TEST CRICKET—the version of the game in which matches can take five days—is a sport of oddities. This week has seen another one. India and Australia are in south London contesting the World Test Championship final, the last in a two-year sequence of matches involving all the Test-playing countries. And India have not selected the man who is quite possibly the best Test cricketer on the planet: Ravichandran Ashwin.
Mr Ashwin is a spin bowler, one who relies on making the ball spin on bouncing off the pitch. In matches outside Asia, where pitches often make life hard for such players, India’s selectors tend to pick just a single spinner. This has meant they often end up choosing between Mr Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Mr Ashwin is the more skilful bowler, but Mr Jadeja is a better fielder and a more aggressive batsman. His brawny hitting helped the Chennai Super Kings win the recent final of the Indian Premier League, the world’s biggest domestic cricket contest. As a result Mr Ashwin, himself no mug with the bat, has been dropped for matches during India’s most recent tours of the West Indies, New Zealand and England.
This is unusual treatment of a player who is already an all-time great. Mr Ashwin has 474 Test wickets, the ninth-most of any bowler in the format’s 143-year history. He has conceded fewer runs per wicket than three of the four spin-bowlers ranked above him. And it takes him fewer balls than any of them, on average, to get a batsman out.
Mr Ashwin’s detractors tend to level two main criticisms at him: that he is playing in an era when India’s dry, dusty pitches have been particularly helpful to spin-bowlers, and that he is not as effective as other spinners outside Asia. Neither of these arguments stands up. Home sides nearly always prepare pitches to suit their best bowlers. But Mr Ashwin takes more advantage of Asian pitches than other spinners. According to numbers compiled by Nakul Pande, an analyst, Mr Ashwin takes a wicket every 46 balls in Tests in Asia. Opposition spinners in those same matches strike every 70 balls. He takes each of those wickets at an average of 21.2 runs, compared with his opponents’ 40.7. Judged on those same metrics, he has also outperformed opposing spin bowlers in the 28 Tests he has played outside Asia.
There is no obvious weakness in his bowling. His stock ball is an off-break, which spins from his right to left. As a tall man, Mr Ashwin has exceptional control of length—how far down the pitch the ball bounces—allowing him to draw batsmen forward or push them back at will, and he tends to vary his speed more than other off-spinners. He also muddles batsmen with two other types of delivery: an arm ball and a “sodukku” ball. The first, bowled with back-spin, goes straight on. The sodukku can spin in either direction depending on the position of the bowler’s middle finger.
Mr Ashwin’s pivot from talented but inconsistent Test cricketer to one of the best ever is testimony to the importance of good coaching. In 2014 a coach recognised that the alignment of Mr Ashwin’s body when he bowled was limiting what he could make the ball do. With this fault corrected, he became a reliable match-winner. In 21 Tests up until the correction, he took a wicket every 59 balls at a cost of 28.7 runs each. In the 71 since, those averages had fallen to 49.7 and 22.6 respectively. The number of runs he conceded per over also fell slightly, from 2.9 to 2.7.
Allied to his action, Mr Ashwin’s other great strength is an utter devotion to cricket. Some players rely on physical gifts, such as exceptional hand-eye co-ordination, for success. Others rely more on strategy. Mr Ashwin is firmly in the latter camp. He studies cricket. Several years ago, he told an Indian journalist that before a Test series he would watch every single ball of the opposing team’s previous series (potentially well over a 100 hours-worth of cricket), haranguing the analytics company if any coverage was missing. If he can get covert footage of his opponents practising prior to a match, all the better. Before playing Australia in 2020-21, he claims he made their best batsman, Steve Smith, “my obsession for about six months”. His methods usually work. In that series, Mr Ashwin got Mr Smith out three times. Mr Smith averaged 21.3 against Mr Ashwin, compared with a career average of 59.8.
This attention to detail extends to his work on his body. Mr Ashwin’s lumbering physique is not that of a typical athlete. He has had substantial, one-off injuries but also manages two chronic conditions: tendonitis in his knee and a hernia in his groin. He gets through a Test series by doing weeks of preparation to build up the strength and flexibility of his weakest areas.
Because of his age (36), his injury record, and India’s selection policies, Mr Ashwin is unlikely to surpass the 132 Tests and 619 wickets of another great Indian spinner, Anil Kumble. The evolution of Twenty20 (the shortest form of cricket) and the professionalisation of the Test game have made cricketers stronger and more athletic. This trend has worked against less naturally robust players such as Mr Ashwin. But he has still found a way to thrive. By doing so he has marked himself out as a generational talent, even if he is carrying the drinks in London.■