Old story with the new ball: Irresistible Ashwin prises open top order

Indian Express

Indian Express

Author 2019-10-04 10:55:04

Indian Express 4 Oct 2019 08:25 AM

He jumps at the batsmen from the start and, if anything, is at his orthodox best with the new ball. He knows it suits him — the bounce, the seam, and the great benefit in bowling to top-order batsmen before they get set.

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No other spinner loves that new ball as much as Ravichandran Ashwin does. Remember Alastair Cook last year in England, all studious in defence, only to hear the death rattle behind him? Not once, but twice in one game.

Even these days when most spinners are used to bowling with the new ball, Ashwin is the unrivalled king. He is the only spinner in the top five bowlers with most wickets with the new ball. He has 71 wickets at an average of 23.1 in the first 20 overs of Test innings. The rest are all pacers, of course.

And he was at it again on Thursday, sucker-punching South Africa and leaving them gasping for breath by the end of the second day.

There is something about his game that makes him the most difficult spinner. The conventional wisdom of a spinner taking his time, finding his length and rhythm doesn’t sit well with him.

He jumps at the batsmen from the start and, if anything, is at his orthodox best with the new ball. He knows it suits him — the bounce, the seam, and the great benefit in bowling to top-order batsmen before they get set. Usually, the openers and no.3 aren’t used to playing spin at the start — they don’t normally appear until the pacers have been worn down.

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Also, one suspects, even if the batsmen are used to playing spinners in Twenty20 and limited-overs cricket early on in the piece, those are played usually on flat tracks and batsmen are also in an attacking frame of mind.

Ashwin’s bowling is also helped by the pronounced seam in the SG ball, used in India, and the Dukes, used in England.

He usually has two main variations with the new ball – the ripping off break that he used to castle Aiden Markram and the one he delivers with the ball held between the thumb and forefinger that he gets to skid on straight. With that grip, he can also turn it a little and so even if the batsmen pick the grip, they aren’t always sure whether it would turn or skid on straight.

Ashwin used that to trouble Theunis de Bruyn before he shifted angles to go round the stumps. One could sense it was coming with de Bruyn unsure of the different grips. What remained to be seen was whether he would get one to go on with the angle from close to the stumps or it would be the slower drifter well outside off. As it turned out, it was the latter, and Bruyn, under pressure, fell for it; he reached out for a loose drive and edged it to Wriddhiman Saha, who grabbed it neatly to show why the team management want him as the ‘keeper on Indian tracks.

But it would be the ball that removed Markram that would be watched and shown in newsreels more. Understandably so. Here was Markram, who had come for a spin camp in Mumbai as preparation and practised not to push hard with his hands. In general, he had tightened his defensive game.

Or so he thought. Ashwin got one to rip in with pace on a sluggish wicket and Markram leaned forward to defend. The hands didn’t push hard but it did jar a bit. The batsman didn’t expect the extent of the turn and also probably the pace as he seemed a bit rushed. It squirted through the bat-and-pad gap to give Ashwin yet another wicket with the new ball.

Who are the deadliest bowlers with the new ball? Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Vernon Philander, Trent Boult and … Ashwin, the slowest of them, the man who breaks open the opposition for India.

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