It took all of three overs for the comparisons to start. R Ashwin had just commenced his fourth over of the morning when a split-screen image popped up on TV. On one side was a freeze-frame of Nathan Lyon’s fingers at the point of release; and on the other, that of Ashwin’s. The seam was a lot more vertical on Lyon’s side of the screen while it was significantly at a slant in Ashwin’s fingers -even if the grips for their respective off-breaks weren’t too dissimilar.
The discussion in the commentary box was inevitably about the difference in their styles and the contrast in their numbers Down Under. How Lyon thrives on over-spin and hence has been successful on Australian surfaces with their extra bounce. Why Ashwin depends on side-spin and therefore hasn’t been as successful here as he is back home where there’s a lot more sideways spin on offer. Ashwin incidentally had been asked during the practice match in Sydney about what he’d learnt from Lyon’s bowling over the years. The opinionated offie had insisted how “silly” it would be for him to try and “replicate Lyon” despite the mutual admiration between the two. And once Lyon had put the Indians on notice on the opening day, Ashwin was always going to be under scrutiny once he got the ball on Friday (December 7).
The Adelaide pitch, as he would reveal later in the day, was a lot slower than it was expected to be. The sponginess was enabling the Kookaburra to grip a lot more than it usually does on these hard surfaces. It meant Ashwin could stick to his natural tendencies with the ball. Not that Ashwin’s the sort who wouldn’t have stuck to his guns even if the pitch was any different. He’d in fact categorically said he wouldn’t change anything last week.
The slowness aside, it was still a wicket without any significant turn. So it was imperative for Ashwin that he didn’t let his line or length alter too much. It was also imperative that he bowled the right pace to ensure that the stodginess of the surface could be exploited. That’s exactly what he did.
This is Ashwin’s third tour to Australia. He was all of three Tests old – all of them against a struggling West Indian outfit on home soil – when he came here for the first time. And he couldn’t quite come to grips with the conditions here. He was 21 Tests old with just over a 100 wickets to his name when he came back four years ago. Though slightly better, he still couldn’t quite create the impact that was expected of him, especially with his Australian counterpart having made the big leap up in terms of skills and performances, on these pitches.
There was a significant difference in how Ashwin went here as compared to the 2014-15 series though. While just over half of his deliveries were floated up in the air and were slower than 87 kph – according to CricViz – back then; three-quarters of the 31-year-old’s deliveries on Friday were tossed up at a “slow in the air” range. For once in Australia, he didn’t seem like an over-eager Ashwin trying to make a point and thereby compromising on his natural strengths but a calm Ashwin making a point by sticking to his natural strengths.
It helped that Australia’s inexperienced batting-order kept choosing caution over bravado against Ashwin, unlike some of their predecessors. Debutant Marcus Harris was the only one to step down and loft him for a four over mid-off. You could have imagined the likes of David Warner and Steve Smith using their feet a lot more in a bid to upset his rhythm.
In addition to the grip off the wicket, the breeze that flowed from east to west when he bowled his 22-over spell from the River End, also aided him in generating consistent drift that kept the left-handers in check, and always committed to play at the ball.
To Ashwin’s credit, he never fails to make the most of any favourable factor that comes his way, which is one of the many reasons that makes him such a world-class bowler. And it was use of the drift and the pace at which he bowled – holding the ball up and spreading the confusion in the Australian left-hander’s minds – that helped him snare two of his three victims. Harris had ironically fallen to one of his quicker deliveries on the day, which was fuller than his routine length and had him stuck in his crease and inside-edging to silly-point. Shaun Marsh and Usman Khawaja though were both beaten by the trajectory of the ball and its shape in the air. While Marsh was coaxed into playing a drive and playing-on to a delivery that was wider than he expected; Khawaja edged one that without the drift he could have conveniently left alone.
Ashwin holding the ball up in the air for longer resulted in the wickets of Marsh (above) and Khawaja © Getty
“I was getting drift both ways, in and out, and I was able to control both that drift and get the batsmen holding their feet inside the stump and outside the stump and hence hold them. That’s how we got Khawaja out and Marsh out as well. That’s something that really worked in my favour today because of the drift, the ball going away and coming back in. It happens in Melbourne, too. So I am backing on that to give me some really good results,” is how he would sum it up later.
Another strength of Ashwin’s that generally gets mixed reactions based on his results, is his attention to detail, even if it can seem pedantic to those not privy to his approach to the game or to the art of finger-spin. And India’s lead spinner had spent most of the practice session on the eve of the Test preparing for the slew of Aussie left-handers who he was slated to come up against.
He initially spent 15 minutes bowling solo at a pair of stumps from around the wicket, getting his angles and lines right. And then with Rishabh Pant busy with his wicket-keeping drills inside the stadium, Ashwin had Parthiv Patel pad up and face him for another 20 minutes, where he immersed himself further into fine-tuning his specific plans and strategies.
Ashwin of course wasn’t alone in keeping the Aussies in check. The Indian seamers had perhaps their most disciplined outing, collectively, on Australian soil in decades. With the pitch offering them little, they opted to sit back and squeeze the hosts rather than force the issue. In an unexpected twist, they were briefly even criticized for not doing what Indian seamers generally do on Australian pitches, going in search of assistance that doesn’t exist and therefore losing their lines, lengths and composure.
Bowling a driving length on Australian pitches when there’s not much in favour is akin is an act of kindness towards the batsman and not an attempt to get him out. For the trueness of the pitches then allows the batsman to trust the bounce and drive through the line, on the up. The Australians were rarely offered that privilege on Friday. Ishant Sharma, on his fourth trip to Australia which makes him perhaps the first Indian fast bowler to tour this part of the world on so many occasions – even Kapil Dev only toured here thrice – didn’t just finally get his act right, he led the way with the new-ball. He knocked out Aaron Finch in the very first over before slamming the door shut on whatever hopes the Australian batting line-up had of breaking free. Jasprit Bumrah didn’t start off too well, allowing Harris to pick him off, and conceding 24 runs in his first 5 overs. But he returned remarkably to concede only 10 runs in his next 15 overs, in which time he also got rid of the well-set Peter Handscomb and the dangerous Pat Cummins.
It was a day where Australia plodded along – with one former great even quipping “this is difficult watching” outside the commentary box – and the Indians ensured they never got away with Ashwin holding the leash.
As the sun set on Friday, Ashwin walked towards a few fans in the Riverbank Stand on his way out of the ground to the hotel. He stopped and posed for a few photographs, including one where he held on to one end of an Indian flag, which had messages printed on it. He even signed on the back of a fan’s t-shirt before finally walking away. It was perhaps the most relaxed Ashwin has looked at the end of a day’s play in a Test match on Australian soil, and understandably so. In his own way, he admitted to it too at the press conference when he said, “If I wasn’t happy with today’s spell, I won’t be happy with many other days.”