INDIAN CRICKET has been slow to warm up to Ravichandran Ashwin’s quality and utility. He was the fastest Indian bowler to reach 100 and 200 Test wickets but was called a spin-track bully. He had scored four Test hundreds, before his fifth at Chepauk Monday, but due credit didn’t arrive. In fact, he was dropped from India’s one-day team after the 2017 Champions Trophy for being one-dimensional.
On Monday, the 34-year-old from Chennai went past Garry Sobers and closed in on Ian Botham in the record books with a 148-ball 106 against England.
It was Ashwin’s first three-figure score on home patch, but it also marked the third time in his career that he had taken a five-for and scored a century in the same match. Sobers and South African all-rounder Jacques Kallis did it twice, while Botham achieved the feat five times. With this performance, Ashwin has moved into the pantheon of greats.
But he wasn’t finished for the day. He scalped opener Rory Burns as England, chasing an improbable target of 482, were 53 for three at stumps. And with the pitch aiding spinners, chances of Ashwin enhancing his flattering numbers on Day 4 are bright.
Indeed, from being a player who wasn’t a regular in the XI away from home even three years ago, Ashwin has made himself undroppable since India’s tour of Australia that preceded this England series.
In the ongoing second Test, Ashwin showed the England spinners how to bowl on a turner. On the third day, after India suffered a top-order collapse in the morning, he showed the tourists how to bat on this surface without complaining about the conditions.
He came to the crease with India on 106 for six in the second innings, and skipper Virat Kohli at the other end, with only the tail to follow. England were playing catch-up but had some positive vibes going after removing Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant, Ajinkya Rahane and Axar Patel in quick succession.
But then, Ashwin took the attack to the opposition. He swept Moeen Ali to score his first boundary. Three balls later, he reverse-swept the off-spinner for another four. Ashwin was ready to chance his arm, a calculated risk on a surface where capitalising on any run-scoring opportunity was crucial.
He hardly let any punishable delivery go by. He made room against England’s fastest bowler Olly Stone and played a tennis-like inside-out forehand to bring up his half-century off just 64 balls. A turnout of around 10,000 at Chepauk stood up for the home boy.
Later, they feted him with chants of “Ashwin, Ashwin” when he reached his hundred off 134 deliveries. His partner at the other end, Mohammed Siraj, was even more ecstatic. Ashwin had taken India forward and out of England’s sight after Kohli got out.
“I’m just thinking how I’m just going to recover and sleep through the night. The last time I was sweeping was when I was 19 years old and was dropped from the First XI after I got out. I have started practising the sweep,” Ashwin told Star Sports after the day’s play.
Crediting India’s batting coach, he said: “Vikram Rathour has been helpful in exploring new options. I would love to credit him for how I have played with the bat in the last few months. I don’t know when I will play my next Test here, but I’m very pleased.”
Hopefully, Ashwin has done enough to bin the “flat/spin track bully” perception. Only a month ago, he batted through excruciating pain across 190 minutes in Sydney to help India eke out a draw against Australia.
Ashwin’s 33 not out at Lord’s in 2018 was another example of him not throwing in the towel in difficult conditions. In the same series, after Ali had outbowled him on a dry surface at Southampton, Ashwin found himself at the receiving end of some sharp criticism. He had played the Test with a groin strain, when sitting out would have been an easier option.
During the Australia series, Ashwin was India’s go-to bowler against Steve Smith even in seaming conditions. He got the better of the Australian batting star with the pink ball on an Adelaide Oval green-top. He dismissed Smith with the new ball in the next Test in Melbourne.
Today, Ashwin’s record did all the speaking for him: 392 Test wickets and over 2,600 runs.
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