Remember the 2011 World Cup? Well, how can any cricket lover forget it? That powerful six by MS Dhoni that brought the cup home after 28 years, those magnificent spells by Zaheer Khan, those crisp boundaries by Sehwag to open the game in a blistering fashion, or those monumental efforts by a gutsy Yuvraj Singh. We can’t forget it. But try hard. You are forgetting something.
The rise of Ashwin:
A newcomer made his World Cup debut against West Indies in 2011, gave away 41 runs and got two wickets. This is how Ashwin came into limelight. In the quarter-final, he took the all-important wickets of Shane Watson and Ricky Ponting.
You know you don’t just start playing international cricket and dismiss Ponting in a World Cup knock-out game. We knew that Ashwin was up for something. He had made his debut in 2010 and in less than a year, Ashwin showed that he had a lot more to offer.
Unfair criticism of Ashwin:
Yet, Ashwin never got his due. Critics often compared him with the likes of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. They complained that he was not as good as Kumble or Singh, because he got rank-turners to bowl on.
Well, to be very honest, even Kumble and Harbhajan were not bowling on flat surfaces. An Indian Test match surface was always meant to offer turn and bamboozle Australian or English batsmen. If they can’t handle spin, it is their problem, just like it is team India’s problem if its batsmen can’t handle bounce and seam in overseas venues.
And if Ashwin got rank-turners to bowl on, he did offer a much better average. While Kumble and Harbhajan ended with career averages of 29.6 and 32.5 respectively, Ashwin usually concedes just 24.1 runs (average) before picking up his next victim.
And when it comes to bowling in difficult venues like the SENA countries (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia), Ashwin gets criticised unfairly all over again. In Australia, Harbhajan bowled at an average of 73.22 and Ashwin bowled at an average of 42.15. In England, Harbhajan Singh had a bowling average of 49.79, whereas Ashwin maintains a fairly decent average of 28.11.
In fact, in New Zealand also, Ashwin bowled at a good average of 33. Though Harbhajan has a better average of 24.19 in New Zealand, Ashwin has bowled only 29 overs in New Zealand, which is not a good amount of bowling to judge a spinner.
And then those who compare Ashwin to Harbhajan and Kumble don’t take the off-spinner’s batting skills into consideration. The man has five hundreds in his name and a career average of over 27, which is no mean feat for a bowling all-rounder.
Unfair treatment with Ashwin:
Recently, Ashwin pointed out that he considered taking retirement between 2018 and 2020. He also recounted how he felt “crushed” when Shastri coined Kuldeep Yadav as the team’s frontline overseas spinner in 2019. Shastri had then said, “There is a time for everyone (referring to Ashwin’s fitness and injury issues). But now Kuldeep is our frontline number one overseas spinner.”
Following Ashwin’s remarks, Shastri said, “My job is not to butter everyone’s toast. My job is to state facts without agenda.” Shastri added, “If my statement on Kuldeep (Yadav) hurt Ashwin, I’m glad I made that statement. It made him do something different.”
Shastri said it wasn’t his job to butter “everyone’s” toast. He didn’t say it wasn’t his job to butter anyone’s toast. In any case, Ashwin was the one who didn’t win favour with the then team India coach. There are players who got an extended run despite poor performance, and Ashwin was being side-tracked for injuries that are a part and parcel of any sport.
Things frankly went a bit too far when the off-spinner was dropped from white-ball cricket in July 2017, and was side-tracked in limited overs cricket for a long time. Could anyone of us have imagined Kumble getting dropped from Test matches or Harbhajan getting dropped from any format of the game at the peak of their careers? No, right?
Then why was Ashwin left out? He was bowling really well to be honest. It isn’t as if he doesn’t have the skills to bowl in the shorter formats of the game. In the T20 format, in particular, he has a stunning economy of 6.79 per over, even though he has bowled to the best in the world.
You don’t look for replacements when you have a champion bowler doing all the hard work for you. Even today, Ashwin has better economy rates in both ODIs and T20s than Kuldeep Yadav and Chahal, who were supposed to replace him.
Had Ashwin been persisted with without any attempts to drop him over minor issues, he would have played more matches and taken many more wickets. With 427 Test wickets, he is next only to two big legends of the game — Kapil Dev and Anil Kumble.
In any case, Ashwin remains one of the biggest match winners. Still, he is also the most underrated and unfairly treated bowler.