Ben Jones analyses how the Indian off spinner overcame his issues away from home.
In the first four years of his career, Ashwin did not travel well.
His first nine Tests outside of India, including two chastening tours of Australia, saw him average 56.58, taking a wicket every 104 deliveries. Often, in those early trips overseas, he bowled slowly, and very full; 37% of his deliveries on that first Australian tour were “full”, his average speed down at 84kph. Flight is fine, but it generally needs turn to be effective, and Ashwin found very little, an average of just 2.8 degrees across the series. It was never going to be enough to trouble the Australians on good pitches.
But if there’s one thing we know about Ashwin, it’s that he’s a thinker. Few players are as open about their almost academic approach to the game, as willing to place themselves in the public debate as an intellectual of the game. He went away and considered what needed to change about his approach in overseas conditions, and made those necessary tweaks. Overall, his average pace dropped by about 2kph, and he bowled about 15cm shorter – his plans overseas changed, and with it, so did his record. Since that Australia tour in 2014/15, Ashwin averages 24.03 away from home, and 26.50 outside of Asia.
If that sounds like a very sweeping assessment of Ashwin’s methodology change, then you’re right – it is, but with reason. We can far too easily obsess over the “right” way for a player to bowl, particularly spinners, and particularly with regard to speeds. Yet the success we saw for Ashwin today was not because he found the perfect ball and stuck with it; it was because he, over years of trying to evolve overseas, developed a wide range of variations, particularly with regard to his speed. After all those battles with how quickly or slowly to bowl, this was Ashwin finding his stride.
Today was the first time in an away Test that Ashwin’s speeds were almost perfectly spread. Almost exactly a third of his deliveries were below 83kph, flighted up and given all the air in Adelaide; almost exactly a third were up above 88kph, darted down to stop advancing batsmen, fired in short to bring leg slip into play; and then almost exactly a third were in the middle, that sweet spot, the best of both worlds. Change up, change down.
That variation was coming from a solid base. 75% of Ashwin’s deliveries pitched in that channel outside off stump, the highest figure he’s recorded in a Test outside of India. By setting up shop in that dangerous zone, Ashwin amplified the effectiveness of his variations. You have to establish the tune before you start improvising.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in the dismissal of Steve Smith. The game was right on the line with Smith and Labuschagne together at the crease, catches flying everywhere but never sticking, risky runs being taken and completed by a matter of inches. It was tense, but this wasn’t quiet cricket; it was a chaotic passage with both sides fully aware of what was being player for. Amidst this frenzied tension, Ashwin delivered a dream one-two punch. The orthodox off break hummed down at 84kph, pitching just outside off and gripping. 4.2 degrees of turn invited Smith to open himself up and whip into the legside, though the ball ended up safely with the mid-on fielder. The very next ball, Ashwin fizzed in a quicker ball, up to 92kph but pitching almost exactly on the same spot as the previous delivery. Smith opened his body again but then defeated by the pace and the lack of spin – just 1.2 degrees this time – he played down the wrong line and edged to first slip. It was the sort of concentrated set-up and execution we’re used to seeing in white ball cricket, where bowlers have less time to waste. At 34 years old and on the first over of his fourth tour, bowling to the best batsman in the world, it’s no surprise that Ashwin felt similarly.
The wicket of Travis Head, while less headline-grabbing, was a similar display of subtle variation. Ashwin was always going to be going after the Australian No.5, given his status as one of only two left-handers in the Australian top order, and so it proved. After having a very strong LBW appeal turned down (which would have remained out had it been given out on the field), Ashwin began to mix his pace up again. An 89kph dart followed an 83kph stock ball, toying with Head’s hesitant footwork. A few overs later, he repeated the trick, moving from 88kph to 81kph, and this time it did the trick; Head was through the shot far too early, offering an easy return catch. Head was dismissed by the slowest ball he faced.
There moments of luck, on top of the guile. Cameron Green shanking a pull from a short ball, but before then Ashwin had been all over him – three false shots in 11 balls did not represent safe passage for the youngster. What’s more, for all the fortune, Green was dismissed by the quickest ball Ashwin bowled to him. It may not have been the expected method, but the Indian was trying something. You need good luck to succeed away from home.
Of course, in reality, Adelaide isn’t really “away from home” for Ashwin. Rarely has a place been as welcoming to him, in a cricketing sense at least. His record in South Australia is excellent. 15 wickets at an average of 31 is not an outrageous record on the face of it, but as an off spinner in Australia, it is. It represents the most wickets taken by a visiting off spinner at a single Australian venue in the last 30 years. For all his travails around the world this one ground has rarely pushed back his invitations.
The most immediate challenge may be resisting an Australian fourth innings chase, but the real test may come when Ashwin leaves Adelaide behind, and heads to less friendly environs. He may be able to keep up this immaculate control of line for the duration of the summer; it would be mightily impressive if he did, and would likely go some way to securing the series. India’s strategy of selecting just four frontline bowlers plus Hanuma Vihari, is reliant on Ashwin making a consistent go of it. At the very least, India need him to hold up an end, build control, and allow Kohli to exploit the markedly varying skillsets of his seam attack.
Today suggested that after years of moving up and down the gears to suit different conditions, Ashwin has found an excellent method for doing just that, and plenty more besides.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.