The first day of this series was defined by R Ashwin’s clever changes of pace; Ben Jones has analysed the subtle magic of the Indian off-spinner.
India, more than most, label their players as good tourists and bad tourists. Ajinkya Rahane? Good tourist. Cheteshwar Pujara? Bad tourist. Virat Kohli? Good tourist – as long as it’s not in England.
R Ashwin has tended to fall into the camp of Bad Tourist. He averages significantly more away from home than he does at home, and has regularly failed to make an impact overseas. His average of 22.78 in India swells to above 30 on the road. So on a day where Pujara was culled from the playing XI for just that same reason, for the inability to make an impact overseas, Ashwin would have been feeling rather nervous.
To be trying to overcome this pressure, and prove spectators and coaches wrong while in England added an even greater burden. In the last four years, the only country where he’s struggled more than England has been Australia, the more traditional off-spinner’s graveyard.
Yet with one day of this long series gone, he can breathe easier. On a day which ebbed and flowed back and forth between the two sides, Ashwin made the decisive contribution, taking four wickets including the first and last of the play.
As you would expect for a spinner to succeed away from home, Ashwin did change his bowling strategy somewhat from his normal plan. Despite the baking hot summer England has been sweltering through, the pitch offered very little; only twice in his career has Ashwin found less spin in the opening innings of a Test match, the 2.4° of turn he managed today well below his career average of 4.3°. With his central weapon neutralised, he was forced to use his experience and guile, and find another way.
That way was to change his pace. With such little assistance from the pitch, he upped his speed considerably, and in doing so managed to get the most out of a fresher surface than many had expected to see at Edgbaston. His bowling speed, 87.59kph, was the fastest he’s bowled in a Test match for over three years, and it gave him his edge.
His opening spell to Alastair Cook set the tone. After a wicketless opening passage from the seamers, Kohli turned to his off-spinner to make the breakthrough, and he delivered. The skipper’s bold decision was backed up by a parade of variations and control.
It’s been a long-running battle between the two Test veterans. Cook averages over 40 against Ashwin, but no spinner has dismissed him more often in Test matches. As you’d hope, the passage which brought his wicket today was an eventful one, as Ashwin started at 93kph, before dropping his pace to 84kph, varying his speed as he tried to disrupt Cook’s footwork.
Yet as the off-spinner tested the pitch, to see what it would give him back, he found the assistance he needed to remove England’s record-breaking opener. The ball to dismiss Cook was the straightest the left-hander faced, and spun 5.2°, the most of any ball . The variety of pace, line and length meant that Cook had no sighters to defend, and the first conventional ripping off-break he faced was enough to remove him.
Whilst Joe Root’s run-out will remain the defining moment of the day for years to come, Ashwin’s capturing of Jos Buttler almost straight away turned a wicket into a wobble, which of course eventually became a collapse. England’s flamboyant No.7 was deceived by a ball just 1kph faster than the previous, but 0.6m shorter on a far more dangerous length, and targeting the stumps. The wicket of Broad was of course far less pivotal, but it was a far starker example of Ashwin’s upshift in gear. 15kph faster than the ball before, Ashwin’s delivery battered into the pad of Broad, who began to walk almost before the bowler turned round to appeal.
What will worry England is that Ashwin managed to exert this degree of influence over the day without really bringing his A-game. 48% of his deliveries were on a good line and length, a figure which would please most bowlers but one that Ashwin has exceeded in five of his last nine Tests. The constant changing of pace deceived the England batsmen, but it affected Ashwin’s radar, and the laser accuracy which he has become renowned for was never in evidence. This was not Ashwin at his best.
Equally, England will hope that he can’t keep this up all summer. The bizarre wicket of Ben Stokes did rather gild the lily, and shaped the day more on the scorecard than it did in practice. England’s batsmen will not always be facing him in the wake of their captain being run-out by his opposite number, in the climate of fear which that creates. England’s middle-order had actually shown the way to play Ashwin well, with neither Root or Bairstow playing and missing to him.
However, none of that will concern Virat Kohli and his men right now. On Day One of a big away series, getting yourselves in the contest is all you want as an away team, and India have done that and plenty more. And for that, they can thank R Ashwin, Good Tourist.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.