Ravichandran Ashwin’s route-map to WC: Axar Patel’s injury, experience, tricks, and being an off-spinner

Ravichandran Ashwin has replaced Axar Patel in India’s World Cup squad as the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) sent its updated list of players to the International Cricket Council on Thursday. The Indian Express understands that Axar, who suffered a quadriceps injury during the Asia Cup, will take another couple of weeks before he resumes bowling and following discussions with the team management, the selectors decided to include Ashwin, who alongside Virat Kohli, will play his second World Cup on home soil and third overall.

Although the injury to Axar has made the switch easy, India have been keeping their tabs open on Ashwin. Even when the selectors met the team management that includes skipper Rohit Sharma and head coach Rahul Dravid before naming the squads for Asia Cup and World Cup, Ashwin’s name was discussed at length as they felt an off-spinner will be needed in home conditions.

When Ashwin was included for the three ODIs against Australia, it was evident that India were looking to bring him into the squad, more so because all the three spinners they picked were left-armers. “Ashwin has the class, he’s got experience of playing the sport and handling the pressure. It’s just that he hasn’t played ODIs for a year or so. But you cannot take away the class and the experience that the individual has over the years,” Rohit said in Rajkot.

“In the last couple of games (against Australia), we saw how well he bowled. He’s got a lot of variations up his sleeves,” he added.

It is understood that even as early as July, the Indian team management was in touch with Ashwin, who featured in the Tamil Nadu Premier League and First Division matches in Chennai. By the time the Asia Cup commenced, an SOS was sent to Ashwin to report at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru, where the trained for a few weeks to get into the white-ball grove. Although Ashwin has played only seven ODIs since the 2017 Champions Trophy final, a period where India shifted their allegiance towards wrist-spinners in limited-overs format, he has featured in each of the last two white-ball ICC events for India in the T20 World Cups in the UAE and Australia.

The need for an offie

While Axar is unfortunate to miss out, as his batting would be badly missed, there were always question marks around his place in the squad especially with Ravindra Jadeja around. With Kuldeep Yadav being their lead spinner in the format, in case India decide to play three spinners, accommodating both Jadeja and Axar would have rendered the attack one-dimensional. In a format where teams seek edge in every department, fielding two left-arm spinners could a handicap in limited-overs as it can get predicable for batting sides.

Freedom Sale

During the last Indian Premier League, despite Mitchell Santer being in good form with the ball and having all-round qualities, CSK continued to bench him instead preferring Maheesh Theekshana. “Two left spinners (Jadeja and Santner) are sometimes hard to captain. So eight overs of doing the same thing and when you got left-handers (batsmen in the opposition) it makes it tough if you are going the same way,” Fleming had then said.

In 50-overs where two of their spinners are expected to send down their quota of 20 overs, playing Jadeja and Axar always brings a bit of disadvantage, irrespective of the depth they provide with the bat. Besides, with the likes of Australia, England, New Zealand, South Africa all having left-handed batsmen, even on spin friendly conditions, two left-arm orthodox spinners would have been redundant.

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Factoring all this, it was perplexing that India’s think-tank overlooked an off-spinner for the World Cup in the first place. Before the start of the Australia ODIs, India played Ashwin during the tour of South Africa in early 2022, but since then, he has been sidelined from ODI set-up as they chose to invest in Washington Sundar. Apart from being a handy off-spinner, his batting abilities would have brought another dimension. But the 23-year-old was discarded after the series against New Zealand earlier this year and only played the last ODI against Australia on Thursday.

Coming back to Ashwin, it also gives Rohit the option of having a spinner who could bowl in the first powerplay. While Rohit usually prefers to start with pacers, on turning tracks against left-handed batsmen at the top, Ashwin offers something different and unlike the other two spinners in the squad, can seamlessly switch between going on the attack and playing a defensive role. For a spinner, who has always been looked at as someone who is aggressive, Ashwin can also compliment Kuldeep from the other end and can also forge a partnership with Jadeja, with whom he has spun several success stories in Test cricket. And in the recent two ODIs against Australia, his carrom balls were hard to pick for the batsmen.

With the first match for India at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, a venue that is known to assist spinners, Ashwin may well get a chance to shine on his home ground.

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