Batsman Ashwin’s experience pays off as he ‘ambushes’ England

It was a coincidence that former India leg-spinner Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, who as a state selector had once dropped R Ashwin from a Tamil Nadu junior team for poor batting performance, interviewed the off-spinner who scored his fifth Test century to put India in command on the third day of the second Test against England on Monday.

Ashwin scored his fifth Test century to help India set England a target of 482 runs to win at his home ground, the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai.

While answering a query from Sivaramakrishnan, Ashwin recalled how as a 19-year-old he was dropped from the Tamil Nadu side for failing to play the sweep, a shot he played with great effect on Monday.

Over the last couple of months, Ashwin has rediscovered himself as a batsman to return to the league of Test all-rounders after over three years without even a half-century saw him slipping into the bracket of tail-enders and being pushed down the batting order.

The 34-year-old, who has continued taking wickets in a heap, had scored four centuries and 11 half-centuries in the first six years of his Test career. But after the tour of Sri Lanka in August, 2017, his batting had dipped even though his teammate Ravindra Jadeja improved his batting in Test cricket to justify claims of being the team’s sole all-rounder.

But the last two months have shown Ashwin has revived his ability to bat in every mode.

“Till I was there for two years with the team (as administrative manager between 2017 and 2019), his batting really went down. He was a shadow. Since Sydney it has picked up. He is simply getting his batting act back,” Sunil Subramanian, who has also coached Ashwin between the age of 19 and 27, told IANS.

Ashwin displayed grit to bat out 128 balls for an unbeaten 39 against Australia in the third Test in Sydney. His effort of batting through back pain, taking blows on his body, especially from fast bowler Pat Cummins, helped India draw the third Test when it looked like Australia would stroll to a win.

Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari saw off 42.4 overs, adding unbeaten 62.

On Monday, Ashwin ambushed England to take the game away. India were struggling at 106 for six when he walked in to join skipper Virat Kohli. Although India were 301 ahead, England still had hopes of restricting India to a target that was achievable.

But then the 34-year-old launched into England spinners immediately on arrival at the crease. He swept the second ball and reverse-swept the fifth ball he faced (from Moeen Ali) for fours. He raced to 50 off 64 balls.

WV Raman, former India batsman and long-time coach of Tamil Nadu, which R Ashwin represents in domestic cricket, said the India off-spinner’s tactics caught England off-guard.

“He got to 40 in no time. It was a sort of an ambush. Since there has been a lot of talk about the type of this pitch, they (England) wouldn’t have expected somebody coming so low down the order to play shots right from the word go. Once he got to 40-50, he realised that the whole innings can’t have the same kind of tempo. Then he got a little circumspect. He again realised he has to get to the bowlers,” said Raman, who has witnessed Ashwin’s development over the years.

“It was a very well executed innings. He has shown how handy his ability to bat is,” added Raman.

The former India left-hander puts down the ability to change batting style to Ashwin’s experience. “With experience you learn to evaluate risk and reward.”

Ashwin had on Monday said that he was initially a batsman who would try and imitate Harbhajan Singh’s bowling action.

In fact, the off-spinner had played for India under-17 as a pure batsman. But then after failing to get enough runs, he was dropped even from one of Tamil Nadu’s age-group teams by a state selection panel of which Sivaramakrishnan was a member.

“It was at that time I told Ashwin that I will make you a bowler and told him to focus on becoming a bowler,” said Subramaniam who was his personal coach till 2014.

The thought behind it was that batting can be developed anytime later once you make your mark as a bowler, explains Subramaniam.

“I told him your bowling is better than your batting, so focus on it,” added Subramaniam.

Ashwin has become one of the world’s best bowlers and has now gradually sneaked back into the role of all-rounders.

As Raman says, “He knows he can bat — the idea is there. He knows he has done this before. To come and execute, that is impressive.”