India are fortunate to have a very good, bordering on exceptional, cricketer in R Ashwin. His offspin is a treat to watch across formats, carrom balls and drifters in limited-overs being deftly replaced by consistency of stock balls and clever use of pace, flight and drift in the longer format. Add to this the runs he so eagerly provides at No. 6 and you have a most handy cricketer.
Against all opposition, Ashwin may be good, but against West Indies, his record is great. In eight Test matches against his favourite team, Ashwin has an even 50 wickets at an average of 22.16, three points below his overall numbers. Tellingly, he takes a wicket every 44 balls against West Indies, as opposed to every 52 balls otherwise.
And, of course, there is the batting. All of Ashwin’s four Test centuries have come against West Indies, his batting average against the islanders a majestic 56.66 compared to a more reasonable, and realistic, overall figure of 34.26. Ashwin has surprised locals with the damage he has been able to do, the Caribbean not being a happy hunting ground for some of the world’s best slow men.
The great Shane Warne, to take one name, averages nearly 40 runs per wicket in the West Indies, but he can be forgiven for he bowled a lot to one Brian Charles Lara, who ate spinners for breakfast.
For Ashwin, though, the fourth Test at the Queen’s Park Oval in Port of Spain provides a delectable opportunity. With 192 wickets from only 35 Tests, Ashwin can go to the top of the heap if he manages eight scalps on a track that is expected to take turn after an initial spell of seam and swing. Clarrie Grimmett, the Dunedin-born Australian leggie, got to the 200 mark in 36 Tests, faster than anyone else in the history of the game, and Ashwin has a real chance to equal that feat.
West Indies’ batsmen are yet to crack the code when it comes to tackling Ashwin, and Jason Holder, the captain, offered some insight into the challenges a batsman is confronted with when facing Ashwin. “He is obviously a quality bowler. I think, the beauty about Ashwin is that he makes you play a lot of deliveries. There are not many deliveries that you don’t have to play and he has good variations as well,” said Holder. “He is a clever bowler and he knows what he is about and he knows what he sets out to do. And he can set fields and bowl to them. That is, ideally, what Test cricket is about. Credit must be given to Ashwin. You cannot take anything away from a bowler like Ashwin.”
Holder’s final comments are a touch superfluous, for nobody is actually taking anything away from Ashwin at this stage. Virat Kohli’s penchant for playing five specialist bowlers where possible has only come to fruition thanks to the runs Ashwin has made since being elevated to No. 6. The Indian top-order has not done nearly enough, and without Ashwin’s runs in this series, the scoreline would have been different from 2-0 and the narrative something else altogether.
And, typically, Kohli gave credit where it was due. “Ashwin and (Wriddhiman) Saha in the first innings in St Lucia, that was probably the most important partnership in the series,” said Kohli after India had won the third Test to seal the series. “We had quite a few partnerships but that for me stands out till now in terms of where the series has gone. We were able to seal the game because of the effort of those two. If we lost two more wickets, you never know, we wouldn’t have been on top in the Test match. Lot of credit goes to those two.”
Life’s good for Ashwin at the moment, with credit in the cricketing bank. It won’t always be that way, and cashing in when you can is always the best policy. It may only be a number, but 200 sticks in 36 Tests should be on Ashwin’s radar. For, if he gets there, it will almost certainly be 3-0 to India by the time they head home.