India's long, almost eternal, search for a reliable Test all-rounder may have been over with Ravichandran Ashwin proving himself with a remarkable degree of consistency with ball and bat and some noticeable performances over the last several years both when bowling and batting.
Amid so much media hype built around Ravindra Jadeja, who is yet to convince us with the bat at the highest level regardless of his prolific scoring in first-class cricket, Ashwin has quietly stolen the thunder and established himself as Team India's premier all-rounder.
"There is no doubt Ashwin is one of the leading all-rounders of the world. To take 200 wickets in so few Test matches and score as many as four centuries batting at No. 6 or 7 is a huge credit to his cricketing genius," former India wicketkeeper Nayan Mongia told Outlook.
"By all means he is far better than Jadeja. While no praise can be too high for his bowling, he has been quite a revelation as a batsman. Unlike many late-order batsmen, he is not a slogger. Far from it. He has got solid technique and sound temperament and appears to be a compact batsman who makes good use of his height."
Ashwin seems capable of batting higher up in the order given his patience and concentration apart from technical excellence. Such a move may enable him to improve his record with the bat further and to lay claim to be a genuine all-rounder.
"I am a bit reluctant to call him a genuine all-rounder. No, not yet. Nor would I want him to bat higher up. He is fine batting at No. 6 or 7. Do not forget he is our main strike bowler. Though he is equipped with the right technique, we do not want to see him get injured batting up in the order and facing the new-ball bowlers."
However, someone like Gundappa Viswanath has "no doubt" about his "ability and class" as an all-rounder.
"Ashwin does appear to me to be a genuine all-rounder. You just have to look at the way he bowls and bats to understand this. He has long translated his promise with ball and bat into concrete performances in the serious business of Test cricket," the former India batsman, captain, chairman of selectors and ICC match referee told Outlook.
"He never ceases to impress me with his technique, which is ideal for Test match batting Indeed, it is after a long time that India has unearthed a player who bats so well at No. 6 or 7. So what if Ashwin has not scored heavily against better attacks? I am sure he will in due course of time and when he gets opportunities.
"With Ashwin being there down the order to take care of the innings in case of some early setbacks, batsmen at the top can play a bit freely and score quickly. The two Test hundreds in the West Indies must have done a world of good to his confidence as it reflects in the easy and seemingly effortlessly brilliant manner in which he bats now."
Some praise this. Viswanath, a veteran of 91 Tests, is not known to waste compliments on undeserving players, let alone give in to hyperbole. He made a valid point that Ashwin would prove his ability with the bat against stronger sides with better attacks.
Ashwin is 30, an age when a cricketer attains full maturity, and gives the impression of being at the pinnacle of his prowess. He is a kingpin of Team India, in Tests as well as ODIs, and both Virat Kohli and Mahendra Singh Dhoni know his value and importance only too well. Leave out Ashwin and Team India will appear a haggard side.
His record, particularly as a world-class off-spinner, speaks volumes for his standing in world cricket. It is simply mind-boggling that he has taken 207 wickets at 25.14 apiece in only 38 Tests and 70 innings.
He may still have missed by a whisker Clarrie Grimmett's world record of pocketing 200 wickets in minimum number of Tests, but he has left behind someone like Muttiah Muralitharan by miles. As if that were not enough, he has also scored 1510 runs at 33.55 (4 centuries, 6 half-centuries) in 55 innings remaining not out 10 times. If this is not greatness, what is?
It is a vital piece of statistics that while Ashwin completed 200 wickets in only 37 Tests, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh achieved the feat in 47 and 46 appearances respectively. When hunting in a pair, spinners are more effective. Not only does it seem but it has often been proved.
Kumble and Harbhajan had forged a lethal combination, but Ashwin has been ploughing a lonely furrow, more or less, with Pragyan Ojha or Amit Mishra or Jadeja for company sometimes. Yet he has achieved a kind of success not many can even dream of.
Harbhajan may have said that many of Ashwin's wickets have come on designer Indian pitches. But he needs to check his own record. Ashwin may not have been as deadly on pitches conducive to fast bowling as on turners, especially outside the subcontinent, but he has not been less impressive.
As recently as in the second Test against New Zealand in Calcutta on a sporting Eden Gardens wicket, Ashwin consumed the dangerous triumvirate of Martin Guptil (24), Ross Taylor (4) and Tom Latham (74) in the second essay and made the task easier for other bowlers to send the Kiwis packing.
Ashwin has been a match-winner, period, since his debut against the West Indies at Delhi in November 2011. He claimed 9 wickets (3 for 81 and 6 for 47) in that Test to author a handsome 5-wicket Indian win.
No, it was no cakewalk for India. The visitors scored 304 in the first innings and then bowled the hosts out for a paltry 209. But Ashwin ran through the West Indies second innings and India chased down the target of 276 with a day to spare. The debutant was deservedly declared the Man of the Match.
To borrow an oft-repeated cricketing cliché, Ashwin has not looked back since. In fact, if he is not indisposed or unfit, hardly does an Indian win go without Ashwin contributing with the ball. And sometimes with the bat as well.
His recent all-round displays are a case in point. He has so far won an identical six Man of the Match and Man of the Series awards in Test cricket. The man who, along with Ajantha Mendis of Sri Lanka, claims to have perfected the "carrom ball" does not seek or chase records. He keeps bowling and dismissing batsmen and the records just keep falling to him like ninepins.
Ashwin has already had some stellar shows to his credit. Considering his increasing confidence and the form he is in, his best may just be round the corner. India is going to host a number of Tests this season and we may be in for a special tour de force or two from this prodigiously gifted and thinking cricketer.
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