Can R Ashwin lead India to elusive World Cup win over South Africa?

S Venkataraghavan had a very interesting World Cup career. Six matches, all of them as captain, one victory, in the 1975 and 1979 editions combined. Bowled his full quota of 12 overs in each of those matches. 72 overs, 432 deliveries, 217 runs conceded, no wickets taken. Economy 3.01.

How is this interesting, you might ask? Venkat had multiple maidens in two of those six bowls four, actually, in the 10-wicket win over East Africa in Leeds in 1975, and a further three in the nine-wicket loss to West Indies in Birmingham four years on.

Relevance? Until last Sunday (February 15), Venkat had been the last Indian spinner to bowl three maiden overs in a World Cup innings. Until R Ashwin joined his fellow engineering graduate in that club not an elite club, not an exclusive club, but a unique club nevertheless.

It is perhaps in the fitness of things that Ashwin was to become the first spinner to emulate Venkat’s feat. Apart from the fact that both of them are engineers and both hail from Chennai, they share various other traits a sharp cricket brain, very good catching hands, and a tendency to not suffer fools gladly, slightly better concealed by Ashwin than his illustrious predecessor who is perhaps the least celebrated member of the famed spin quartet.
Three maiden overs at the top of the innings, against a side chasing 301 for victory, is commendable even in isolation. That it came against Pakistan, easily one of the better sides when it comes to playing the turning ball, made Ashwin’s exploits even more impressive.

Most eye-catching, though, was the manner in which Ashwin constructed his overs. He was brisk between balls in walking back to his run-up and was ready to trot on the moment the batsman went into his stance, but he never appeared hurried or in a rush. He was accurate, obviously, but he wasn’t merely firing darts. There was guile in terms of drift and loop and dip; there was reasonable turn too as both Ahmed Shehzad and Haris Sohail, the left-hand batsmen, found themselves tied up in knots.

Significantly, Ashwin operated from over the wicket to both the right-handed Shehzad and left-handed Sohail, at least at the start. In times gone by, one of the features of Ashwins bowling, whether through instructions or on his own, has been to slip to bowling from around the stumps for a majority, if not all, of his overs in One-Day International cricket.

On dry tracks that assist spinners with prodigious turn, it is a tactic that makes perfect sense the angle facilitates drift away from the right-hand batsman, the turn on pitching means the batsman has to play because he doesn’t know how much the ball is going to turn from there, and the chances of a leg before offering or not offering a stroke become magnified.

On better batting surfaces, it is a bit of a negative ploy, especially when the ball is bowled into the pads with six men patrolling the legside. It is perhaps one of the offshoots of the fielding restrictions that sometimes drive captains to bottle up one side of the park, but it doesn’t make for pretty viewing, especially when the practitioner is someone as skillful and versatile as Ashwin is.

The strip at Adelaide Oval was a little dry, but it wasnt a spinners paradise by any stretch of the imagination. Ashwin, used only once in the triangular series as India tried to cram game time into Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel, relished the challenge of not just bowling at Pakistans nimble-footed batsmen, but also the prospect of translating work put in in the nets into tangible results in an actual match scenario.

In Bangladesh in the World T20 last year, Ashwin was the most impressive and potent of an Indian spin combine that included Jadeja and Amit Mishra. Tracks in Mirpur, however, encouraged the slower bowlers in terms of purchase. Here in Australia, at most grounds, the spinner has to rely more on his craft than help from the pitches there will be bounce, of course, which a tall spinner like Ashwin can exploit.

Ashwin had shown during the Test series that it was a mistake to leave him out of the Adelaide game when India strangely plumped for greenhorn Karn Sharmas legspin. He carried those learnings into the Pakistan game, applying such relentless pressure in his first two spells that the batsmen were forced to look elsewhere for scoring options.

It isnt as if Ashwin has come up with any dream, magical, mysterious deliveries. He used the carrom ball sparingly, didnt try anything fancy and stuck to his guns, putting his emphasis on hard work and on working on angles of delivery by using the width of the crease at the nets to excellent use. Shehzad danced and threatened, Haris only slightly less so, but Ashwin wasnt thrown off his disciplines. The ball that accounted for Haris was one that Venkat, and Erapalli Prasanna, would have been proud of around the stumps, indeterminate length triggering uncertainty in the batsmans mind, enough turn to catch the outside edge of a tentative poke, a dolly to slip. Classic offspinner to left-hand batsman stuff.
It was, however, to be the only success Ashwin tasted that night. His returns of 8-3-41-1 doesn’t sound all that extraordinary, but 15 of those runs came in one over when, running out of partners, Misbah-ul-Haq opened his powerful shoulders and let’em rip.

That said, Ashwin would be mindful of the need for wickets. His best bowling in an ODI is 3 for 24, and while an economy of 4.91 is very, very good in modern ODI cricket and a strike rate of 39.9 deliveries that has fetched him 121 sticks from 89 games isn’t to be scoffed at, Ashwin would like a five-for. At least a four-for, to start with. For which he needs to be given the freedom to bowl attackingly with an eye on wickets, not defensively with both eyes on the rate of scoring.

Ashwin is the most experienced of the specialists in a relatively new bowling group. He was somewhat fortunate that the pacers had begun well against Pakistan. Going forward, starting with South Africa next Sunday, that luxury may not always be his. And that’s when he will have to start bowling not just for himself, but for the others as well. As the only surviving bowler from the 2011 World Cup-winning team, Ashwin must put his experience of being in this position to good use. As, you imagine, he will.

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