Ben Jones analyses the strategic shift that allowed Ravi Ashwin to dominate on Day Two in Adelaide.
Go slow. That was the defining theme of the first day of this Adelaide Test, as Cheteshwar Pujara crawled his way to a face-saving ton for the visitors. Today, the tale was much the same, only this time it was a man with the ball in hand, rather than the bat, that was finding slow progress the way to go.
In 2013, Ravi Ashwin toured South Africa and went wicketless in his sole Test. This year, he collected seven wickets at 30.71. On the 2014 tour of England, Ashwin took three wickets, and was then dropped. This last summer was hardly a rout for him, but 11 wickets at 32.72 while the seamers were running riot represented a very decent summer of work for him.
As Freddie Wilde pointed out on this site just a few days ago, Ashwin has transformed his approach for bowling in SENA countries, in a manner that suggested he could compete far better on this tour than he did last time he was in Australia. Ashwin bowled slower on return to South Africa, and then subsequently on return to England.
Last time he came to Australia, Ashwin was pummelled, to the point where even now there were suggestions he might not be over the trauma of the series, with some calling for the selection of Ravi Jadeja or Kuldeep Yadav to come into the side. Some players might make these changes intuitively. Faced with initial failure, they adapt through a mixture of instinct and simply just trying different methods. Ashwin is quite clearly not that sort of player. Few bowlers are acknowledged to think about the game more than Ashwin. He’s considered how he can succeed overseas, and he’s made the call that he needs to dart the ball less, and flight the ball more. Once again, Ashwin has employed the same strategy. Today in Adelaide he bowled significantly slower than he did on the last tour, allowing the ball to be flighted up above the eyeline, forcing the batsmen onto the front foot.
It bore fruit. First the debutant Marcus Harris fell to Ashwin’s new plan, to a particularly flighted, full delivery. He was soon followed by Shaun Marsh and Usman Khawaja, the latter falling to a ball which gripped in the surface and spun 5.8°, more than all but one delivery Ashwin had bowled to him. Trust in this more attacking mode was key.
Of course, Australia aren’t making it harder for Ashwin with their team selection. Opting to include four left-handers in the top six may be understandable given the shallow talent pool they’re currently drawing from, but it does feel a touch careless. Ashwin is arguably an all-time great spin bowler, and he’s built much of that reputation on his record against left-handers. The balance of the top-order should matter.
Regardless, the tiny details of Ashwin’s spell really fell into place today. He took some serious criticism after the Southampton Test earlier in the year, when he failed to exploit a large patch of rough outside the right-handers’ off-stump. Whilst not fully fit, it was a crucial failing that arguably cost India the Test, and with it the series. At Adelaide today, Ashwin was regularly finding a smaller, less immediately helpful patch of rough in a similar position, and using it to keep the right-handers struggling just as much as the lefties. It’s perhaps too much of a leap to say that the confidence coming from the top-order wickets helped this come about, but he was able to build serious pressure, and help the other bowlers. Australia weren’t able to rotate the strike with Ashwin bowling, both slowing the overall scoring rate and building pressure on individual players.
Australian conditions do not suit finger spin. English fans are still recovering from watching their off-spinner Moeen Ali being repeatedly taken apart on the last Ashes tour. Even a great like Nathan Lyon took time to work out the best method to succeed on these hard, unresponsive surfaces. To find what little help there is on a Day Two pitch in Australia, and exploit it to its maximum, takes serious skill and experience, which thankfully for India Ashwin has in spades.
This has been a slow Test all-round, if you look at the scoring rates. Australia have played 16.2% attacking shots so far in this match – in the CricViz database (dating back to 2006), Australia have never attacked less in the first innings of a Test match. In light of this, it feels rather fitting that a bowler changing down through the gears made the difference today.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.