What never fails to amaze is how the rich and glorious Indian spin tradition has been maintained for so many years. Even as the great spinners retire, more appear as if by magic to take their place. Even the West Indians with their tradition of producing world class fast bowlers have not been able to find replacements for Walsh and Ambrose, perhaps their last great pair.
But in Indian cricket it can be seen that even as Vinoo Mankad, Ghulam Ahmed and Subash Gupte - the first great Indian spin trio - retired there were adequate replacements immediately in Bapu Nadkarni, Chandu Borde and Salim Durrani. Even as this trio neared the end of their careers the spin quartet of Bedi, Chandra, Prasanna and Venkat took shape and as is well known their era was responsible for some of the most memorable moments in Indian cricket. They scripted notable triumphs - even abroad where the Indians repeatedly came a cropper in the fifties and sixties - and one wished they could go on forever. Outstanding bowlers as they were time finally took its toll and by the end of the 70s the quartet had broken up.
This led to a great deal of consternation and while the quartet was quite irreplaceable the spin bowling cupboard was not entirely bare and Dilip Doshi, Ravi Shastri and Shivlal Yadav stepped into the breach to carry on the tradition through the 80s. Of course the advent of Kapil Dev meant that there was a little less pressure on the spin bowlers but they performed gallantly to see that spin remained a potent force in the Indian attack. And over the last two decades it has been the duo of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh who have been responsible for shaping significant triumphs even as there is considerable improvement in the pace attack.
Compared to about half a century ago there is little doubt that the Indian bowling is these days more balanced with both pace and spin having a share of the spoils. So even as Kumble and Harbhajan were among the wickets Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan have not been far behind. But somehow because spin bowling has such a great tradition in this country the recent fall in the standards has been a cause for concern. Following Kumble's retirement and Harbhajan being out of favour for once it appeared that the Indian spin bowling cupboard while not being exactly bare did not have the high class bowlers one has come to associate with Indian cricket. Several young bowlers were tried but none really were able to maintain the high reputation that Indian spin bowling enjoyed. But with his achievements and the considerable progress he has made since his debut in international cricket Ravichandran Ashwin bids fair to put an end to the disturbing ring of the alarm bells.
It would be easy to dismiss his latest feat of taking 12 for 85 in the first Test against New Zealand as one of little significance. After all the Kiwi batsmen did exhibit poor technique in playing spin. But that would not give the complete picture. The fact remains that Ashwin had batsmen like Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum, Martin Guptill and Kane Williamson to contend with and these batsmen have records that one just cannot shrug off. And it is not every day that a bowler takes 12 wickets in a Test match. Indeed Ashwin’s is the most econimical 12-wicket haul by an Indian in Tests and this is something that can't be shrugged off.
Actually it is not even a year since Ashwin made his Test debut and he has played only seven matches. But his career haul is a highly commendable 43 wickets at an impressive average of 26.83. The strike rate and economy rate too are of acceptable standards. It is true that he is bound to come up against tougher opposition and on pitches that may not be ideally suited to his bowling. But Ashwin, who turns 26 next month is a mentally tough cricketer who is bound to get tougher and better in the years ahead.
His detractors might point out that 34 of his wickets have been taken in four matches in India while he took only nine in three Tests in Australia. Overall though he does give the impression that with greater experience he is bound to improve his record abroad for above everything else Ashwin is a thinking cricketer. Confronted by the variations that he possesses in his bowling the batsman is at his wit’s end trying to fathom whether it is the top spinner, the carom ball or the conventional off break. He also has spin, guile and bounce – the last because of his height - and the fact remains that he got rid of Taylor in both innings at Hyderabad, the second a classical off spinner’s dismissal, beating the batsman in the air and off the wicket to clip the bails.
It was never going to be easy to replace a bowler of Harbhajan's skill and experience but Ashwin was quick off the block with 22 wickets in three Tests in his debut series against the West Indies. There was even talk of him emerging as an all rounder particularly after he joined the illustrious company of Vinoo Mankad and Polly Umrigar in scoring a hundred and taking five wickets in an innings in a Test match. Even now his batting figures are admirable - 321 runs at an average of 35.66 with a hundred and a fifty. But Ashwin will no doubt be happy to be a bowling all rounder - picking up wickets aplenty while contributing more than his mite with the bat. He certainly is a utility man in limited overs cricket where he is an essential member of the squad. Most important he has taken over as the No 1 spin bowler in Tests and helped maintain the tradition of India producing top class spin bowlers.