Has Ravichandran Ashwin stolen a march over his rivals to become the front runner to occupy the utility player's spot in all formats of the game? His performance against Sri Lanka on Wednesday marks him out as the favourite and he impressed no less a judge than Sunil Gavaskar who wrote warmly in his column about his "ice cool temperament".
Whereas more accomplished batsmen played the kind of strokes that were unwarranted given the situation of the match, it was left to Ashwin to show how the target should have been approached. The asking rate was around four an over and all that was needed were shrewd pushes and nudges for singles and twos instead of strokes that had a touch of bravado but with a huge element of risk.
His unbeaten 30 and his unbroken seventh wicket partnership of 53 runs with Ravindra Jadeja not only steered India to victory in the midst of serious doubts whether the team would achieve the objective but also ensured Ashwin the man of the match award. Despite Virat Kohli's timely 77 there could be only one candidate for the award given the fact that Ashwin had also taken three wickets for just 32 runs in a niggardly ten over spell.
Ever since he made an impactful Test debut against the West Indies late last year there has been talk of Ashwin emerging as a utility player, someone who can make handy contributions with the bat at No 8 and bowl accurately and incisively with the ball. He underlined his all round skills in no uncertain terms when he became only the third Indian player after the greats Vinoo Mankad and Polly Umrigar to hit a century and take five wickets in an innings in a Test match.
Indian cricket has lacked an all rounder since Irfan Pathan was rather unfairly discarded a few years ago and since then there have been a few worthy candidates. His partner during the match winning partnership Jadeja is one of them but Ashwin has a few things going for him the most prominent being as Gavaskar pointed out an ice cool temperament. A man of the match award on Test debut is a feat that can only be notched up by a player with special qualities.
Ashwin's timely knock on Wednesday was not the first occasion when he has made a crucial contribution with the bat. He displayed his batting skills on his ODI debut when he scored 38 at No 8 against Sri Lanka in Harare in 2010 and again last year, he partnered Jadeja in a seventh wicket partnership of 59 runs in just five overs against England at the Oval, his share being a rollicking 36 not out off 19 balls. That Ashwin is no mug with the bat is underscored by the fact that he has three hundreds in first class cricket in which he averages 35 plus.
What can you say about a spinner who relishes bowling in powerplays and is not overawed by either reputed batsmen or a pressure cooker situation? Simply put Ashwin is a cerebral bowler whose rise has been steady rather than spectacular.
But now that he has achieved the tag of the frontline Indian spin bowler, one cannot see him lose it overnight for Ashwin is an ambitious cricketer who is clearly focused on his immediate objective - to be the No 1 spin bowler in the land.
Ashwin has admitted that Harbhajan has been one of his childhood heroes and looks forward to the day when the two will be bowling in tandem. In an interview last year he spoke of the pre-conceived notion that two off spinners can’t figure in the playing eleven even as he pointed out that he and Harbhajan were two different types of bowlers. Ashwin has a valid case for in the past we have had Venkatraghavan and Prasanna bowling in tandem for many Tests in the 60s and 70s.
Ashwin made his presence felt in his debut season in 2006-07 when he was the leading wicket taker for Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy with 31 scalps at under 20 apiece. But it was in the IPL while playing for Chennai Super Kings that Ashwin really attracted considerable attention with his miserly spells.
Even as batsmen made hay, Ashwin was the one bowler who kept them on a leash with his mixed bag of tricks and in 2009 conceded just 6.10 runs an over while picking up 13 wickets. The following year, his man of the series performance helped CSK lift the trophy.
By now his growing confidence and widening repertoire of tricks got him the India cap and within a week in June 2010 he made his ODI and Twenty20 international debut. He was a success both in picking up wickets and keeping a check on the batsmen’s run scoring capabilities and it did not come as a surprise when he was included in the World Cup squad last year.
With Harbhajan going through a lean period, there was a clamour for Ashwin's inclusion in the playing eleven and when he finally got in he was an instant success bagging two wickets each against West Indies and in the quarterfinal against Australia even relishing the unusual role of opening the bowling. But then that was very much in keeping with Ashwin’s happy knack of rising to the occasion when given additional responsibilities.
Ashwin has made it clear that he would like to concentrate on honing his numerous bowling variations but a few more performances like the one at Perth on Wednesday could well see him emerge as genuine all rounder. This is very much on the cards as he is a cricketer who loves challenges and is fiercely competitive.
In racing parlance he is clearly a stayer and not a sprinter. One just can't see him as a meteor like some other Indian players who made an immediate impact and then faded away.
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