When R Ashwin had Shakib Al Hasan caught off a miscue while attempting an extravagant shot in the Bangladesh first innings in the one-off Test on Saturday’s (February 11) third day, he had finally picked up a wicket after one of his longest barren spells in recent times.
In December, India had just beaten England 4-0 in a five-Test series, winning the last by an innings and 75 runs. Ashwin had ended with 28 wickets for the series, two more than Ravindra Jadeja, to sit right on top of the pile. But he had just one wicket in the final Test in Chennai, when he dismissed Ben Stokes in his 25th over in the England first innings. After that, sent down 19 more overs to finish with 1 for 151, and bowled 25 overs without success in the second innings for 0 for 56 as Jadeja returned 7 for 48.
Cut to the Bangladesh first innings in Hyderabad, and Ashwin couldn’t create any magic on a lifeless pitch for the longest time, even though he gave little away with his variations in line and length, and kept the batsmen watchful at all times because of the drift and dip he got.
The end of the heady spell? Not quite.
When he finally got it right, though, he got it quite right.
Early on in the second innings on the fourth evening, he fooled Tamim Iqbal with one that went on straight, caught the edge on to the pads and lobbed to Virat Kohli in the slips. Strike One. Strike Two took a while, but it was an excellent delivery that did it, the ball turning just enough to catch Mominul Haque’s defensive prod to travel low to Ajinkya Rahane at slip, where the catch was completed smartly.
Those were wickets 251 and 252 in Test cricket for Ashwin. He had gotten to the 250-wicket milestone earlier in the day to finish off the Bangladesh first innings when he caught Mushfiqur Rahim’s gloves on the sweep for Wriddhiman Saha to pouch the catch. Wicket No. 250 in only his 45th Test, making him the fastest to the mark ahead of Dennis Lillee (see table). That’s a record to be very, very proud of.
Fastest to 250 Test wickets
1. R Ashwin: 45 Tests
2. Dennis Lillee: 48 Tests
3. Dale Steyn: 49 Tests
4. Allan Donald: 50 Tests
5. Waqar Younis and Muttiah Muralitharan: 51 Tests
“He is the toughest spinner when it comes to any opposition team; probably many teams are planning on how they are going to face Ashwin,” said Cheteshwar Pujara on Sunday evening. “First of all, I would like to congratulate him for reaching 250. The kind of brain he has, he thinks as a batsman, what are the weaknesses of batsmen and what are the areas he needs to bowl. I think it’s the experience – he is one of the most experienced bowlers we have and one of the strike bowlers.”
Thilan Samaraweera, the former Sri Lankan batsman who is now Bangladesh’s batting coach, was equally, if not more, gushing in his assessment of Ashwin.
“I’m the biggest believer in legacies. Like Sunil Gavaskar set the benchmark and then Sachin (Tendulkar) chased that. He set a higher benchmark and now Virat Kohli is chasing that. With Ashwin, Anil (Kumble) and Harbhajan (Singh) set the benchmark, and he is chasing that,” said the outstanding Test batsman of the first decade of the millennium. “If he plays for another seven-eight years, hopefully he is fit, he will be close to 600 to 800 wickets.”
Comparing Muttiah Muralitharan, with who Samaraweera played a lot of his international cricket, with Ashwin, he went on, “Murali was a genuinely gifted, talented cricketer. Ashwin is very smart, his skill-set is a lot, he has many variations, he can change his line and length …”
The kind of brain he has, said one, while the other referred to his smarts. There’s little doubt that Ashwin is a wonderful thinking cricketer, one who might even have raised his game by a few notches simply by approaching his craft like a PhD student, researching, working on it, putting it together brick by brick.
But even Ashwin – was the wicket-less run bothering him? Ashwin wasn’t available to check, and chances are he would have pooh-poohed the suggestion if he were around.
Pujara, though, felt that the team didn’t feel the pinch at any stage. “I don’t think he was very desperate – he understands that there are situations where he has to bowl tightly,” he said. “If you look at the first innings, he tried his best. He bowled to a plan.
“There might be some occasions when he can’t get wickets. That’s the best part about the Indian team. We bowl as a unit; we bowl in partnerships. Most of the times Ashwin is the one who takes wickets and Jadeja plays the role of holding the batsmen down. Sometimes Ashwin has to play the role of holding the batsman, and he did that in the first innings.”
More of the same, plus a couple of wickets on the morrow, and India will likely make it 15 wins in their last 19 Tests and firm their position at the top of the International Cricket Council rankings. That should spur Ashwin on to give it a proper rip – if he needed any spurring, that is.