Ben Jones reflects on a day when Ravi Ashwin should have been taking a starring role, but instead failed to make an impact.
Today was an opportunity. Today was set up for Ravichandran Ashwin to slice through England, to keep India’s fourth innings target well below 200, and generally come to the party on a dry dust-bowl at the Ageas. Today, that opportunity was missed.
Despite bowling almost all day, delivering 33 of the 88 overs India sent down, Ashwin just couldn’t find his rhythm, just couldn’t work out how to maximise his threat. The Indian off-spinner is world class, experienced all over the globe, and working with a captain who understands his game and trusts him completely. So what went wrong?
Well, there were some technical issues in play. He bowled too quickly, far faster than he has done in recent matches, sending the ball down at an average of 88.02kph. Only once since the start of 2015 has Ashwin bowled quicker in a Test. Not only does this remove the chance for Ashwin to deceive the batsman with flight, it negated the assistance in the pitch – the quicker he bowled, the less spin he found.
There was also a strategic misstep, which saw Ashwin use substantially more of his variation deliveries than he would normally in a Test match, and not to particularly good effect. Only twice in his last 32 Test innings has Ashwin bowled more carrom balls, or any of the deliveries which see the ball spin the opposite way to his stock ball. He was going through the variations, trying every key on a vast caretakers’ bunch to try and unlock the door of England’s batting line-up. But he never seemed to just try giving it a push.
Because this pitch was happy to do the work for him. Despite his rapid bowling speed, he was still finding considerable turn – 4°, the most for any innings on this tour – and all he really needed to do was keep banging away on a good zone, and England would struggle to cope. But he couldn’t build up that chain of off-breaks in the right area, and the pressure was continually released.
As a result, England were able to cling on, dig in, and then charge away in the afternoon. Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler yet again were able to occupy the crease in each others’ company for considerable time, their series tally now up to 539 balls faced together, the most for any English partnership. Springing off the platform of their good work, Sam Curran was able to attack with impunity. The young all-rounder only left alone two deliveries all day – a luxury he wouldn’t have been afforded had Ashwin been the threat which Kohli desired.
Ashwin did learn as the day went on. He bowled 5cm wider to the right-handed batsmen after the tea break, trying harder to find that patch of rough which seemed to bemuse him earlier in the day. He bowled a few kph slower as well, but only sporadically, and rarely combined with the accuracy required to maximise the change. It was an improvement, but from a low base.
There was also an element of poor fortune at play, as there inevitably is when a bowler struggles despite helpful conditions. Ashwin drew 14% false shots today, the most he’s managed in any innings this series, but that yielded only the one wicket. Contrast that to the first day of the tour, when 8% false shots brought him four English wickets, and the ebb and flow of fortune is clear.
However, it would be disingenuous to suggest that Ashwin deserved more than he got. He could still return tomorrow and nip out the last two wickets quickly, and that would be valuable – but his chance to press home India’s advantage, to really seal his side’s route back into the series, passed him by.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.