India vs South Africa: R Ashwin revels on home turf as India retain initiative
That November in 2016, this port city saw Ravichandran Ashwin at the height of his powers against England. The wily off-spinner’s 22nd five-wicket haul had whipped the appetite in the first innings and on the final day of the first-ever Test at the ACA-VDCA Cricket Stadium, Ashwin took over from Sri Lanka’s Rangana Herath as the year’s top wicket-taker. He would finish the year with a tally of 72 and the ICC Cricketer of the Year award.
For Test cricket to return, Visakhapatnam had to wait for close to three years. In that period Ashwin has had to endure a rather long wait of his own—to find his place again as India’s Test spinner of choice. Once India’s deadliest weapon to send opponents crashing and burning, Ashwin’s fortunes have dwindled so much that he was not even considered for the lone spinner’s slot in the last Test series that India played in the West Indies in August.
And then he was given a look-in in this Test, his first since December 2018. Home is where Ashwin is at his absolute best—of his 342 wickets, 234 have come on Indian pitches. Five more were added to that list in the course of the last two days, as Ashwin ended a two-year wait for a fifer in the longest format.
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Thanks to Ashwin’s 5/128, India (502/7d) are still in control of the first Test despite South Africa putting up a brave fight—part gritty, part swagger—to reach 385/8 at stumps on Day 3 after centuries from Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock.
“I am elated to be back. There is nothing like picking up a five wicket haul for your country,” Ashwin said after the day’s play. “This place is very special for me but I enjoyed a five wicket haul for Nottingham too. One is not too lesser than the other. For me it is about playing the game and I have realised that the joy of the game has to be back in my heart. I have made sure that I enjoy the game where ever I go and play. Most people who spoke to me said you looked really happy. I don’t know if they were guessing, but I feel genuinely happy to be back.”
With the new ball on the second day, Ashwin was at his most destructive self. He first castled Aiden Markram with a ball that turned and sneaked through the young opener’s bat and pad to knock off the bails. Then he drifted in a ball that got Theunis de Bruyn’s edge and was caught brilliantly by wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha.
The opening burst raised expectations of another Ashwin classic, of India’s champion off-spinner ripping through the South African lines and roaring back to form. But then redemptions are never easy—Elgar, Faf du Plessis, and de Kock turned the narrative around on Day 3, and Ashwin and his fellow bowlers had to grind it out for their wickets.
As is typical of Indian pitches, the foot marks of the bowlers had become prominent by the start of the third day. Virat Kohli threw the ball to Ashwin right in the second over. After Ishant Sharma picked Temba Bavuma early on from the other end, there were expectations of a collapse. Ashwin put in the hard yards and was joined in by Ravindra Jadeja too but to no avail.
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Elgar in the presence of his captain Faf du Plessis took a counter attacking approach. Kohli set an attacking field with silly points, leg slips, and forward short legs. On Indian pitches, Ashwin’s greatest strength is that he can extract turn, but also deceive the batsmen with his flight. He has the arm ball that moves away from a right hander and the very unpredictable carom ball. His success lies in repeating these variations to the point that the batsman makes mistakes.
But the South Africans remained steady patient in defence, and bold in their offence, and offered next to nothing to the bowling attack. Starting the day on 39/3, the visitors added 114 in the first session at the loss of just one wicket.
“I thought he (Elgar) played some shots which I felt were like high risk ones but he came out well with it. But there is a second innings,” Ashwin said.
The frustration rose as the Proteas picked nearly every ball that could be hit and scored off them. The long-awaited breakthrough was engineered by Ashwin; his slower ball left du Plessis a little unsure, and he edged to Pujara at leg slip.
But the South Africans were undaunted; de Kock picked up seamlessly from where du Plessis left. In fact, he was even more aggressive, and both Ashwin and Jadeja suffered at his hands. Yet Kohli did not lose trust in his spinners; even when the new ball was taken, it was Ashwin and Jadeja who kept charging in.
Finally, after a wicketless second session, Jadeja removed Elgar who top-edged to Pujara at square leg in the third.
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De Kock completed his century with a six off Ashwin, but the bowler got his revenge in the last hour of play as a straighter ball went through the South African’s gate and rattled the stumps. Ashwin added another wicket in Vernon Philander, who too was bowled after missing the turn.
“I stopped reading about the game,” Ashwin said later, talking about his year out of the Indian team. “I actually stopped watching the game for a brief period of time. I felt like every time I watched the game on TV, I wanted to play. I just wanted to play. I thought I was missing out from the team. Everybody goes through it. But that’s not the be all and end all. I tried different things in my life as well. I read books, took to archaeology. I did not fret too much but whenever I played, I gave my all.”