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With bat and ball, Ashwin puts India in control

Wisden India logo Wisden India 18-11-2016
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Inasmuch as watching a batsman in full flight is aesthetically the most pleasing spectacle on the cricket field, there is nothing quite as riveting as a fabulous spell of bowling, constructed brick by brick with a large emphasis on the basics, and particularly by a spinner.

Having witnessed two batting masterpieces in India’s first-innings tally of 455, the reasonably sparse populace at the ACA-VDCA Cricket Stadium was treated to a mesmerising exhibition of offspin bowling by R Ashwin on the second day of the second Test. Nicely warmed up with his second fifty of the series in the morning to go with Virat Kohli’s 167 when India resumed at 317 for 4, Ashwin was back to doing what he does with relish – tease and torment batsmen with dip and guile and turn and drift.

England had every reason to believe they had slain the spin-demons after back-to-back impressive displays in the drawn Rajkot Test, but at the first hint of assistance for spinners, old wounds were reopened. Caught between imposing their authority and hanging on for dear life, they resembled rabbits in headlights, freezing in mind and body to play themselves into a terrible mess.

By the time the clock ticked over to 4.30 pm to put them out of their misery, if only temporarily, an inexorable tailspin had reduced them to 103 for 5, a massive 352 behind India’s total that appears a lot bigger in magnitude than the already enviable number might suggest.

The realisation that England’s stutter came not on a diabolical dust-bowl but instead on a track that offered some purchase – but not explosively so – will not be lost on either side. Ashwin was at his compelling best after junking an early ploy at trying to get the left-hand batsman caught at leg-slip. His pace through the air was just what was required, his command over his line and length as close to perfect as is possible. The additional revs on the ball meant he got the ball to drift beautifully into the left-hand batsman and then get it to break away, best evidenced by the beauty that seemed to home in on Ben Duckett’s legs, only to turn sharply on pitching and whiz past the outside edge to rattle timber.

Scores (Day 2): India: 455 against England: 103-5

Duckett’s arrival at the middle in the 22nd over meant England hadn’t got off to the start they would have desired when they set out to reel in India’s intimidating score. Credit for that must go to various characters, but none more so than Mohammed Shami.

Having made it a habit of producing beauties, the Bengal paceman outdid himself with an absolute peach that breached Alastair Cook’s defences like a red-hot knife slicing through butter. Operating from over the stumps, he got the ball to shape away in the air from the England skipper, then cut back in on making contact with the track. Cook hadn’t bargained for the change in direction, and left enough of a gap between bat and pad for the ball to thunder through and smash the top of off. The top half of the stump went flying, and the man with 30 Test tons went slouching back to the hut, immediately magnifying the enormity of the task in front of his team.

Haseeb Hameed and Joe Root stemmed the tide admirably for a while, the former as composed as he had been on debut as a 19-year-old in Rajkot and the latter showing why he is among the top dogs in world batting. Hameed was content to keep his end of the bargain through studied defence while Root showcased his wide repertoire of strokes, driving Shami and Umesh Yadav on both sides of the wicket and then taking on Ravindra Jadeja, even though by then, the indifferent bounce was beginning to express itself.

The two had put on 46 for the second wicket when a strategic change in personnel at midwicket paid off for India. Kohli moved the slightly less than agile Ashwin to mid-on and brought Jayant Yadav to midwicket to counter Root’s propensity to walk across his stumps and work the ball in that region. Two deliveries after the swap, Root whipped Jadeja to square-leg and the batsmen set off for a brace, only for Root to send Hameed back as Jayant chased down the ball and let the throw go.

Hameed stopped dead in his tracks and instantly whirled back, but by then, Wriddhiman Saha had left his post behind the stumps and walked four yards to receive the throw. Then, in a throwback to the best of MS Dhoni, Saha back-flicked the ball on to the stumps to catch the young man short, ushering Duckett into the middle.

Duckett looked all at sea against Ashwin, who put him through the wringer. Through sheer luck, he hung on for 21 minutes before he was sent packing; by then, Root’s fluency too had begun to desert him.

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In a bid to re-establish his hold, Root tried to take on Ashwin but miscued a drive over the top and was well held by Umesh backpedalling from a deepish mid-off. It was a tame end to an entertaining innings, but worse was to follow when Jayant, the debutant, impressed upon Kohli to seek the review even though Moeen Ali had skipped down the track and was struck on his pad. When the giant screen flashed ‘Out’, Jayant had taken a wicket with his eighth ball in Tests, England had lost 3 for 8 in 53 deliveries, and it was all about grim survival more than anything else.

Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow hung on for dear life even as Jayant and Jadeja kept asking difficult questions once Ashwin was given a break after a first spell of 12-5-15-2, every bit as commanding as those figures suggest.

Figures overnight had suggested that India were already in the box seat, and they extended their advantage in the morning when Kohli and Ashwin kicked on with the second new ball just three overs young. Ashwin got proceedings going with a gorgeous drive on the up through covers off James Anderson before Kohli took over with three fours in no time, forcing Cook to turn to spin and Moeen.

In his second over, Moeen saw Stokes put Ashwin down at slip when 17 but take a sharp catch next delivery to end Kohli’s 401-minute stay. After a poor first day, Moeen was back in his element, bowling with customary control to then trap Saha and Jadeja in front in the space of three deliveries. At 363 for 7, England had fought back excellently, but India’s batting depth meant there were still a few runs left in the tank.

Further exemplifying why he is ranked the No. 1 Test allrounder, Ashwin danced and stroked his way to an eye-catching eighth fifty while Jayant, himself no mug with the bat, made his debut count by keeping his senior offie admirable company. Their 64-run stand, followed by a few short moments of slam-bang from Shami and Umesh, added briskly to the total. By the time Umesh holed out in the deep off Adil Rashid, India were buzzing and England a little deflated. That script remained unaltered when the day’s dramatics were halted by stumps.

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