Like marionettes under a puppeteer’s strings, the world’s batsmen are flailing helplessly, as if hypnotised, when enmeshed in one of Ravichandran Ashwin’s spells. And quite literally, they’re under his thumb. Broadly, slow bowlers are classified into two categories: finger spinners and wrist spinners. The thumb is hardly ever given its due when talking about tweakers. But off-spinner Ashwin, currently in red hot form with the ball and bat, has given the thumb its due; he uses it frequently to generate that completely unplayable delivery. It is this finger that aides his deadly ‘carrom ball’—he calls it ‘Sodukku Ball’, meaning ‘snapping of fingers’ in Tamil. The touring English batsmen are currently floundering when confronted with the carrom ball and other choice weapons in Ashwin’s arsenal.
Ashwin, 30, is the main reason for India taking an unassailable 3-0 lead in the ongoing five-Test series. The Tamil Nadu bowler has snared 27 wickets at an average of 23.70 in the first four Tests against Alastair Cook’s hapless Englishmen. He has taken his 2016 wickets tally to 71 in 11 Tests at 21.32—and his career tally to 247 wickets in 43 Tests—and consolidated his No 1 spot on the ICC rankings. With one more Test to go before the year is out, Ashwin is set to cause more trouble for England. “He is the best among the available spinners. He is a good student, is accurate, and reads his opponents well. He backs his plans, and knows what he is doing,” Harbhajan Singh tells Outlook about the man who replaced him in the Indian team. Although Harbhajan staged a comeback later, Ashwin’s mastery of craft and utter invincibility on Indian tracks means he has largely been preferred by successive selection committees, except a small break. Bhajji, however, hasn’t given up hope of winning a spot—the new father says he would be returning to limited overs domestic tournaments in the new year.
The most singular talent to have come out of the much-maligned twenty20 cricket—more specifically the IPL—Ashwin has earned his place by improving considerably since making a sensational Test debut, capturing nine wickets against the West Indies in Delhi in 2011 which won him the man of the match trophy. After a few ups and downs, he has added variety to his repertoire—the potent carrom ball, and high and low releases of deliveries. He also bowls the arm ball and off-spinners with a lot more accuracy now, and varies his line and length deceptively. He has also improved upon his temperament, both as a bowler and a batsman, and is now seen as a genuine all-rounder. Being a sharp student of the game, Ashwin does his homework diligently—every opponent batsman is marked, and strengths and weaknesses slotted accordingly. The dismissal of Joe Root in the first innings of the Mumbai Test last week is a classic example. Ashwin pitched the ball outside off-stump, enticed him into driving and induced an edge to the slip. “I must say I reworked that dismissal in my head because he has got out a lot of times in the slips. In the last three Tests that we played, he nicked one in Vizag and Mohali. I saw him nick Dane Piedt in South Africa. He has done it quite a few times to Nathan Lyon [of Australia] as well. So, I was just mentally working it over and it happened,” he later revealed.
Former India left-arm spinner Maninder Singh calls Ashwin’s current form a ‘golden period’. “With the advantage of his height and the loop he’s creating doubts in batsmen’s minds. The revolutions he imparts on the ball keep batsmen guessing,” he says. Ramesh Powar, a former Test off-spinner, calls Ashwin a ‘big impact player’. “He has grown into a phenomenon. He has variations, and I doubt if anyone else can be like him,” he avers. Former off-spinner Gopal Sharma feels Ashwin will improve further. “He’s got a lot of variations and his outgoing ball is better. Spinners keep improving with experience,” he says. However, Maninder says designer pitches prepared for India’s slow bowlers have assisted Ashwin too—a point that many other experts and former players have also made. “After Dhoni lost 0-4 to Australia and 0-4 to England in 2011-12, Indian curators understood what kind of pitches to prepare. But let’s give credit to Ashwin for his performance, because if he is taking wickets why other spinners aren’t?” asks Maninder.
While Ashwin’s home statistics are fabulous, experts point to his statistics overseas (see graphic). Against 6.92 wickets per Test at home, he has managed only 3.94 wickets abroad. But legendary left-arm spinner Rajinder Goel, defends Ashwin. “After a long time, India has found a good off-spinner who looks unplayable. An Indian team without him is not complete,” he says. “Also, home advantage should be taken [in terms of pitches].” Ashwin was dropped from Tests in December 2013 after going wicketless against South Africa in Johannesburg. He wasn’t picked for the next six Tests. But Ashwin’s comeback glut of wickets has not stopped ever since, and he has blossomed under Virat Kohli. For now, the world’s greatest batsmen are cowering under his sodukku.