THE RECENTLY CONCLUDED Test match between India and New Zealand, which we won convincingly, was billed as a landmark moment since it was India’s 500th Test match. Apart from the eventual scoreline, there were several interesting sub-stories. There was Ravindra Jadeja, much vilified as an all-rounder, scoring both runs and wickets. There was C Pujara, who wasn’t just making a comeback to the team; he was making a statement with his unusually rapid batting. There was M Vijay, proving just why he is considered the country’s best opener. But all of them eventually became sidelights to another story—that of R Ashwin’s greatness.
Although he started slowly in that match, Ashwin put in yet another bravo performance. He grabbed 10 wickets and in the process became the second fastest cricketer ever to claim 200 wickets. He has accomplished this feat in just 37 Test matches. Had his previous match, against West Indies last month, not been washed out, perhaps he would have equalled the Australian bowler Clarrie Grimmett’s record of 200 wickets in 36 matches. Consider the long list of terrifying fast bowlers and wily spinners of the last almost 140 years of recognised Test cricket that Ashwin has now left behind. Dennis Lillee, Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan, Allan Donald, Waqar Younis, Ian Botham, Malcom Marshall—each one of them would easily figure in their respective countries’ dream teams. Ashwin now has a total of 19 five-wicket-haul- per-innings and five ten-wicket-hauls-per-match. Add to that his batting. He has four centuries to his credit and a batting average of almost 35, as good as any top-order batsman. He has won six player-of- the-series awards in just the 13 he has so far played, barring the current New Zealand series, more than any other Indian player. Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag, the next on the list, managed five of them throughout their careers. Given the value of his performances to the team, he is arguably in the same league as the other celebrated Indian spinner Anil Kumble.
In his temperament, Ashwin is perhaps closest to Dravid. Someone who assiduously follows and analyses the game
Much of India’s cricket conversation surrounds batsmen, whether it’s Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid or Sunil Gavaskar, and now Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. But in the last few years, Ashwin has shown what a tremendous cricketer he has become. In his manner and temperament, Ashwin is perhaps closest to Dravid. Someone who assiduously follows and analyses the game. Kohli might spend hours in the gym trying to build up his speed for match moments when he needs to run quick singles and doubles. But with Ashwin, you expect him to be at the nets or at home, holding a ball, trying to invent a new delivery.
There was a time—in November 2013 after he became India’s fastest bowler to get 100 wickets—when it appeared people had been too quick to celebrate him. In the fourth innings of a match against South Africa in Johannesburg in December 2013, he failed to pick a single wicket despite bowling 36 overs. He wasn’t picked for the playing 11 for several consecutive overseas Tests for the next whole year. He was dropped for India’s first Test in Australia in 2014. But since 2015, he’s been a revelation. He has dominated bowling charts across the world, often claiming the tag of the ‘best bowler and all-rounder’.
Ashwin is without doubt one of the best spin bowlers India has ever produced, at least playing at home. Can he be just as devastating on foreign tracks? We’ll be watching.