By Kanishkaa Balachandran
It might still be too early to include him in the elite list, but given his achievements in 2016 alone, Indian bowler Ravichandran Ashwin is set to break more Indian records.
At the start of this decade, Indian cricket was on the cusp of change. It was an adjustment not many would have looked forward to, with the likes of Tendulkar, Laxman, Dravid and Zaheer winding down on their careers. This phase launched two emerging superstars, Virat Kohli and Ravichandran Ashwin, who have taken batting and bowling by storm respectively. Kohli is set to break one-day international world records while Ashwin has been knocking off milestones as a Test bowler with regularity over the last year and a half. He has finished 2016 as the highest wicket-taker in the world in Test matches for the calendar year, with 72 wickets in 12 matches; second-placed Rangana Herath is 15 wickets behind him.
Both Ashwin and Kohli have excelled and developed their game to suit the three formats, marking them out as modern greats. Yet, Ashwin’s achievements have been relatively understated when compared to Kohli’s. Can Ashwin be regarded as one of India’s greatest bowlers? Six years is perhaps too short a time to start making these comparisons. A decade would be a better marker.
But consider his Test numbers – in 44 Tests he already has 248 wickets with 24 five-wicket hauls and seven ten-wicket hauls. As a batsman, he has four Test centuries. As a schoolboy, he began as a batsman, before switching to offspin. But importantly, he didn’t neglect his talent as a batsman and it’s fair to say that he is a genuine Test allrounder. He took five wickets in an innings in his first Test match; he ended his maiden Test series with 22 wickets. In 27 Test matches in India, he has 181 wickets, proving his worth as India’s strike bowler with the old and new ball – many a time he has opened the bowling for India on wearing third and fourth-day pitches. He has improved his overseas record after a rocky beginning.
These numbers, too good to be true, are no fluke. With Ashwin, it’s not a case of “just turn up and bowl and see what happens”. He is among the most erudite, articulate and cerebral international players in the game today. In presentation ceremonies and interviews, when asked to reflect on his performance, he’s never afraid to get technical on how he played mind games with the batsman and outfoxed him. He explains his field-settings and reasons for bowling a certain type of ball to get a batsman out. A cricketing nerd.A self-critical bowler who emerges stronger after every setback.
The stats may give the impression that Ashwin has overachieved, but it’s easy to forget his bleak periods. Around 2013 and 2014, wickets were hard to come by because he was guilty of trying too many variations in a single over. The carom-ball – his signature delivery – was overused. He was trying too hard to get wickets and it cost him his Test spot. After making adjustments to his bowling action and delivery stride, he regained his old form. He also cut down on his variations and used them intelligently. He would tease the batsman in flight and get the ball to dip, putting the batsman in two minds whether to stay forward or go back in his crease.
The result –four consecutive Man-of-the-Series awards, against Sri Lanka, South Africa, West Indies and New Zealand. This put him on par with Malcolm Marshall and Imran Khan, two greats. Ashwin also became the second fastest to 100 and 200 Test wickets. In a 15-Test period, from June 2015 to October 2016, he scored over 500 Test runs and took more than 100 wickets – only Imran Khan and Shane Warne have bettered that over 15 Tests.
It’s tempting to put Ashwin in the list of India’s greatest spinners, comprising Bedi, Prasanna, Chandrasekhar and Kumble. Yet, there appears to be an element of caution in applying the term “great” to Ashwin. Bedi and Co are often considered the “greatest” because they were, truly, India’s best world-class trio who attacked as a pack. India had a few quality spinners like Vinoo Mankad, Bapu Nadkarni and Subash Gupte from the 1950s, but they were not as impactful as the trio. Kapil Dev was India’s first great fast bowler because prior to his arrival, India’s bowling was centered around spin and none of the medium-pacers took wickets like he did.
In six years, Ashwin has surpassed expectations. He has set the benchmark high for emerging spinners in India. He has done enough in six years to be considered for the list of India’s greatest bowlers. He has replaced Harbhajan Singh as India’s first-choice off spinner. And he’s not yet done. Far from it.