It is not often that a Test side sits out its number one spinner in the first four matches of a high-profile series. But to not play Ravichandran Ashwin in the penultimate Test against England that began at The Oval on Thursday, September 2 defies logic. Bafflingly so, since India lost the third Test at Headingley, Leeds, inside four days as England levelled the series on the back of a strong first-innings total after blowing away India for 78. The fact that Joe Root-reliant England put up 432 in reply, to snuff out Indiaâs chances of a fightback should have been sufficient enough reason to play Ashwin, one of contemporary cricketâs best off-spinners, at The Oval.
Englandâs cricket captain Joe Root is arguably at the height of his prowess as he notched up hundreds in each of the first three Tests against an attack that comprised four pacers and the left-arm spin of Ravindra Jadeja. And to not check Root with the experienced Ashwin, who has 413 wickets in 79 Tests under his belt, only meant that India chose not to give itself the best winning opportunity at The Oval, even after injuries ruled out fast bowlers Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami.
That Root was dismissed for 21 as 13 wickets fell on the opening day at The Oval is beside the point. For, logically, one expected India to play its No 1 spinner against Englandâs best batsman with the series delicately poised.
This is not to say Ashwin should have played in all four Tests so far, but to not to play him in any of them, especially after the Leeds debacle, points to India missing a trick, one that appeared to be a no-brainer to most Indian cricket followers.
Ashwin has previously toured England for Tests in 2014 and 2018, and took seven wickets, including against Root, in the 2018 opening Test in Birmingham.
In the World Test Championship final against New Zealand that preceded the ongoing England Test series, the 34-year-old from Tamil Nadu bowled tightly for figures of 15-5-28-2 in the first innings and 10-5-17-2 in the second as India played three pacers and two spinners.
âEngland has four left-handers, so a good match-up for Jadeja with our seamers bowling over the wicket,â India skipper Virat Kohli said about the toss, overlooking Ashwinâs craftiness against southpaws and his classic dismissal of left-hander Alastair Cook in the 2018 Birmingham Test.
Cricinfoâs live commentary recorded the dismissal as below:
â8.5 cleaned him up with a beauty! Memories of the tour to India in this one. Drifts into middle stump, Cook plays forward, grips to spin past the outside edge and into the off-stump. Lovely piece of bowling 26/1.â
It would be unfair to compare Ashwin and Jadeja, who got the nod yet again from the skipper as the lone spinner although he only picked up two wickets in the first three Tests.
Ashwin is a specialist spinner who is no mug with the bat; while Jadeja makes it to the Test side based on his all-round skills and is rarely picked as a specialist.
As an articulate and outspoken individual, Ashwin has always had a polarising effect. Earlier this year, as he and Axar Patel dismantled England on spin-friendly pitches in India, Ashwin famously questioned who defines good pitches, much to the chagrin of purists who believe pitches should play fair.
âI find it extremely hilarious and heinous to a point where you have a thought process and you want everybody to follow that, make it a condition because with thoughts you condition people to believe in a certain way,â he said back then.
âSo, you watch a match, you watch India win the game, at most everybody is saying India won the game, it is a great feeling. But you donât want people to go back and say âIndia is not winning the game, it is the pitch that is winning the gameâ. That is not what I want people to doâŚ This is conditioning that is happening, it has happened for a long, long time. When are we even going to wake up to it?â he asked.
And added, âMy angst against the whole thing is that when people say something, so many others who are watching it are not able to paint it differently to somebody who is driving a certain case and selling a certain case to us. This needs to stop.â
One expected coach Ravi Shastri and captain Virat Kohli to show maturity and leadership by providing clarity on an issue that is a raging debate in Indian cricket.
Meanwhile, knowing Ashwin, he is not going to allow The Oval disappointment to get him down. Heâll wait for the next opportunity to make his point.
Views expressed are the authorâs own