Ravichandran Ashwin: Bigger fish to fry

Written by Sandip G
| New Delhi |
Updated: September 11, 2017 9:51 am

R Ashwin, Ashwin countyR Ashwin, Ashwin county Ashwin began his county stint on a positive note. (Source: PTI)

It’s tempting to snap-judge Ravichandran Ashwin’s omission for the first three ODIs of the upcoming Australia series – that he might have been ignored and not rested, given his diminishing returns in limited-overs cricket of late. But the selectors have made it evident that the off-spinner, who is plying his trade in county cricket at the moment, is being allowed more game time in English conditions so that he can grow into a more penetrative force when India visit England for five Tests next summer.

“It is a blessing in disguise because we will have a fully fledged tour of five Tests in England next year,” said selection committee chairman MSK Prasad. “It is always good to play and get that first-hand feel of the conditions. From a selection point of view, he has been rested first and then he has been given consent by the BCCI to go and play county cricket,” Prasad said while announcing the squad for the Sri Lanka series.

Hence, summoning him back for a relatively inconsequential series, even if it be against Australia which promises a feisty encounter, would be as much counter-productive as counter-intuitive. For all the gravitas of playing Australia, in any format, these are pointless fixtures, more like fillers. The selectors, as much as Ashwin himself, would rather want him to lap up as much first-class acclimatisation as possible in a limited time-frame. As such, just four matches, which is all what remained in the county season when Ashwin signed the Worcestershire contract after the Tests in Sri Lanka, couldn’t be enough to gain adequate mastery over the conditions. Had his services been availed for the Australia series, his exposure would have been restricted to just two outings, which would have nullified the whole purpose. If the county season had overlapped the New Zealand series, chances were that he would’ve still been playing at the leafy New Road stadium, fuelling Worcestershire’s promotion bid.

Calendar-cramming has made it incredibly difficult for active, all-weather Indian cricketers to spare time for county exposure, the benefits of which previous generations swear by. Indian cricketers no longer flock to England in April and May as they used to in the pre-IPL era and county directors are increasingly sceptical about setting apart the lone overseas berth for an Indian player. While someone like Test specialist Cheteshwar Pujara could afford a lengthy spell, it’s less straightforward for the likes of Ashwin, or Kohli who has expressed his desire to play county cricket several times.

Hence, he has to prioritise his season to find a sufficient gap. Book-ended by vast stretches of Test cricket at home and abroad, this was perhaps the best possible window for him to realise his “childhood dream” of playing county cricket. But it’s not just the romance of a lingering childhood dream, Ashwin is ravenously keen to master the cold (literally and figuratively) conditions and tame the disobliging Duke ball. Ashwin admitted as much to ESPN Cricinfo: “With the pace with which the international cricket calendar is set up, you don’t have a long time to prepare. That might even cost you a Test match. So these experiences can be banked upon and, if you can learn faster – which I pride myself upon – the results can come a bit faster.”

For all his staggering numbers racked up in the subcontinent, Ashwin understands that he needs to replicate similar feats in overseas conditions, not least for being enlisted into the pantheon of greats, but for orchestrating wins that would shut the naysayers who snide at his overseas statistics. It’s not as despicable as some might think – it’s a still creditable 31, but filter the numbers to Australia, South Africa and England, and it’s a miserable 56.58. In England, in 2014, he was so toothless – three wickets in two Tests – that the most indelible image of him was his head plunged into a thick book on the dressing room balcony, his face wearing a fey and forlorn expression, his mind, admittedly, torn and restless. He hopes the county stint can reverse his fortunes next year.

He began on a productive note – with eight wickets in his first match against Gloucestershire- though the pitch was admittedly doctored to suit his needs. He went wicketless in the next match, against Nottinghamshire, for whom plays Pujara. But Ashwin isn’t too concerned about purchasing wickets. “I wanted to work on exploiting the rough, on using angles and on using a greasy ball. My bowling figures aren’t so important; it’s about making a difference for the team and challenging myself to bowl in tough conditions,” he said.

His opportunity, to no less extent, was made possible by the resurgence of spinners like Kuldeep and Axar . But when the build-up to the World Cup starts, Ashwin could again be back in the scheme, and usurp them all. So it’s churlish to even suggest that Ashwin is out due to his form or is being morphed into a Test-match specialist. There is a grander scheme.

Squad: Virat Kohli (captain), Rohit Sharma (vice captain), Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Manish Pandey, Kedar Jadhav, Ajinkya Rahane, MS Dhoni, Hardik Pandya, Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami

IN: Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Out: Shardul Thakur

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