Why isn’t R Ashwin the allrounder raved as much as he should be? Why isn’t he the vice-captain of the Indian Test team? The first question’s failure is on us, the watchers. The second reflects the conservative vision of the current Indian think tank where they hedge on the known – and fail.
You never appreciate what you have until it is gone…. That thought might have played in the minds of numerous Indian fans as Ashwin scored the winning runs in the Mirpur Test on Sunday. Down at 74 for 7, Ashwin cradled India to another Test series win, walking away with the Man of the Match Trophy.
There are only two cricketers who have scored over 3,000 runs and taken 400-plus wickets in Test matches for India. One is Kapil Dev, the greatest star allrounder Indian cricket has ever seen, and the other is Ashwin. At 36, he is the senior most in the team, and in a team that includes Ravindra Jadeja, Ashwin still stands out as a serial match-winner as an all-rounder. He has more centuries than Jadeja and has more wickets. And over the last three years where Jadeja has evolved more into a batsman, Ashwin has still ended up playing three innings that are bound to hold a special place in his heart.
A few years ago, there was this question about Ashwin the batsman. Undoubtedly he has the talent, even Test centuries, but can he take the heat and still deliver?
There was that epic at the SCG, where he withstood blows from a red-hot Australia pace attack. There was that century at Chepauk, which silenced England’s batsmen who were complaining about the pitch. The latest in the list is the unbeaten 42 against Bangladesh on Sunday, which has kept India’s hopes of World Test Championship final qualification, alive. And if these performances aren’t enough, then look around: there is Axar waiting to replace Jadeja, but there is no classical off-spinner in the mould of Ashwin.
All this makes for a great player. Even in a country that has produced some cult spinners, and should an all-time India XI be drawn, it would be almost impossible to leave Ashwin out. In a team that has Virat Kohli, Jasprit Bumrah, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant, Jadeja, Ashwin remains their MVP in Tests, irrespective of the conditions. Of course, India have chosen to even leave him out in overseas conditions even when they play five bowlers, but that has more to do with playing four pacers so that none of them is overbowled.But whenever they have comeback to sub-continental conditions, Ashwin continues to be their first name on the team sheet.
Yet, as India are entering a transition phase, with no regular, dependable Test captain in sight, it is curious that the selectors never really looked at Ashwin even as a vice-captain material. After Kohli decided to step down as captain, India went with Rohit as all-format captain, well aware of his fitness struggles. And for the vice-captaincy, they went with Bumrah, a player who is struggling with injuries and whose workload has to be managed carefully. So that left India to look at Rahul, a player who has not even cemented his place in the XI, let alone be seen as a long-term option. Beyond Rahul, India were looking at Pant, but only to name Cheteshwar Pujara as the deputy for the two Tests against Bangladesh. Even there they don’t seem to have much confidence in their choices once Ajinkya Rahane faded out: Rahul, Rishabh Pant, Pujara.
It is strange in many ways. Especially after the leadership vacuum India had after Kohli was pushed aside. Be it calling himself a cricket scientist or coming across as a cricket obsessed player, Ashwin has one of the best cricketing minds going around. Listening to him, he always comes across as a player who is futuristic in terms of where the game is heading and is a very good reader of the game. Yet, even the vice-captaincy has continued to elude him. When the baton was passed to Rohit, one thought Ashwin would make for a perfect vice-captain for a team that is entering transition. Of course, when selectors factored that he isn’t a certainty in overseas Test, he missed out, it is puzzling they went with a player who is yet to establish himself as a regular in the long format.
In the past, the selectors and the team management have had apprehensions with regards to Ashwin as a captain for Tests. It was said privately that Ashwin tends to be over-think and ends up overdoing too much stuff from outside the box (presumably Indian cricket isn’t up for innovations yet), and which is why they were hesitant to hand him captaincy. Even here, with a good strong coach, that trait to overthink could be handled but that moment perhaps has passed us by. But there are no such issues with vice-captaincy because Ashwin has rightfully earned the place to be part of the leadership group. He is one with a stomach for a fight, mentoring upcoming players comes naturally to him.
The best teams tend to pivot around a thinking vice captain, even if unofficial undesignated sounding board. Imran Khan had Mudassar Nasar- and it’s no surprise that he is the one at Pakistan’s NCA, producing one talented bowler after another. Clive Lloyd let Andy Roberts -“one of the most intelligent pacers I have ever known” in the words of Michael Holding – handle the team’s bowling plans on field. Ian Chappell had Rod Marsh.
Instead, Ashwin has had to battle insecurities in the not-so-distant past when his position in the team wasn’t handled as well as it could have been. With Rahul Dravid and Rohit Sharma, the elevation was expected but hasn’t actualised. The man with ideas and plans hasn’t been tapped as much. At his age, he might not be the captaincy material and he might not command the kind of unqualified respect and stature within the team as Anil Kumble might have done – and Kumble used all that to handle a mighty tough controversial tour of Australia once. But Ashwin the vice-captain should be a no-brainer, to help draw out the man to a comfort zone where he can contribute a lot more in terms of vision and tactics.
Especially, when Indian cricket itself don’t seem to be confident about the options available that they keep them on musical chairs. And by naming unqualified choices as vice captains, they ended up playing in the team without performances to back up.
From the time Kohli stepped down – end of South Africa series in 2021 – India’s assignments were against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh (away) and Australia. In each of these conditions, Ashwin was bound to be sure starter and for all you know with Rahul continuing to struggle in Tests, India could have tried Abhimanyu Easwaran at the top alongside Shubman Gill to groom him for the long run. Instead, with Rohit missing, by virtue of being the vice-captain, Rahul ended up playing both the Tests and ended-up well short of expectations.
During the first Test against Bangladesh, as Tamil Nadu’s Sai Sudharsan scored a century on his Ranji Trophy debut, Ashwin made it a point to call him from Chattogram and offer a few words of encouragement. When he isn’t part of the national duties, Ashwin doesn’t even hesitate to even turn up in First Division matches in Chennai. Last season, with his team Mylapore Recreation Club ‘A’ looking for a spin-bowling all-rounder, he reached out to Harsh Dubey, a 20-year-old from Vidarbha, to hand him the opportunity. Dubey ended up scoring a century in the final and giving MRC their first title at the level.
While big corporates like India Cements, Sanmar and MRF rule TNCA’s First Division circuit, Ashwin has gone about changing the trend with Take Solutions, which owns MRC. Be it bringing in a fitness programme that is unheard at First Division levels or talent scouting, Ashwin is quietly going about a few things behind the scenes, especially with regards to holding camps to unearth fast bowlers – something TN cricket lacks badly. Players, who tend to think about just the self, don’t usually take such steps. These are qualities that one often finds in leaders for whom it comes naturally.
With so much concern around the availability of Rohit, Bumrah because of workload and fitness issues and Rahul not making any strong case for himself to be included in the squad, the new selection committee can look at Ashwin as an option for vice-captaincy as he is bound to play all the matches (fitness permitting) as India enter a period of transition. That way, even if Rohit isn’t available, in Ashwin, India will have a captain who isn’t new to the role and allow someone like Pant to groom as well.