Domain Tests v India

Ill wind brings good for Ashwin

India's ace spinner dismissed his critics - and Australia's batters - with a dominant performance on day two

Andrew Ramsey, at the Adelaide Oval

07 December 2018, 08:29 PM

India bowlers fightback has Test poised

During the preamble for the opening Test of the Australia summer, duelling narratives about the likely threat, or lack thereof, posed by India’s pre-eminent spinner Ravi Ashwin ran concurrently.

The first, preferred by those who had witnessed Ashwin on his previous two Test tours of Australia when his 21 wickets came at a hefty price of 54 runs each, suggested he might be overlooked in favour of emerging wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav in India’s starting XI.

The parallel version was peddled by folks who had witnessed the spell that India’s second-most successful Test finger spinner has cast over opponents in recent years, and claimed Australia might even consider playing fewer left-handers in their top-order to try and quell his potency.

On the evidence proffered by the 32-year-old as India wrestled a slim advantage in the opening Domain Series Test, the first of those theories can be effectively discounted, at least for the remainder of this campaign.

Ashwin did precisely what the advocates of the second thesis had foreshadowed, by tormenting Australia’s batters with beguiling variations of pace and angle, of loop and length to create doubts among the hosts’ already uncertain top-order.

Particularly the left-handers, three of whom – rookie Marcus Harris, veteran Shaun Marsh and lynchpin Usman Khawaja – succumbed to the spinner in a pivotal hour and a bit either side of lunch today.

Despite the Adelaide Oval pitch being described by Australia quick Mitchell Starc last night as "a new-ball wicket", Ashwin posed a threat with almost every delivery he sent down in his 33 overs today that netted him 3-50 at a miserly price of one-and-a-half runs per over.

While Ashwin has proved near-unplayable on subcontinent pitches that naturally provide wild fluctuations in bounce from the very outset of Test matches, he is part of a vaunted lineage to discover that bowling off-spin in Australia is a vastly less rewarding pastime.

Although his average here of 54.17 from seven previous Tests compared to his career return of 25.44 across seven years is eminently defendable when compared to past masters of his craft.

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The game’s most successful offie, Sri Lanka’s Muthiah Muralidaran managed just 12 wickets at 75 from his unhappy sojourns to Australia.

And other pre-eminent finger spinners of the modern era such as England’s Graeme Swann (22 wickets at 53) and ex-India tweaker Harbhajan Singh (nine at 73) also struggled in Australia.

Largely because pitches here offer noticeable bounce, but little in the way of natural attrition as games progress which means the repertoire employed by finger spinners on wearing Asian tracks is largely ineffectual down under.

The most dangerous visiting off-break bowler of recent times has been Pakistan’s Saqlain Mushtaq, whose 14 wickets at 34.14 from four Tests between 1995 and 1999 with the caveat that his principal weapon was his fiendishly disguised wrong-un or 'doosra'.

Ashwin pointedly dismisses suggestions that Australia pitches render him impotent despite his conflated figures here, and adds that he holds no recollection of local batters "taking me down" in Tests.

Ashwin enjoying bowling in Adelaide

But he admits that on his first visit in 2011-12, he found trouble bowling at then Australia captain Michael Clarke who crowned that series with an epic triple-century in the second Test at the SCG, where Ashwin pocketed a barren 0-157 from 44 overs.

"I thought Michael Clarke played me really well," Ashwin said tonight, with India holding a 59-run lead and searching for the final three Australia wickets come the start of day three tomorrow.

"He drove me through the covers really well, I wasn’t putting any speed on the ball and I kept tossing it up.

"So that’s where you learn, from burning your fingers once."

From the moment he was tossed the ball midway through today’s first session, he showed just what he had learned much from his previous efforts in Australia and applied that intelligence with telling impact.

With an increasingly gusty northerly blowing directly in his face, Ashwin’s initial offering today was a slow, flighted off-break that bore little resemblance for the fast, flat darts that have become his trademark and see him often utilised almost as an auxiliary medium-pacer.

For 22 overs until the tea interval, he bowled without respite as the temperature pushed past 38 degrees Celsius and the hot breeze gusted in excess of 50kph, to stymie all Australia’s attempts to build momentum.

He noted that the pitch was playing slower than had been the case on the opening day, a trend he expects to continue through until game’s end, and it was therefore the pace at which the ball left his hand that was most likely to confound his foes.

Ashwin’s bowling speed then fluctuated between 75km/h and the low 90s, while his plans of attack included an array of inviting full deliveries that enticed the crease-bound Australians to search for scoring opportunities.

As well as a variety of balls sent down with side spin or over-spin imparted, to further heighten the degree of difficulty for a frustrated opposition.

The one that removed rookie opener Harris was, as the debutant conceded at day’s end, a direct result of that subtly disguised bowling speed.

"It just got on to me a little bit quicker, not that I wasn’t expecting it but it came through a bit quicker," Harris said.

"It didn’t really drift too much at all."

However, it was the drift afforded by that stiff northerly that Ashwin later acknowledged had so crucialy aided his cause, that helped account for the next left-hander on his hit list, Shaun Marsh.

Ashwin said tonight that Marsh was recognised by India as a fine player of spin bowling, so they had invested significant research effort into formulating a plan to curb his influence.

While that blueprint did not directly envisage the mode of Marsh’s dismissal today – dragging a wide, full delivery on to his stumps as he reached for a cover drive – it was the realisation of a broader strategy that they believed had brought the error.

"It was a set-up that we wanted to do, and the plan really worked – not exactly in the fashion that he dragged it on … but it was a different plan bowling to him, going into this Test match," Ashwin said at day’s end.

The ball that accounted for Khawaja, who had diligently defied India’s bowlers for almost three hours until the slightest brush of ball on a glove proved his undoing, was perhaps the pick of Ashwin’s deliveries at the height of his most influential spell.

But while he conceded the north wind, which is forecast to revert to a more traditional westerly in coming days, was a decisive factor in his dominance of the left-handers, he claimed the pitch offered him more help bowling to Australia’s right-handers.

"Actually, there is a footmark to the right-handers," Ashwin said this evening.

"From there, there’s a lot of help with the odd ball spinning and some going straight.

"I haven’t bowled to right-handers much in this game, and there’s a lot more action happening to the right handers.

"There isn’t much for the left-handers when they’re coming out to face, but it’s not easy to make the shots if you get the pace right.

"There’s a little bit of hold because of the grass."

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