The most anticipated contest when England play India in a five-Test series starting next month is Virat Kohli and Joe Root vying for recognition as the world’s best batsman.
Kohli easily got the better of Kane Williamson, the delectably stylish young Kiwi batsman, in the recently concluded Tests and looks in prime form, bolstered obviously by his success as captain.
Root has been England’s main run scorer—across formats—in the past year or so. He is now being spoken of as possibly his country’s most accomplished batsman in the past half-century.
Riveting though it is, however, Kohli versus Root could be reduced to a sideshow by Ravichandran Ashwin. Indeed, how the young English middle-order batsman copes with the off-spinner on pitches that afford turn, could be the main story of this series.
Root will remember Ashwin from the 2012-13 series in India, when he made his debut. Ashwin, then in his second series, was an understudy to Harbhajan Singh and took 14 wickets in four Tests, but England won the series after being one-down.
Kevin Pietersen’s blazing, counter-attacking century in Mumbai sparked a remarkable revival, Alistair Cook’s resilience held the English batting and team together and, ultimately, spinners Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar turned the tables on India.
This time, England don’t appear to have spinners of the calibre of Swann and Panesar. Pietersen has been shoved into oblivion, and the batting depends on Cook and Root, who has grown rapidly in stature since his last visit to India.
But so has Ashwin. At home especially, his bowling has acquired a lethality that has not spared any team and dented the reputation of many a batsman. If Root casts a quick eye on Ashwin’s bowling figures in the past year, he will understand what he is up against.
The off-spinner picked up 27 wickets in the three Tests against New Zealand. Against the West Indies a few months earlier, Ashwin got 17 wickets. The tally could have been higher had inclement weather not spoilt two Tests, but he was the key figure in India winning two Tests in a series in the Caribbean for the first time.
New Zealand (away from home) and West Indies, it will be argued, are not the strongest Test teams. But Ashwin had earlier bamboozled South Africa at home (31 wickets in four Tests) and Sri Lanka playing away (21 in three).
Ashwin now has 220 wickets in 39 Tests, which gives him an astonishing strike rate (per Test) that is second only to the great Clarrie Grimmett, and ahead of maestros like Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan, Anil Kumble, Bishan Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, B.S. Chandrasekhar, Vinoo Mankad, Subhash Gupte and Abdul Qadir.
A bulk of his wickets have come at home or in the subcontinent. This skew gives sceptics a handle to question his virtuosity. He must take wickets overseas more regularly to be anointed “great”, but that does not take away from what he has already achieved.
Spinners mature with age. Ashwin is only 30 and perhaps not even half-way through his career. The past few seasons have shown that his learning curve is steep, as is his ambition. Wickets overseas should follow.
What he already has is the ability to prise out the best batsman in the opposing team (Williamson all four times in this series, Kumar Sangakkara ditto last year) with his guile, craft, control and sustained aggression. He tests opponents technically and tactically. This is what makes him the team’s best match-winner.
But this does not mean the captain is out of the equation. Virat Kohli has recognized Ashwin’s value quickly and provided the support, confidence and attacking fields to help him perform at his best. The captain and main bowler working so splendidly in tandem has, in turn, helped India reach the top of the ICC Test rankings.
Unless Root and Co. can find a counter to Kohli-Ashwin (and Co.), India’s position at this pinnacle looks safe for a while.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.