A fighter by his trade

Whichever way one leans while judging him as a bowler in T20 — swearing by his miserly economy rate or going by his paralysing strike-rates — R. Ashwin seems to have compelling evidence in his favour, writes Raakesh Natraj.

The demands that Twenty20 places on a bowler and his effectiveness in the format follow a pattern which is rather skewed. While some operate in the power-play overs, with the field in and the ball hard, a few others are required to ply their trade in the death overs. Neither of these offer any respite, with the batsmen winding up even before the bowler has begun his run-up. Then the allocation of the four-over quota robs the bowler of rhythm, preventing him from setting up a batsman for a dismissal.

The bowlers are perhaps analogous to the defenders in football, having to deal with relentless aggressors who at the end of the day are going to be far more popular, not to mention better decorated.

With the dice thus loaded, Chennai Super Kings' R. Ashwin has made a curious and rather strong case for himself. Whichever way one leans while judging him as a bowler in T20 — swearing by his miserly economy rate or going by his paralysing strike-rates — Ashwin seems to have compelling evidence in his favour.

Though Pragyan Ojha (Deccan Chargers) leads the wickets count comfortably at the time of writing, with 18 scalps in 13 encounters, Ashwin's 11 have come from only nine matches. Among bowlers with 10 or more wickets, Ashwin has the second best economy rate at 6.52, only marginally behind Anil Kumble's 6.46. Piyush Chawla (Kings XI Punjab) is a distant 11th on this count, trailing the likes of Kieron Pollard (Mumbai Indians), Siddarth Trivedi (Rajasthan Royals) and Andrew Symonds (Deccan Chargers). In terms of strike-rate, Ashwin's 19.6 is the fifth best among spinners with 10 wickets or more.

IPL-2 saw Ashwin start just two matches and he bowled in only one of them, starring in Chennai's defence of a moderate score in the league match against Kings XI Punjab. With the ensuing Ranji season pushing him further towards national reckoning, the current edition of the IPL saw Ashwin getting his chances from the word go.

Chennai's indifferent start in IPL-3 mirrored Ashwin's form and he was the first to go when M. S. Dhoni attempted to beef up his distinctly brittle batting. With Matthew Hayden and Muttiah Muralitharan being certainties in the initial part of the season, Ashwin was either seen as being superfluous to the team's requirement or was sacrificed to make way for the extra paceman. In the absence of a strong showing, the off-spinner failed to make the team for the World T20 championship, and the personal nadir was, ironically, the match versus Kings XI Punjab, the team against whom he had made his name previously. Ashwin's aspirations of filling up the all-rounder's slot took a serious hit when he couldn't score a run off two balls in a match that Chennai eventually lost after it went to the Super Over.

With that Ashwin was dropped from the Chennai outfit, and when he made his way back into the team, it was partly due to Muralitharan's patchy form and partly because of an attempt to balance the side's foreign resources among the batting and bowling departments. His second coming in the tournament, however, has been remarkable — he picked up eight wickets in his four matches since, at an economy rate of well under six.

Ashwin tapped into the generous bounce that the Chepauk wicket offers, mixing up his deliveries, trying out the carom-ball and even the occasional leg-spinner. The spell against Kolkata Knight Riders, when he picked up three for 16, distilled the best of what he had to offer. After Chris Gayle had climbed into him for a monstrous hit, Ashwin dragged the next ball back a fraction to leave Gayle stranded mid-track. Brendon McCullum survived a close leg before shout before top-edging a fullish ball to short-fine leg and David Hussey fell over attempting to track the drift of a delivery that Ashwin seemed to control with a joy-stick. It set out to be the regular off-spinner's fare — starting from outside off and turning in to attack the stumps before drifting in a parabolic arc down the leg side. Hussey's initial push turned into a tentative lurch as he stumbled out of his crease and Dhoni whipped the bails off.

“The display,” said Ashwin, “made up for my part in losing the Kings XI Punjab game.”