Since taking up the head coach role of the Indian men’s team almost two years ago, September 2023 must have been the most satisfying month yet for Rahul Dravid.
A largely injury-free pool is in his command and India has managed to quench the thirst for a trophy with the Asia Cup win in Sri Lanka.
Star players in the World Cup movement - Jasprit Bumrah, KL Rahul and Shreyas Iyer - are back up and firing. A punt to back Suryakumar Yadav as a lower-order finisher has paid dividends, with the dashing batter striking successive fifties in a comfortable ODI series win against Australia.
Mohammad Shami is tearing in with the ball and Team India has assumed the number one status across formats before the marquee tournament.
Key problem areas have been addressed, with players rising to the fore with crucial performances. However, through the first two games in the series against Australia, India may have been confronted with another ‘headache’, coming from a player who was on the fringes for a good part of the last decade.
Ravichandran Ashwin was bolted back into the side with a surprise recall following Axar Patel’s untimely injury during the Super Four stage of the Asia Cup.
Dravid, though, did not see Ashwin’s return as a trial for a potential addition to the main World Cup squad.
“I won’t say that it’s a trial for him or anything like that. We know his quality. But it’s an opportunity for him to play games in the format. We just want to give him that opportunity to play two or three games, if required, before the World Cup,” the former India captain said before the opening game in Mohali.
Ashwin, who turned 37 last week, has turned up with a sprightly outlook to the challenge with his potent bag of tricks.
The bowling scientist, who has largely been away from the ODI blues since mid-2017, had a tough start in Mohali where he failed to adjust his lengths, often bowling too short to a set David Warner and Steve Smith with a modified round-arm action.
Ashwin went wicketless in his first spell, conceding 36 runs in six overs. The off-spinner returned to his traditional skillset in his second spell and ended up with improved returns, including a fortunate dismissal of Marnus Labuschagne, finishing his haul at one for 47 in 10 overs.
On Sunday, Ashwin had a mightier challenge at the Holkar Stadium in Indore, arguably the flattest wicket on offer in the country now.
India had amassed its highest-ever ODI total (399 for five) against Australia. Even though a weakened visiting batting lineup was upfront, bowling at the venue was almost a walk through hell.
Ashwin was steadily up for the task with a new variation to the batters. The white Kookaburra that was flying to all parts of the ground during the Indian innings in the afternoon, suddenly began to dip, drift and spin sharply off the off-spinner’s arm.
Warner, unable to counter the ball from the spinner who has dismissed him most times (14) in international cricket, brought his own card to the table. Switching from his left-handed stance, Warner attempted to fend off Ashwin’s sliders with a right-handed guard. He even managed to play a near-flawless sweep through square leg for four.
Ashwin was adept and swift to make a change and attempt another trick to confound the batters.
Moving away onto a diagonal run-up, Ashwin hopped into bamboozle Labuschagne with a dipping delivery that slid in and straightened from length to skid past the bat onto the off-stump.
Ashwin’s unique run-up had stoked some ire back in late 2021. During Dravid’s first Test in charge of the side against New Zealand in Kanpur, Ashwin briefly came around the wicket with an altered action to partially obstruct the line of sight of umpire Nitin Menon in the follow-through, leaving the cricket world divided.
Labuschagne, a budding craftsman in his own right, was left with the same sense of bewilderment of having encountered something entirely new in his beloved sport.
If he had assumed it was the regular carrom ball, he cannot be entirely blamed. It was one of Ashwin’s new science projects in full bloom, one that allows him to impart a refreshing view at the crease with sheer impulsiveness.
Warner, in his rekindled avatar, was still fidgety facing his nemesis. Attempting a reverse sweep in his new stance, Warner fell over against the regular carrom-ball. Though he got an inside edge before being adjudged leg-before, the left-hander decided against a review and trudged back.
The most dramatic moment was yet to come. Ashwin bamboozled Josh Inglis with a mirror delivery of his stock carrom - the reverse carrom ball returned in all glory. In the works since 2019, Ashwin has used the delivery with utmost deception, almost unplayable, to counter the right-hander’s evolving temperament against him.
“Seeing the way it came out of my hand the (right-handed) batsman started to set up to play it to the off side. But now I have tried to get the ball to drift into the batsmen,” Ashwin told Sky Sports in an interview in 2021.
“I have developed one that (reverse carrom ball) goes underneath. It is more of a back- flipper that gives me drift away from the left-hander and into the right-hander. I also go under the seam for it to straighten at times,” Ashwin had explained.
For the lack of variety that India’s provisionally chosen spin trio bore with three left-armers in Kuldeep Yadav, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar, Ashwin’s performance on a belter against a decent yet incomplete Aussie lineup would have been an overwhelming sight for the management.
In what was among his best white-ball outings (7-0-41-3) at home, Ashwin has given the selectors and the hierarchy a nagging problem and a chance for a gamble that could be well worth the shot.
With an injured Axar still under a cloud before the third ODI, also coinciding with the deadline day for final submission of the World Cup squads, Ashwin could emerge from the shadows to the ‘15’ for a third appearance in the tournament.
And it wouldn’t be too bad to see the veteran having another go at Warner and Co. in his backyard at the spin cauldron in Chennai when India faces Australia in its World Cup opener on October 8.
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