissal he could have done little about. Now he faced up to the fast bowlers with another new stance – or perhaps he’d employed it in the first innings too. He was tapping the bat as the bowler ran up, before getting into a bat-up orientation prior to delivery. His bat, now, was going up right behind him, almost pointing towards fine leg.
Most coaches discourage batsmen from lifting their bat up too straight. While such a backlift can help batsmen drive through the covers, it can make it difficult for them to play down the ground or through midwicket, since they often end up having to play around their body and around their front pad, and not be able to bring their bat down straight. The incoming ball, therefore, puts them at a high risk of being trapped lbw.
Ashwin knows all this, of course, and cricketers at the top level often find ways to work around non-textbook techniques and make them work. But, on this occasion in Wellington, he got through just ten balls before Southee nipped one back in, past his inside edge, and trapped him in front.
R Ashwin lbw b Southee 4.
It was the 20th time he had been dismissed before getting to the 30-ball mark in 36 innings since the start of 2017. He’s been dismissed six times having faced between 30 and 50 balls, and he’s lasted longer than 50 balls seven times, with his longest innings – 54 against Sri Lanka at the SSC in August 2017, his only fifty in this time – stretching to 98 balls.
In this time, Ravindra Jadeja, the man Ashwin competes with for the lone spinner’s spot in overseas Tests, has taken his batting to a new level. He averages 49.80 in this period, over 21 Tests and 31 innings, of which 11 have been not-outs. He has a hundred and ten fifties in them, and he’s been at the crease for 100 balls or more on six occasions.
Since the start of 2017, Jadeja has been dismissed once every 79 balls on average, and Ashwin once every 33 balls.
Jadeja has turned himself into one of the top allrounders in Test cricket. Ashwin remains one of the best spinners going around, but he has slipped from genuine allrounder to occasional contributor when it comes to his batting.
Over the 2019-20 home season, Ashwin outbowled Jadeja by a considerable margin, on Indian pitches that didn’t always offer a lot of assistance to spin bowlers. He was beating batsmen in the air as well as off the surface, while Jadeja seemed to have regressed to an earlier self, an upswing in his white-ball fortunes coinciding with the dulling of his wicket-taking edge as a Test bowler.
This is probably what earned Ashwin the nod over Jadeja for Basin Reserve. He had looked the better bowler even in the Indians’ warm-up match in Hamilton, settling into a lovely length after taking five or six overs to find his ideal pace for the surface, getting the ball to dip and turn, and forcing the right-hand batsmen to play him to midwicket when they wanted to play him to mid-on.
Ashwin largely justified his selection with his bowling performance in Wellington, finishing as the second-most impressive bowler in New Zealand’s first innings behind Ishant Sharma, and not just in terms of their figures. He asked questions of the batsmen with his drift, extracted sharp turn and bounce, and picked up three wickets, and even if he couldn’t quite settle into a length against Kane Williamson, it can happen when you’re bowling to one of the world’s best batsmen in his own conditions.
But could Jadeja have matched or come close to matching Ashwin’s display with the ball, while offering more solidity at No. 8? It’s a question India will ask themselves leading into the second Test in Christchurch, because a significant seventh-wicket partnership in either innings in Wellington could have given India the sight of a way back into the match.
In the first innings, India were 132 for 6 when Ashwin joined Ajinkya Rahane at the crease. In the second, they were 148 for 6, trailing New Zealand by 35 runs, when he joined Rishabh Pant. The first-innings situation, in particular, was salvageable and not too dissimilar to the one in which Ashwin joined Cheteshwar Pujara in Adelaide in December 2018. There, 127 for 6 became 189 for 7, and eventually 250 all out – it was just enough for India to scrap their way to a memorable win, with Ashwin playing a vital role with the ball.
In Wellington, 132 for 6 became 132 for 7 – thanks to a superb delivery from Southee, of course – and 148 for 6 in the second innings became 162 for 7.
Given Jadeja’s form as a batsman, and the level of confidence he’s attained in his own game, it’s a plain fact that India can expect more from him in such situations than they can from Ashwin in his current avatar. With the fast bowlers they have, there’s a precipitous drop in batting ability after No. 7 unless Ashwin rediscovers his batting mojo, or they pick Jadeja instead.
When they go to Christchurch, India will study the pitch long and hard and see what sort of role they expect their spinner to play. If they expect him to share a considerable part of the wicket-taking burden even in the first innings, Ashwin could still keep his place. If they see the fast bowlers doing the bulk of the damage, and only see themselves needing their spinner to play a holding role in the first innings, it’s quite likely they’ll bring in Jadeja instead.