NAGPUR: In the domestic circuit, experts often reserve judgement on bowlers until they have performed on different types of surfaces. They say it’s imprudent to certify a spinner suitable for the next level if he is not effective on batting tracks. Fast bowlers with loads of wickets on helpful pitches are also not taken seriously unless they have done well in adverse conditions.
Accepting the logic behind such line of thinking, it becomes difficult to assess the true significance of Ravichandran Ashwin’s astounding success against South Africa. With 24 wickets in five innings, the off-spinner has been the difference between teams. Take him out, and the attack won’t look as menacing. At the same time, it’s impossible to overlook the role of pitch in this phenomenal run. So is it pure ability or skill magnified by assistance provided by the surface?
‘Bit of both’ is usually a smart answer. In this case, it’s probably the accurate one. Had pitches not offered generous, often prodigious, turn from the first hour and not planted doubts in the minds of batsmen, Ashwin may not have wreaked such havoc. The ball has done so much that they have been forced to play a guessing game. But given the difference in impact created by him and others, it’s easy to see they have not been able to achieve a fraction of what he has.
During the course of the third Test which got over on Friday with two days to spare, Ashwin was asked whether the pitch was taking away some of the credit due to him. “Fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t have the rights over groundsmen to say what kind of pitch they have to prepare. Once that is done and six stumps are laid on both sides, it’s my job to go out and play.” It was not his duty to satisfy those looking for the answer.
Apart from doing what he calls ‘job’, Ashwin has brought in a few changes that increase his effectiveness. Although he did bowl from both sides of the stumps in the third Test, the IT engineer in the last few months has generally followed ‘over the wicket outside off’ as Plan A and used other lines or variations mostly to surprise. He also had a tendency to overuse weapons designed for occasional use.
Virat Kohli finds this the most important change in the bowler who has given him victory in the last four completed Tests. “He has become more consistent with his stock ball, which is giving it air and getting more revolutions on it. He isn’t trying too much and you hardly see the carrom ball. When a spinner relies more on his natural delivery with changes of pace to deceive batsmen, you can take it as a sign of confidence. This has changed him.”
AB de Villiers can testify how deadly this restricted use of variations can be. On Friday, Ashwin saw him come down the wicket and bowled a few big turners that made his footwork less decisive. Then came the other one pitched in line. Playing for turn, the No 1 batsman realised to his dismay he had not just been trapped in front, but comprehensively outthought. Planning and execution made help from the pitch secondary in this case, suggesting that conditions remaining equal, originality makes a telling difference between individuals.
“He’s winning games consistently which is a great thing for us because getting the taste of winning is one thing, holding on to it is quite another. This consistency is the sign of a champion bowler. It also shows the mental strength and knowledge of the game he has,” said Kohli. Pitch played its part. Ashwin deserves kudos for doing things on it others can’t think of.