R Ashwin and the pursuit to bury Johannesburg ghosts


22nd December 2013, Johannesburg, India have pinned their hopes on Ravichandran Ashwin to spin them to victory on a relatively deteriorating surface. The visitors, for context, have set a 458-run fourth innings target and have restricted South Africa to 138/2 at the end of Day 4.

Alviro Petersen and Faf du Plessis are at the crease but India are confident they can get over the line. Not just because such a total has never really been chased down in the rainbow nation, but also because they have Ashwin in their ranks, who is largely considered the premier spinner on the planet.

Day 5 begins with India buzzing all around the Wanderers. They try to put the Proteas under pressure but see their attempts being thwarted. Du Plessis, in particular, seems intent on repeating his Adelaide heroics and sets out his stall early, meaning that even when Jacques Kallis and Petersen depart, there is hardly a furrowed brow on his forehead.

Towards the end of the second session, though, things get a little interesting. South Africa make their way to 331/4, with AB de Villiers and du Plessis en route to producing two of the best knocks ever played by South African batters in the longest format.

At the other end of the spectrum is Ashwin, who has toiled away since the second half of Day 4 and has nothing to show for his efforts. He hasn’t bowled badly. He has gotten the pitch to respond to his bowling and has caused a couple of issues. But not nearly enough to trigger a collapse and make people believe that he is indeed the best spinner in the world.

A similar tack is adopted till the last ball of the Test, meaning that India and South Africa, despite exchanging blows throughout Day 5, have to settle for a draw. At the time, both teams portray contrasting emotions, and rightly so.

India feel that they have let a massive opportunity slip, whereas the Proteas feel that they could’ve snatched victory from the jaws of a draw had they been slightly more proactive.

The pressure is on the veteran to turn things around
The pressure is on the veteran to turn things around

Neither, though, feels as dejected as Ashwin. Not only has he seen his reputation been battered, he also has to contend with the fact that he has not powered India to victory – probably for the first time in his career and definitely for the first time when expectations have been at such a crest.

In the aftermath of that game, it became a common talking point that Ashwin was incapable of being a genuine match-winner for India overseas (SENA nations specifically). Relatively uninspiring tours of Australia and England followed, meaning that a lot of weight was lent to that argument too.

There were several occasions where India required their first-choice spinner to turn up abroad. But he couldn’t. For every capitulation he instigated at Nagpur and Vishakhapatnam, there was an indifferent outing and a sense of what could’ve been at Centurion and Southampton (both in 2018). In fact, it wasn’t until very recently that Ashwin began changing perceptions.

A decent series against Australia Down Under was quickly followed by an exceptional performance in the ICC World Test Championship final – performances where Ashwin didn’t just depend on help from the surface. Instead, he used the air to hoodwink batters and took the pitch out of the equation as much as possible.

Thus, from that particular standpoint, Ashwin is perhaps in the best possible condition to spin India to victory in a Test in a SENA country. Not only has he found the right combination to pose problems, he also seems to have taken his pre-game planning and understanding of the game to another level.

So another audition as the world’s best spinner at Johannesburg seems about right, doesn’t it?

Ashwin has a chance to set the record straight

This time, much like it happened in 2013, there isn’t square turn on offer for Ashwin. But as he illustrated in Keegan Petersen’s dismissal, there is just enough to keep him interested and to tempt India into keeping realistic expectations from the off-spinner.

Apart from that, the pitch, which was baked down by sun for the entirety of play yesterday, will have a few more cracks that would’ve opened up – cracks that might bring variable bounce into question and propel him as a greater threat, considering how tight he bowls to the stumps.

Rassie van der Dussen, in particular, has a tendency to jab at the ball with low hands – something that could bring short leg and leg slip into play if there is a hint of extra bounce. Dean Elgar, on the other hand, has been dismissed by the off-spinner six times in Test cricket – the most against any bowler in the format.

The Indian, though, might have to rewrite a bit of history if he is to become South Africa’s wrecker-in-chief. Ashwin has bowled 60 overs at the Wanderers throughout his Test career and has a solitary wicket – that of Petersen on Day 3 of the ongoing game. He has bowled only seven maidens, hinting that he hasn’t really been able to build pressure either.

Thus, there are significant ghosts that he has to bury at the Wanderers, not just for his sake but for that of the Indian cricket team. Thankfully for the visitors, Ashwin seems an individual who will find a way to eradicate the only blot on what has otherwise been a fine and relatively spotless career.

Years ago, when India rocked up in South Africa, MS Dhoni (the captain then), longed for Ashwin to turn up and spin a web like he usually does at home. KL Rahul might not be hoping for that much, although he’d love for the veteran to break open the game at crucial junctures.

There might be a situation where the pacers do the bulk of the work and render the spinner’s job redundant. But if Ashwin is called upon, he better be ready to remove the only asterisk that remains in his record.

Life really does throw up these cyclical coincidences, doesn’t it?

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