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Ashwin, Without Jadeja

Ben Jones assesses a hard few days for the Indian off-spinner, in the absence of his bowling partner.

That was hard work, for Ravichandran Ashwin. So far in this Test, which has seen England rack up 555-8 over two days, he alone has sent down 50 overs under baking skies at Chepauk. While the weather will be familiar to the Chennai-born off-spinner, the workload will not.

This is only the fifth time in his Test career that Ashwin has bowled 50 overs in an innings, and only the third time he’s done so at home. He may have been part of a three-man spin attack alongside Washington Sundar and Shahbaz Nadeem, but at times it felt as if he was doing the work of two men. Which, in a way, he was.

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Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja have played 39 Tests together. They have won 30 of those matches, drawn seven, and lost only two – the most recent of which was in 2017. Their record together, through coincidence or cause, is magnificent.

This isn’t the result of some magical chemistry between the two, and a large part of that record is tied to India’s home dominance more broadly. 33 of those 39 Tests have been played in India, as the spin axis in a brutally destructive team. 

Sometimes they are joined by another spinner, but as India’s pace bowling stocks have strengthened, it’s sometimes just been the two of them taking the load. Ashwin and Jadeja complement each other in about as perfect a way as two finger spinners can. They spin the ball different directions, from different trajectories, at different speeds and with different emphasis on variations. Add the fact that they both bat, and their presence in the India side makes selection a doddle. The quality of the one improves the threat of the other, and vice versa; faced with these two plus Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, and latterly Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj, something tends to give. 

HffC1 indian spinner bowling comparison

With one gone – in this instance Jadeja – you are left with having to compromise, when it comes to picking your replacement spinner. The potential attacking threat of Kuldeep Yadav is countered by his inconsistency, as well as his batting. Washington offers the batting balance of Jadeja but is nowhere close to matching his quality with the ball, and lacks red ball experience. Axar Patel and Nadeem both match the bowling type as a like-for-like, and Axar’s batting would have minimised the issue with balancing the side; his injury was a cruel blow for this Test. 

Regardless, the attack India has selected has caused them problems. 

Ashwin was the only bowler able to restrict Ben Stokes while he was at the crease. He bowled 41 deliveries to the England all-rounder and conceded just 15 runs, including a lofted six back over his head. Broadly, Ashwin kept a lid on things, but England played him out. They ticked along at 2.6po against him, compared to 3.8rpo against Shahbaz Nadeem and Washington Sundar. Stokes’ intent against Nadeem was obvious when he reverse-swept his first delivery, and it was true of the touring batsmen as a whole; 38% of Nadeem’s deliveries on Day 2 were met with an attacking shot, considerably more than the Test average of 25% for all bowlers, and the 22% which Ashwin managed today.

The end result of it all was that Ashwin’s false shot percentage in this match is just 9%; only once has he registered a lower false shot percentage in a home Test match (Nagpur 2012, v England), and while he would expect to improve as the match goes on, it’s a concerning start. He’s not been particularly threatening, because England have been able to just sit on him, and attack the others. Root’s men were content to compromise when no such approach was needed elsewhere.  

The task that confronted Ashwin was, in essence, to do two roles. As the most experienced and innately attacking spinner, he was expected to offer the wicket-taking threat on an unhelpful surface. Yet alongside that, the need to stem the flow of runs – which were coming all too easily at the other end – was just as key. In the end, given the conditions and the batsmen he was faced with, he had to settle for the latter.

The absence of Jadeja was this respect as well, in terms of the batsmen Ashwin was actually bowling to. Against right-handers in India, Ashwin averages 26.42; against left-handers that sinks to 19.81. A natural disparity that plenty of bowlers would see, but Jadeja’s equivalent record – 20.57 v RHB, 22.16 v LHB – has always made him perfectly suited to bowling the overs Ashwin didn’t need to, or to which he wasn’t suited. 

In this Test so far, 75% of Ashwin’s deliveries have been bowled to right-handed batsmen; only once in his last 20 home Tests has he recorded a higher figure. In part a consequence of England having just two left-handers in their top seven, but also a consequence of Kohli being deprived of his usual toolkit of bowlers – and one bowler in particular. 

This is now the highest score India have conceded in a home Test innings since November 2011 when West Indies scored 590 in Mumbai. That was also the last time that Ashwin bowled more deliveries in the first innings of a home Test, the senior spinner shouldering the responsibility and bowling 300 deliveries across the course of the last two days. At the end of the day, Ben Stokes suggested there were “no thoughts of a declaration tonight…if we can bat an hour tomorrow we’ll be happy”, so Ashwin’s work may still not be done.

There is still plenty of time for India’s selection to vindicate itself. Shahbaz Nadeem grew into the day, removing Joe Root with a classic SLA dismissal, and as the pitch grew more responsive India’s strategy became clearer, and more successful. The 18% false shots in the final session of Day 2 – the highest figure for any session in the match – was not only a function of the poorer batsmen at the crease, but also the surface breaking up a touch. While that may not please Virat Kohli in the short term, it offers the hosts a clear route back into the Test if they can match England’s total. On Day 4 and 5 will be when India’s spin trio will be judged most fairly.

And yet even then, Jadeja will be missed. Because how could he not be.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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