It must have started in 2012. That year, India toured Down Under for a four-Test series, and playing his first overseas Test was off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin.
He rolled his arm for 168 overs in three Tests, taking nine wickets at an economy rate of 3.36. That’s three wickets for every match he played, and on an average, a wicket per session.
Then, when England came to India in 2012-13 to play four 5-day games, Ashwin bowled mindboggling 236.5 overs, scalped 14 wickets at an economy rate of 3.11. That’s around three wickets for every Test and more than a wicket per session.
What’s interesting though is Ashwin’s economy rate, which was hovering above three in that home series. While Cook and company, with some stellar batting performances kept the Union Jack flying high, Indian spinners, especially Ashwin, struggled to spin a web around the opposition batsmen.
The matches were held in Ahmadabad, Mumbai, Kolkata and Nagpur – the wickets at three of these four venues carried enough assistance for spinners. That begs the question why did a quality bowler such as Ashwin flounder on pitches that were supposedly tailor-made for him.
At least part of the answer lies in Ashwin’s bowling action at the start of his career. Standing at 6’2’’, his rhythmic action coupled with a not-so-lithe physique is a far cry from the stereotypical finger-spinners that India has produced.
Ashwin is a thinking man’s cricketer. Time does not stand still during his run-up, it simply meanders. There is nothing predatory about his action, just an indolent couple of steps, setting up his bowling and non-bowling arm prior to the delivery stride.
In the home series against England, Ashwin’s bowling arm was slanting towards first slip, and feet aligned towards fine-leg. By the time he was at the top of his jump, his head started to fall sideways with both arms forming an ‘L’ shape.
The oblique movement of the arms and head influenced Ashwin’s bowling, with the right arm forming a skewed angle with the batsman’s viewpoint.
And as he released the ball, his follow-through dragged him towards cover instead of down the pitch. This affected Ashwin’s effectiveness with the ball, restraining his options while putting his consistency at stake.
Fast forward to 2017, and Ashwin’s a changed bowler at home. Buoyed by attacking field sets and a new action, he is turning the ball more, beating both edges of the bat; while casting doubts in every batsman’s mind.
Ashwin’s bowling arm now, instead of drifting away from the shoulder, stays close through his pre-delivery jump. Where his right hand used to be off-center, it is now perfectly vertical.
And with feet aligned towards the batsman, and a steady head, he is now able to bamboozle batsmen with all the tricks he has up his sleeves.
England bore the brunt of a rejuvenated Ashwin, who sent down 307 overs in 5 home Tests, taking a staggering 28 wickets at a parsimonious economy rate of 2.75.
Suffice to say, Ashwin is flexing his muscle with the red cherry decimating batting orders and records with equal measure. It helps to have a flashy skipper who is not afraid of throwing caution to the winds in search of a win.
That said, his skills will be put to sword in a year where India will travel a lot overseas. In conditions that tend to aid fast bowlers more than their spinning counterparts, world’s no. 1 off-spinner may have to mix caution with aggression to coax and cajole the batters into playing false strokes.
While Ashwin has made rapid strides in Test cricket, his form in the limited-overs format may belie his stature as a Test great. Between 2013 and 2017, Ashwin has played 59 ODIs, bowled 533.2 overs for 80 wickets at an economy rate of 4.93.
In the meantime, left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja who has played seven more matches than Ashwin in that period has bowled 576 overs for 85 wickets at an economy rate of 4.89.
Jadeja has three four-wicket hauls and one fiver as opposed to Ashwin’s one five-wicket haul.
In the recent match against England in Pune, which India won in grand fashion, R Ashwin’s economy rate of 7.87 was his worst in any ODI in which he has bowled more than five overs.
He conceded 63 off eight overs, which was also the joint-most he has conceded in an ODI without anything to show in the wicket’s tally.
These numbers are contrary to his spellbinding show in the recent Tests but there could be more to Ashwin’s frail numbers than meets the eye.
In October 2012, the game’s apex body, International Cricket Council (ICC), altered the fielding restrictions allowing no more than four fielders outside the circle at any stage of an ODI.
While that rule was recently amended to allow five fielders outside the 30-yard circle in the last ten overs of an ODI innings, the breathing space for bowlers just isn’t enough. The rule is clearly hurting both fast and slow ball bowlers.
In such a scenario, Captain Virat Kohli’s role will be crucial as far as Ashwin is concerned. It is no secret that the shorter format warrants bowling different lines and lengths at all stages, ascertaining a batsman’s weak points and how he reacts when under pressure.
Kohli’s penchant to be on the offensive at all times could prove to be counter-productive in case of Ashwin.
Without the cushion of one extra fielder in the deep, he may have to call on Ashwin to contain the flow of runs while the likes of Jadeja attack from the other end.
The guile and experience of India’s best off-spinner ought to be amenable to different situations in the match.
There is no doubt that Ashwin is destined to do great things with the ball but in the age of flatter pitches and broader blades he needs to dominate the batsmen in all formats of the game.
There is a fine line between greatness and immortality. And Ravichandran Ashwin is treading that line as we speak.