Tall at 6ft 2in and as persistently accurate in finding his target as a mosquito, when Ravichandran Ashwin eventually hangs up his spikes, and the tributes pour in from all quarters, this first Test against once formidable West Indies in Dominica will surely be cited among the very best of his bowling performances for India.
Ashwin had already sent the match on a seemingly irreversible path with the ball on the opening day, taking five for 60 in 24.3 overs as Kraigg Brathwaite’s side were gutted for 150 all out. Anyone who spent the rainy afternoon tracking Windies’ stagger around India will remember the off‑spinner wiping out batting lineups with the ease of a lazy swipe of the monopoly board.
A world-class bowler, the fastest to 300 Test wickets, he had, for tactical reasons, been carrying the drinks around England in WTC final this summer. Following India’s distasteful thrashing at the Oval, though, the clamour has been growing for him to play in the Windies Test series.
Save debutant left-hander Alick Athanaze (47 off 99), who batted responsibly till his dismissal, none of the Caribbean batters had the technique to survive on a slow turner as none of them could even cross 20-run mark as Ashwin and the pitch preyed on scrambled minds.
Justifying his top billing in ICC Test bowlers` ranking, the 36-year-old varied his pace, bowling a few sliders and pushing some other deliveries across to right handers while effectively using the drift to bowl conventional off-breaks to left-handers.
Making full use of the slow two-paced track that also offered turn and bounce, Ashwin had reasons to be chuffed as he became third Indian bowler after Anil Kumble (956 wickets) and Harbhajan Singh (711) to complete 700 scalps across formats in international cricket, besides achieving the distinction of being first Indian bowler to dismiss father and son when he got rid of Shivnarine Chanderpaul`s son Tagenarine, having dismissed the father on his Test debut in 2011.
With more than an hour available for batting skipper Rohit Sharma (30 batting, 65 balls) and debutant Yashasvi Jaiswal (40 batting, 73 balls) added 80 runs for the opening stand to bring down first innings deficit to 70 going into second day. The new opening pair looked comfortable as there is not much help for the bowlers with Indian skipper hitting his customary `Nataraja` pull-shot and soothing straight drive.
Runs on the board only go so far to explain this, with Ashwin in particular relentless in his probing of defences, using all the variety and changes of pace that emerge from his cocktail-shaking finger spin and mate Ravindra Jadeja (3/26 in 14 overs) beautifully complementing him to make life miserable for the home team batters.
The tireless Mohammed Siraj (12-2-25-1) also deserves a lot of credit as he bowled a beautiful fuller length during first session, changed his tactic to use a lot more bouncers post-lunch to hurry the batters on a slow track.
One such delivery accounted for Jason Holder, who took the bait and was holed out at square leg boundary for the fielder stationed for that mistimed pull-shot. Siraj was also brilliant on the field as his diving catch at mid-off to dismiss Jermaine Blackwood off Jadeja`s bowling was top notch effort.
The decision to bat on a track that offered turn and bounce on very first day, backfired for Caribbean batters, most of whom lacked requisite patience to deal with it.
Shardul Thakur (7-3-15-1), operating as the third seamer in overseas conditions for the first time, continued with his happy knack of picking wickets with Jaydev Unadkat (7-2-17-0) also doing his job commendably.
Opting to bat first, West Indies openers Chanderpaul (12, 44 balls) and skipper Kraigg Brathwaite (20 off 46 balls) went into a shell during the first hour as both Siraj and Unadkat beating the outside edge of both batters on multiple occasions.
Tagenarine`s stance and trigger shuffle from leg to off-stump does have an uncanny resemblance with his illustrious father Shivnarine although he is slightly more side-on compared to his `Old Man`.
Sensing his shuffle, Ashwin got one to hang in the air and drift into the southpaw, who played inside the line only to find it beat his outside edge after pitching and there was a death rattle.
West Indies skipper Brathwaite, easily the best Test batter in the side over the last five years, was increasingly getting frustrated as Ashwin bowled slightly quicker at times to him.
He did try to hit out of trouble with a slog swept boundary but the canny operator fired one across the line, inducing Brathwaite to go for a mindless bottom-handed slog over mid-on. However the mistimed slog only became easiest skiers for skipper Rohit Sharma stationed at cover.
Left-handed Raymon Reifer (2 off 18 balls) never looked in control as Siraj softened him up with some short balls.
So when Thakur, who is a notch slower came into the attack, he wanted to come on front-foot and get his cover drive going. Thakur quickly slipped one across the stumps and the thick outside edge was snapped by a diving Ishant Kishan behind the stumps.
In the post lunch session, Athanaze, who looked most comfortable against Ashwin did hit some lusty blows but was done in by slowness of the track as he couldn`t time a short ball and the skier was gobbled up by Thakur.
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Over the years, the lanky all-rounder has bowled off-breaks, carrom balls, the undercutter, leg-breaks, googlies, and on occasion in the nets even slow left-arm orthodox. As a younger man, this was Ashwin’s way of staying one step ahead of batsmen. When one thing did not work, he would try something else. Anything but giving the ball away to another bowler.
With age has come maturity and the realisation that what looks exciting, and may appeal to any Indian Premier League (IPL) franchise, does not impress Test batsmen much. With experience has come the knowledge that each delivery need not look different in order to provide variation.
If his career has been marked by an obsession with the game, and in this case the word comes without the baggage of the negative connotations sometimes attached to it, it has been kept alive by a constant quest to reinvent himself and stay relevant. Every cricketer will tell you that the day you stop learning, the day you believe you have mastered the game, is when it comes back to bite you.
For Ashwin, the learning curve has continued to trend upwards, because he is more acutely aware of himself as a human being and cricketer now than when he was beginning. At 36, Ashwin understands his limitations, of body more than anything else, and has used his mind to overcome.
All told, Brathwaite’s men have simply met an India side better equipped for the extreme, but not unfair, conditions rolled out in Dominica and must go into the second day on Thursday knowing parity is a halfway scoreline they would have taken. Their visitors will be brimming with confidence, however, and none more so than the irrepressible Ashwin.