Ashwin and the all-rounder albatross

These are still early days for Ravichandran Ashwin and the tour of Australia should reveal further layers that add value to him. But, for the time being, the hopes of him becoing the next big Indian all-rounder should be tempered down though he has displayed the right signs, writes K.C. Vijaya Kumar.

Firm first steps, obvious talent and the right attitude have mirrored R. Ashwin's prolific debut in the Test series against West Indies. Ashwin's growth became visible beyond Chennai thanks to the Indian Premier League and his subsequent exploits in One-Day Internationals, but for those who have observed him from his formative years, the off-spinner's success was an apt reflection of his ability that was honed in the tough local league and Ranji Trophy matches.

The rapid evolution of Ashwin in the Test arena was reflected in the gradual shift in questions that were raised about him in innumerable press conferences over the last three weeks. The queries that started with ‘Ashwin as Harbhajan Singh's replacement' at Delhi, finally ended with ‘Can Ashwin be groomed as an all-rounder' after the dust settled at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium. A pragmatic M. S. Dhoni said: “His job is to bowl and the runs he scores should be considered as a bonus.”

The all-rounder moniker is a double-edged sword and in a nation that is yet to find a player in Kapil Dev's league since his retirement in 1994, many players who hinted at possessing multi-faceted talent, have not made the full leap into that mighty territory.

Ajit Agarkar scored a hundred at Lord's and was also notorious for a series of ducks in Australia. Anil Kumble notched the three-figure mark at the Oval.

Irfan Pathan etched a 102 against Pakistan at Bangalore. And Harbhajan slammed two tons against New Zealand. Among this quartet, Kumble and Pathan possessed adequate batting skills while Harbhajan and Agarkar, often rode on belief and a tail-ender's innate optimism.

Ashwin's main job is to take wickets. Whatever runs he gets will be a bonus, says his skipper M.S. Dhoni.-

Ashwin's fluent 103 in the third Test against the West Indies at Mumbai, has helped him join that list of Indian men who are primarily bowlers indulging in their odd streaks of batting sunshine. In the post-match presentation ceremony at the Wankhede Stadium, Ashwin spoke to Ravi Shastri, who was an all-rounder with a difference. Shastri flew to New Zealand after an emergency call from the team management in 1981 primarily on the strength of him being a left-arm spinner but when he retired after a 11-year international career, he was known more for his doughty role as an opener. Shastri's numbers — 3830 runs and 151 wickets from 80 Tests — might hint at a talent that was equally distributed between his twin-facets of batting and bowling but it is a fact that in the second half of his career, the current commentator owned a place in the squad mainly for his willow-wielding skills.

The history of the Indian all-rounder has been truly varied and after his hundred at the Wankhede Stadium, Ashwin will face murmurs about his batting skills in the days to come because he has the technique and ability to pass scrutiny in Tests. His 22 wickets and 121 runs from the three matches against the West Indies have pitch-forked him into a slippery terrain of expectations, the force of which he felt during the final day's chase at Mumbai. With just the tail for company, Ashwin was expected to guide the chase and secure an Indian victory though only a draw emerged despite his efforts.

Ashwin's maiden ton was aesthetically constructed and featured a bouquet of shots that echoed control and finesse and these are traits that also enrich his bowling. He was alert to the dab past third-man and the drives down the ground and his refreshing no-fuss approach helped Virat Kohli bide time and settle down. Rivals — skipper Darren Sammy and Ravi Rampaul — praised the off-spinner's batting skills and team-mate Kohli stressed on the valid point about how Ashwin's confidence at the crease was also an off-shoot from his success as a bowler.

W. V. Raman, former Indian player and the man who influenced Ashwin while coaching Tamil Nadu in the past, said: “The strength of Ashwin is that he does not complicate his batting. He keeps it simple. He has the ability and the belief. He can be groomed as an all-rounder but he has to be a bowling all-rounder. His job is to bowl and get wickets and the runs he scores should be considered as a bonus. I am not saying this in a negative sense. Yes he has scored a hundred but it would be unfair to expect him to do that all the time. If he can score a 30 or 40 in every third innings, he would have done more than enough for the team. In the past we had Anil Kumble, who had good batting ability but somehow that talent was not utilised properly by the team. Ashwin should keep working on his batting.”

Ashwin's faith in his batting was evident when he spoke during the course of the series before the hundred. “This has been a dream debut but it would have been even better if I had scored some runs for the team,” he said. After suffering a nought at Delhi and remaining unbeaten on four at Kolkata, Ashwin's bat sprung to life at Mumbai and revived that old yearning for an all-rounder.

These are still early days and the tour of Australia, should reveal further layers that add value to Ashwin. But, for the time being, the hopes of him becoing the next big Indian all-rounder should be tempered down though he has displayed the right signs.