Why isn’t R Ashwin the all-rounder raving as much as he should be? Why isn’t he the vice-captain of the Indian Test team? The first question’s failure is on us, the watchers. The second reflects the conservative vision of the current Indian think tank where they hedge on the known – and fail.
You never appreciate what you have until it is gone…. That thought might have played in the minds of numerous Indian fans as Ashwin scored the winning runs in the Mirpur Test on Sunday. Down at 74 for 7, Ashwin cradled India to another Test series win, walking away with the Man of the Match Trophy.
There are only two cricketers who have scored over 3,000 runs and taken 400-plus wickets in Test matches for India. One is Kapil Dev, the greatest star allrounder Indian cricket has ever seen, and the other is Ashwin. At 36, he is the senior most in the team, and in a team that includes Ravindra Jadeja, Ashwin still stands out as a serial match-winner as an all-rounder. He has more centuries than Jadeja and has more wickets. And over the last three years where Jadeja has evolved more into a batsman, Ashwin has still ended up playing three innings that are bound to hold a special place in his heart.
A few years ago, there was this question about Ashwin the batsman. Undoubtedly he has the talent, even Test centuries, but can he take the heat and still deliver?
There was that epic at the SCG, where he withstood blows from a red-hot Australia pace attack. There was that century at Chepauk, which silenced England’s batsmen who were complaining about the pitch. The latest in the list is the unbeaten 42 against Bangladesh on Sunday, which has kept India’s hopes of World Test Championship final qualification, alive. And if these performances aren’t enough, then look around: there is Axar waiting to replace Jadeja, but there is no classical off-spinner in the mold of Ashwin.
All this makes for a great player. Even in a country that has produced some cult spinners, and should an all-time India XI be drawn, it would be almost impossible to leave Ashwin out. In a team that has Virat Kohli, Jasprit Bumrah, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant, and Jadeja, Ashwin remains their MVP in Tests, irrespective of the conditions. Of course, India has chosen to even leave him out in overseas conditions even when they play five bowlers, but that has more to do with playing four pacers so that none of them is overboiled. But whenever they have a comeback to sub-continental conditions, Ashwin continues to be their first name on the team sheet.
Yet, as India is entering a transition phase, with no regular, dependable Test captain in sight, it is curious that the selectors never really looked at Ashwin even as vice-captain material. After Kohli decided to step down as captain, India went with Rohit as the all-format captain, well aware of his fitness struggles. And for the vice-captaincy, they went with Bumrah, a player who is struggling with injuries and whose workload has to be managed carefully. So that left India to look at Rahul, a player who has not even cemented his place in the XI, let alone be seen as a long-term option. Beyond Rahul, India was looking at Pant, but only to name Cheteshwar Pujara as the deputy for the two Tests against Bangladesh. Even there they don’t seem to have much confidence in their choices once Ajinkya Rahane faded out: Rahul, Rishabh Pant, Pujara.
It is strange in many ways. Especially after the leadership vacuum, India had after Kohli was pushed aside. Be it calling himself a cricket scientist or coming across as a cricket-obsessed player, Ashwin has one of the best cricketing minds going around. Listening to him, he always comes across as a player who is futuristic in terms of where the game is heading and is a very good reader of the game. Yet, even the vice-captaincy has continued to elude him. When the baton was passed to Rohit, one thought Ashwin would make for a perfect vice-captain for a team that is entering transition. Of course, when selectors factored that he isn’t a certainty in overseas Test, he missed out, it is puzzling they went with a player who is yet to establish himself as a regular in the long format.