About a month before India’s World Cup squad selection and a couple of weeks before the Asia Cup squad was announced, Ravichandran Ashwin, on his YouTube channel, tried to find India’s right bowling combination. As is mostly the case with Ashwin, his views were backed by factors like team combination, form, conditions, and the opposition’s strengths. Quite naturally, he devoted a considerable amount of time discussing India’s spin attack. Ashwin had little doubt that Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal were the frontrunners. But due to the lack of depth in India’s lower-order, he agreed that it might not be feasible to play them both in the XI.
What could be been India’s options at No.8 then? Ashwin felt Shardul Thakur was a clear favourite but if India wanted to play an extra spinner then Axar Patel was the best bet. Here comes the most notable part of the video. “Clearly, Washington Sundar is not in the scheme of things. So, we don’t have the variety in the off-spinning all-rounder,” he said. Ashwin did not even consider himself as an option for the Asia Cup and World Cup.
That was perhaps the biggest hint that the Indian team management had moved forward from Ashwin in white-ball cricket. Chances are high that captain Rohit Sharma and head coach Rahul Dravid must have spoken to Ashwin about their plans. And yet, with a little more than two weeks to go for the World Cup, Ashwin is back in the mix, looking a firm favourite to make another last-minute entry into India’s World Cup squad if Axar Patel is unable to regain his fitness in time.
Sundar too is in the reckoning – both he and Ashwin have been picked for the three-match ODI series against Australia – but if India need an off-spinner’s service in the World Cup then the ball may land in Ashwin’s favour if he proves his fitness. Axar’s injury – he hurt himself in India’s last Asia Cup Super 4 match against Bangladesh – is the biggest factor in both the off-spinner making a comeback in the ODI scheme of things a couple of weeks before the World Cup. In fact, there is a school of thought that believes it might not be such a bad thing for the balance of the Indian side if Ashwin ends up playing the World Cup.
A curious case would be an ideal way to describe Ashwin’s fate. He was not picked for two back-to-back World Test Championship finals despite being India’s all-time second-highest wicket-taker in red-ball cricket while he played in the last two T20 World Cups even after not being a regular in the format in the lead-up to both the editions.
If the stars align, Ashwin could be in line to play the upcoming ODI World Cup. One doesn’t need to be a cricket expert to decipher that that off-spinning all-rounder was not in India’s scheme of things as far as the 50-over format is concerned. His last ODI was against South Africa in January last year. Those two matches came after a gap of nearly five years. He didn’t play in the 2019 ODI World Cup. In the last five years, Ashwin has only played two ODIs. It was pretty much the same thing in T20Is last year. Then how come he managed to play the last two World Cups and has miraculously entered the Indian squad when another World Cup is knocking at the door?
How did Ashwin make a comeback in ODIs before World Cup?
The answer lies in how captain Rohit and head coach Dravid think. In the press conference while announcing India’s squad for the Australia series, Rohit and chief selector Ajit Agarkar used the word “experience” thrice when talking about Ashwin.
“With the kind of experience Ashwin has, has played close to 100 Tests, 115 ODIs…yes it is all in the past but he has been consistently playing Test cricket. With guys like Ashwin, game-time and time on the ground is not so much of a concern. This is why we thought if he is an option for us, we need to get him in. With the kind of experience he has, for guys like him, it’s all in the head more than the body. I thought getting him in could give us a chance to understand where he is at, how his body is and stuff like that,” Rohit said.
“Ashwin brings experience, so it gives us options in case there is a need at some stage for us to look at those guys,” said Agarkar.
Is experience the only factor? No. India are in desperate need of an off-spinner. The Sri Lanka match in the Asia Cup Super 4 stage was a clear giveaway that playing both Axar and Ravindra Jadeja may not yield the desired results because of the sameness in their bowling.
As things stand now, Shardul is the first choice at No.8 but in a long tournament like the World Cup, against certain oppositions and on certain venues, India will have to explore the option of playing an extra spinner along with Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav. If Axar doesn’t recover, Ashwin is a perfect fit for that role.
Why Ashwin is a better fit than Sundar
Sundar and Ashwin play similar roles. Both bowl off spin and both are handy with the bat lower down the order. Sundar has the edge over Ashwin as far as batting prowess is concerned but the veteran Tamil Nadu cricketer will trump the youngster as a wicket-taking offie. Sundar mostly bowls in the powerplay in T20Is. In ODIs, India don’t need that. They have Mohammed Siraj, Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya to perform that role. What India need is another option to help Kuldeep in the middle overs. That is where Ashwin comes into play. With Jadeja doing the holding job and Kuldeep going on an out-and-out attack, Ashwin can play the dual role to complement the wrist spinner in the middle overs.
Ashwin is always ready
Another major factor that always goes in Ashwin’s favour is his preparation. Unlike many cricketers who tend to drift away from the formats they are not a part of at the international stage, Ashwin regularly features in all formats whenever he gets an opportunity. The level or the team doesn’t matter to him. Something that was acknowledged by Rohit.
“It’s not like he has not been playing cricket for the last year or so. Yes, he hasn’t played in this [ODI] format, but he played Test cricket recently in the West Indies, and if I’m not wrong, in the TNPL as well. Of course, there’s no comparison but he has had some cricket there. The games against Australia will give us a chance to look at where he’s at,” he said.
Ashwin proved Rohit right. A day after being named in the squad for the Australia series, the veteran cricketer played in a local league match of a tournament organized by the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA). Ashwin represented Take Solution MRPA in a match against Young Stars at the SSN College Ground in a VAP trophy match on Tuesday.