It’s one of India’s more iconic cricketing venues, a quirky mix of the quaint and the modern. Not too far from Marina Beach, just off the bustling Mount Road (or Anna Salai, if you please). Nestled inside the Madras Cricket Club premises, the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai is the stage on which many a gripping drama has been played out. Especially if India and Australia are the protagonists.
It was here that, in 1986, the two sides were involved in only the second tie in Test history, a result made possible by Vikram Raju’s right forefinger of doom that sent Maninder Singh packing and Greg Matthews and the Australians delirious, and which left non-striker Ravi Shastri and the rest of India fuming. It was here too that, the following year, Allan Border’s men pulled off a one-run heist at the World Cup, a result on which they rode piggyback to wear the crown, unexpectedly, for the first time.
It was also here that, in 1998, Sachin Tendulkar launched a sensational second-innings assault on Shane Warne as India overturned a 71-run deficit and conjured a 179-run victory that spurred them on a 2-1 series triumph. And it was at Chepauk, of course, that in 2001, India rounded off the mother of all comebacks, shading Australia by two wickets in a thrilling climax to a fascinating, absorbing showdown between Aussie might and Indian will.
On Sunday (September 17), the familiar foes will kick-start the latest edition of their fabled rivalry at Chepauk, in the first of five One-Day Internationals of a limited-overs face-off that also includes three Twenty20 Internationals. When Virat Kohli and Steven Smith stride out for the toss, it will mark the first time since October 2015 that Chennai will be hosting a 50-over international. As if the cricket-mad populace there needed an excuse to make a beeline to the venue.
Sunday is also the day R Ashwin turns 31. He would have loved to celebrate the birthday at Chepauk, hopefully luring the Warners and the Smiths and the Maxwells to their doom with his veritable mix of the off-break, the leg-break, the carrom ball and whatever else he has up his short sleeve. Instead, either because he is rested or rotated or both or neither, he will be away somewhere in England, putting his feet up after his third game on the bounce for Worcestershire in Division Two of the English County Championship.
New Road or Wallajah Road, Ash? If someone – anyone – that mattered had asked him the question, the answer would have been as obvious as if the question had been, ‘Red Duke or White Kookaburra, lad?’ Or, ‘Worcester Whites or India Blues?’ The fact of the matter, however, is that these questions aren’t asked these days – not of the players, at least. Or rather, not of all the players, it would seem.
What’s Ashwin doing in England anyway? Why isn’t he in Chennai – India squad member or not – playing the doting father to his two young girls? The respectful son and the loving husband? Why isn’t he hanging out with friends, playing tennis-ball cricket in his front yard with the same intensity with which he approaches a Test match? Why?
Because, he sees an opportunity to learn by bowling in England, wet and cold as the summer draws to a close, with an unfamiliar brand of ball in a competitive setting for a team that is desperate to return to top-flight cricket and that swooped instantly to snap up the Indian offspinner/allrounder the moment the tiniest of windows opened up. Because, India have a string of away Tests lined up next year, in lands where success hasn’t been forthcoming in the longer version especially for the team as a whole. Because, even if he knows not what the team dynamics will be, he wants to be fully prepared for the challenges of Test cricket in South Africa, England and then Australia, all of them between January 2018 and February 2019.
In the absence of any concrete announcements from the decision-makers, it has to be assumed that at some stage during this home season when India are scheduled to play 11 ODIs and nine T20Is, Ashwin will return to the white-ball scheme of things, much like Ravindra Jadeja, his spinning-allrounder mirror image. Perhaps temporarily, on trial like a man with 209 international appearances and 494 international victims should not be. Perhaps not so temporarily, as befits a man who has such staggering numbers and who is far from his best-before date. But that’s up to MSK Prasad and his merry band of selectors, to Kohli and Shastri – to the management group, as they are called.
Should Ashwin really fret and fume and brood and mope if, after a cursory appearance or two, he no longer is considered a gun choice for 50-over internationals? The pride in the competitor that he is will be stung, his ego somewhat hurt, his confidence slightly dented maybe, but in the long term, what will a cricketer be remembered for? For his exploits, however awe-inspiring they might be, in coloured clothing, or for his deeds in the searing heat and unforgiving cauldron of Test cricket that players even of this T20 generation vehemently insist is the ultimate examination of one’s skill, talent, character, resolve, fortitude? Of course, nothing beats a heady cocktail of success across formats, and that’s what every cricketer worth his salt aspires for. But mundane matters such as selection or perceptions of utility being beyond one’s control, how much weight must Ashwin, or anyone in his position, attach to being viewed as a one-format specialist? Assuming, that that is how he is being viewed now.
Worcester aren’t complaining that Ashwin is currently superfluous to India’s white-ball plans. Since Ashwin’s county debut last month, they have won two games on the bounce – the Indian took eight wickets in his first appearance to set up the first victory – and at the time of writing, are well placed for a third successive triumph, against Leicestershire. Should that win eventuate at some stage on Friday, Worcester will go to the top of the second division table and all but assure themselves of promotion to Division One. Ashwin has been a big draw at his adopted home, in what is largely considered an unfashionable county.
In the absence of Ashwin and Jadeja, Axar Patel, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav held their own in the limited-overs leg of the mismatched tour of Sri Lanka. The last two are wrist spinners, towards whom there seems a definite slant in the Kohli-Shastri era. Perhaps that is the way to go if they are more penetrative in the middle overs, but if fitness is as overwhelming a criterion as is being proclaimed publicly, young guns Chahal and Kuldeep have plenty of work ahead of them apart from keeping their right wrist and left respectively in perfect working order. After all, as Shastri himself has told the world more than once in recent times, for now, it is all about survival of the fittest.