Fakhar Zaman did a serious damage to Ravi Ashwin's white-ball career. His mauling of the Indian spinners-Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja-at the 2017 Champions Trophy final forced the Indian team management and selectors to think differently. Ashwin had conceded 70 runs in his 10 overs without a wicket in that game. Jadeja gave away 67 runs in his eight overs. That was the beginning of the end for Ashwin in terms of limited-overs cricket. He played only three more ODIs after the Champions Trophy final, the last being at North Sound on June 30, 2017.
India turned to wrist-spin after the Champions Trophy final two years ago. And although Jadeja, being a better batsman and a far better fielder than Ashwin, eventually returned to the ODI fold, the off-spinner from Tamil Nadu was confined to Test cricket only.
Despite Kuldeep Yadav's emergence, Ashwin remained India's No. 1 spinner in the longer format. Then, Southampton happened in August-September last year. On a wearing Rose Bowl pitch, he failed to make an impact, as England stretched their lead in the second innings. Ashwin had only one wicket to show for in the 37.1 overs he had bowled in that innings. India lost the Test by 60 runs, a match they should have won.
England off-spinner Moeen Ali bagging the Man of the Match award for his nine-wicket game haul had made Ashwin's failure even more glaring. Some argued that the Indian offie was not fully fit to play the match. It was a lame excuse, given that Ashwin did not fail the fitness test. Also, he could have easily pulled out if he weren't 100%.
Ashwin gradually started to slip down in the pecking order. He played just one Test in Australia last winter. He lost the Test spot to Jadeja in the two-Test series in the West Indies in August-September this year, as India decided to pick one specialist spinner in overseas conditions. The fastest man to take 300 Test wickets probably became a victim of perception that he is a home dust-bowl bully.
Before the commencement of the second Test between India and South Africa in Pune, Ashwin had 350 scalps from 66 matches. A whopping 242 of those 350 wickets came in India. His bowling average away from home is 31.39, considerably higher than his career average of 25.39. But we should put things in perspective.
Indian spinners always thrived on home conditions. Even the spin Beatles of the 1970s-Bishan Bedi, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and S Venkataraghavan were no different. Chandrasekhar's 6/38 at the Oval in 1971 helped India win their first-ever Test series in England. Prasanna's six-for against New Zealand at Dunedin in 1968 had set up India's five-wicket victory. But they were far more effective, at times almost unplayable, in home conditions.
Anil Kumble, who finished with 619 Test wickets, had a far better success rate at home. In 69 overseas Tests, he had 269 scalps at 35.85. Compare this with his home Tests record: 63 matches, 350 wickets at 24.88.
During an interview in Colombo two years ago, the Indian team head coach Ravi Shastri told this correspondent: "We are a little too enamoured with the word, overseas". He wasn't way off the mark. Dennis Lillee never toured India. He went to Pakistan once and returned with three wickets at 101.00 from three Tests. It didn't prevent the Australian cricket press and pundits to call him the 'greatest of 'em all', fast-bowling wise.
Richard Hadlee's only visit to India as a cricketer was in 1988, to claim the Test wicket world record. The New Zealand allrounder had skipped the World Cup a year previously, a tournament that was co-hosted by India and Pakistan.
Conditions matter a lot in cricket. In England, the Dukes ball retains its shine and moves all day. The cold weather at times becomes an impediment to the spinners, as they can't grip the ball properly. In Australia, the machine-made Kookaburra ball's single-stitched seam deteriorates quickly, causing problems for finger spinners. Also, pitches in England and Australia usually don't help finger-spinners. Ashwin's less impressive record away from home is not a case in isolation.
Ashwin is not an off-spin artist like Prasanna. He doesn't have Venkataraghavan's floater-the former India captain lost it towards the back-end of his career and replaced it with a leg-cutter. Ashwin doesn't turn the ball like Muttiah Muralitharan. Unlike Bedi or Kumble, he doesn't revel under pressure. In fact, when batters go on the offensive against him, Ashwin probably experiments a little too much, rather than keeping things simple.
But statistics don't lie and Ashwin has had a career to be proud of. He showed character during his seven-wicket haul in the first innings against South Africa at Vizag. It was his first Test since December last year. The milestone of 350 wickets is richly deserved.