If you have the knack of watching ‘10 Dismissals in Test Cricket This Year’ compilations on YouTube, chances are that you are aware of R Ashwin.
If you are a cricket fan, ignore the introduction, which was just my way of telling you where I go to satisfy my Ashwin brilliance cravings. That Ashwin is brilliant is a fact as scientific as his bowling.
But is he an all-time great? That is a discussion that has kept the cricket fraternity busy over the last few days.
Just like every other debate, several schools of thought can coexist without converging to an answer. Looking at the numbers, however, can help in making an informed opinion, a much better option than losing friends for opinions without evidence to back them up.
A wicket machine running hot since 2011
A good place to start understanding a bowler is by knowing how consistent he has been over a longer period. With 409 wickets, Ashwin leads the chart of top wicket-takers in the red-ball format in the decade since his debut. Nathan Lyon, next on the list, is 18 wickets behind him. Among Indians, Ravindra Jadeja has 220 wickets.
When he picked his 400th wicket during the third Test against England at Ahmedabad earlier this year, Ashwin became the fourth fastest to do so in terms of deliveries bowled and second in terms of matches played and time taken.
The first of these is an incredible statistic, for the top bowling strike rates – balls taken per wicket – usually dominated by fast bowlers.
Ashwin also has the best strike rate in the first 15 overs among those who have taken more than 50 wickets during his career – yet again, a list typically dominated by pacers. He is the only one with a strike rate below 50, and no other spinner features even in the top ten.
At some point, you might have been scared for young Kevin when he was accidentally left home alone. But when you watch that classic now, you feel much confident, for you know how it pans out for him and you know what happens to Harry and Marv.
But with cricket, the script changes in every game. And yet, if Ashwin is left on his own to bowl out the opposition, you would still trust him to do so.
From 91 innings, Ashwin has 286 wickets at home at a strike rate of 47.80. A whopping 238 of these have come in wins.
Of the 86 bowlers in history with 100 wickets at home, Ashwin has the 14th-best strike rate (47.8). As expected, he tops both the list for spinners and all Indian bowlers.
Since his debut, India have picked 593 Test wickets at home. Ashwin has a share of 48.22 percent in that. Kevin has serious competition for the best ‘home alone’ performance.
Far From Home
I should not elaborate on how Peter Parker faces crisis once he leaves his friendly neighborhood. But what happens to India’s wicket-taking machine when he travels far from home?
Ashwin sits third among bowlers with most away wickets since his debut, 53 wickets behind Nathan Lyon at the top. However, of others spinners, only one – Yasir Shah (105) – has reached the three-figure mark.
If you are excited by the fact that 83.21 percent of Ashwin’s wickets at home have come in wins, 40.65 away from home should be a matter of concern.
Ashwin is not the first bowler to pick 100 wickets for India overseas either. Ten players have crossed that mark. Ashwin has the fourth-best strike rate amongst them, picking a wicket in every 63.7 balls. He is behind Mohammed Shami (53.9), Zaheer Khan (55.4), and Ishant Sharma (59.3) – all fast bowlers.
On the other hand, he is above a roll-call of all-time Indian greats, two of whom were fast bowlers: Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Bishan Bedi, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, Javagal Srinath, and Kapil Dev.
In terms of average, Ashwin’s 31.18 is second only to Shami’s 31, that too by the finest of margins. These numbers, while not mind-numbing, rank among the best in Indian history.
His record in SENA countries does take some sheen off his overall numbers. 63 wickets at an average of 40.11 in 34 innings. However, Ashwin has not played that frequently there either. Of the 33 Tests India have played in these countries with him in the squad, he has played only 20. Much to the disappointment of his fans, Ashwin has not featured in all the games for any series in SENA countries.
Turnaround away from home
Ashwin’s analytical approach and willingness to learn are well known.
At Ashwin’s own chat show Let Me Tell You a Kutti Story, India’s bowling coach Bharat Arun said: ‘We have to give you credit, even before we came to you with our plans (ahead of the India 2020/21 tour of Australia), you had started your own plans on how to go about it.’
This meticulous nature has helped Ashwin change the tide away from home over time. Until the 2014/15 tour of Australia, he had an average of 56.85 in the SENA countries. He has only gotten better since averaging 29.97 from that point.
He created history in the first Test this time, a feat that went unnoticed. Perhaps even Ashwin would not have paid amidst the trauma of 36/9. When Ashwin got Marnus Labuschagne in the second innings, he became the visiting spinner with the highest wickets at a single Australian venue (15) in 30 years.
Recent numbers suggest Ashwin’s gradual improvement away from home. Can he step up even more? If you have seen him bowl, you will know. Will he do better? If you have seen him bowl, you will know that as well.
The thing about witnessing brilliance is, it makes us ask for more. And why should we not? Is that not what pushes individuals to be the best versions of themselves? And who would not want to see the best of Ashwin?
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