Indian cricket and the race for the No.1 slot

Two factors would have long-term ramifications: the failure of Australia, and the growth of Ravichandran Ashwin as an all-rounder

All-rounder: Ravichandran Ashwin. Photo: Santosh Harhare/Hindustan Times
All-rounder: Ravichandran Ashwin. Photo: Santosh Harhare/Hindustan Times

Given the importance and scale of the Olympics, every other sporting action inevitably goes under the radar during this period. For lovers of five-day cricket, however, this is a heady time.

Four Test series are being played concurrently in different parts of the world, and barring the one between New Zealand and Zimbabwe, the others have produced engrossing contests.

England and Pakistan are engaged in a battle royale, Australia have taken an astonishing tumble against Sri Lanka, and India are suddenly facing stiff competition from a rookie West Indies side that looked like easy pickings only a week ago.

The impact of this is evident in the growing unpredictability of International Cricket Council Test rankings. Australia are currently on top, with 118 ranking points. If India (112 points) win the remaining two Tests, they will topple the Aussies.

But if, by some diabolical turnaround, the West Indies save or win the series, either Pakistan (111 points) or England (108 points) would depose India as the No.2 side, depending on who wins the fourth Test between them.

Meanwhile, New Zealand (98 points) are climbing the ranks and could well finish third by the time they leave Zimbabwe. All this adds up to a jostling for points and rankings that promises rich and fascinating action over the next couple of weeks.

Australia surrendering the series to Sri Lanka so easily was a big upset. The Sri Lankans are still in the process of rebuilding, and victory against them seemed a formality. But the technical shallowness and fragile temperament of the Aussie batsmen were badly exposed.

Fear against spin in the subcontinent has been a bugbear for Australia for the past couple of decades. In recent years, they have been whitewashed by India and Pakistan (in the United Arab Emirates). This time, their performance was perhaps even more abject, given the quality of the opposition.

Even getting Muttiah Muralitharan as a consultant—much to the chagrin of his countrymen—was no panacea for the Aussie batsmen or spin bowlers. The second Test was lost in under three days.

With a series coming up against India next season, this will throw Australia into deeper turmoil, for it is almost certain that they will be put to the test on slow turners or dust bowls here too, whatever the compunctions of critics.

I have never subscribed to the argument against “doctored pitches”. Standardization of pitches was never part of the game, and is not even desirable. Excellence in cricket, especially in the five-day format, which is more demanding where technique and temperament are concerned, is defined by teams and individuals succeeding in different conditions and situations, not just in their comfort zone.

The West Indies (1975-90) and Australia (1990-2005) are regarded as the two greatest teams in the past 50 years only because they could win anywhere, on all kinds of pitches. Since then, no team has been able to show the same adaptability and versatility, which is why the No.1 ranking has seen different claimants (India, South Africa, England, Australia) in the past five years.

Which brings me to Ravichandran Ashwin, who has been the best performing player in the past few weeks. His success as a batsman in the West Indies, along with his prolific wicket-taking, marks him out as the next “big thing” in international cricket. Promoted to the No.6 position in the batting order, Ashwin has batted with aplomb and with an acute sense of responsibility, whenever the situation demanded, to keep India ahead in the series. Remember, he was also under pressure to prove himself as a bowler playing outside the subcontinent. Taking wickets was his primary task, batting an added onus. He has delivered on both counts.

The charismatic Virat Kohli, with a double century in the first Test, has been difficult to keep out of the headlines, but Ashwin has been the pick of the Indian team so far—expectedly so with the ball, and unexpectedly so with the bat.

Ashwin’s development as a genuine all-rounder gives added edge to the Indian team, for it gives Kohli and chief coach Anil Kumble the choice of always being able to play five bowlers and could redefine India’s strategy when they play against tougher opponents overseas.

This could be a big step in making India a formidable side in all conditions, perhaps even the next superpower in cricket—the stated ambition of both Kohli and Kumble. But I am getting ahead of myself. For the present, there are the West Indies, with a revived self-belief, to overcome, and the No.1 spot to regain.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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