“For us, the biggest positive was the batting of Ravichandran Ashwin at No.6 and, of course, Wriddhiman Saha at No.7,” said skipper Virat Kohli at the end of the West Indies’ tour last month.
It wasn’t a hard-fought series—India won the four-Test contest 2-0. It was characterized instead by dull cricket between two mismatched teams. From the Indian perspective though, it was the preparation they needed for the long home season ahead.
At the start of the West Indies tour, Kohli had indicated that playing five bowlers overseas, and four at home, was the obvious choice. Thereafter, it was a matter of finding the right balance, and Ashwin helped ensure that.
“Batting in the top 7 has been my goal for some time now. I have had to strive to get better at what I do to get there,” Ashwin said at a press conference after the first Test in Antigua. He had scored 113 runs.
It was the first time he had batted at No.6 in Tests. It was also the fulfilment of a long cherished personal ambition for the spinner, who started his career as an opener in domestic cricket.
It was imperative for the team management that Ashwin succeed in this new-found role. Since the Test captaincy changed hands, from M.S. Dhoni to Kohli in 2014-15, the norm has been five bowlers in the team in Tests. At times, however, this has left the batting line-up shaky—the loss in Galle to Sri Lanka in August last year is an example of this.
Dhoni’s presence at No.6 allowed more strength to this play in the past, but Saha didn’t fill those shoes optimally in the initial stages as a replacement wicketkeeper. The gaping hole in the middle order has been filled by Ashwin, whose credentials were tested in the third match in St Lucia last month, when India were struggling at 126 for five on Day 1.
“For me, five-wicket hauls matter more. There would only be a couple of knocks I would rate higher, the one in Kolkata (2013) and now in St Lucia,” he said after scoring 118, his second century in the four-Test series. That knock, and his 213-run stand with Saha, who also scored his maiden Test hundred in that third Test, helped India maintain a strong position and win the West Indies series thereafter.
That partnership was an additional marker in the bigger picture. With Ashwin busy making the No.6 spot his own, Saha found himself liberated from the burden of propping the middle order. The Bengal keeper is an aggressive batsman, and he was finally able to express himself in this new, lower position afforded in the line-up. So the extra load Kohli placed on his batsmen with the five-bowler tactic could be shared.
“Every team is looking for someone in this dual mould, someone who can bat at 6 and has penetration with the ball as well,” said former West Indies paceman Ian Bishop. “Ben Stokes is doing it for England. Australia have Mitchell Marsh. However, Ashwin’s record against the West Indies (four Test hundreds ) has to be taken in context. How he fares against better teams remains to be seen.”
By his own admission, Ashwin is mentally prepared for a West Indies attack, and that perhaps helped him on the recent tour. Of course, his success can also be attributed to the hard work he has put in off the field.
At the nets, he worked on his technique and stance as a full-time batsman, first with his childhood coach and later with Sanjay Bangar, the current batting coach for India. During the off-season, Ashwin began thinking like a batsman, not just a bowler.
This mental preparation has been central to his success—previously, he was probably unable to look at the roles of batsman and bowler separately. It shows in his success with the ball as well; he picked up 17 wickets in the four Tests against the West Indies (this included successive five-wicket hauls in Antigua and Jamaica).
Ashwin ended with the highest number of wickets in the series, and the fourth highest number of runs (235), behind Kohli (251), Ajinkya Rahane (243) and K.L. Rahul (236).
“If you bat or bowl well, the other aspect gets easier automatically. But to be able to do it with consistency, there needs to be a clear demarcation between roles. That’s what I have done. The methodologies are different, and it may or may not work at times, but I have a better chance of succeeding with both the bat and the ball if I continue to keep them separate in terms of process and goals,” said Ashwin.
His words sit well with Kohli’s own, keeping in mind the tough opposition ahead—New Zealand (the first Test starts on 22 September), England and Australia, in that order.
The success in the Caribbean assures the Indian skipper of the balance he wanted to achieve.
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper—A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains.