India’s Ashwin dilemma is a parable for modern cricket and all its quirks

Let’s talk about the David Warner ball first, and then zoom out from there, because if you’re going to try to get your head around the disorienting, shapeshifting puzzle that is Ravichandran Ashwin then you need to realise there are layers and mirrors to this thing. Some of the walls move and some do not. Watch the ball and you’ll miss the hand. Watch the hand and you’ll miss the ball. Watch both and you may just miss the whole plot.

It’s the second one-day international between India and Australia in Indore. India are going to win. That’s not the important part. For Ashwin this doomed run-chase has become a deeply personal mission: a chance to convince India’s selectors that, after more than 18 months out of the side, he is worth a place in the World Cup squad. Everything is pointed at this. He’s been putting in marathon shifts at the national academy. He’s been turning out in local games in Tamil Nadu. He’s been staying out under the lights for extra batting practice. A bowler with more than 700 international wickets is still convinced that there is room for growth.

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Warner, meanwhile, is trying to mess with him. He knows – or at least has a fair idea – that Ashwin averages 21 against left-handers and 30 against right-handers. So he shifts to a right-handed batting stance, negating Ashwin’s advantage. He swipes a conventional sweep through backward square leg with the spin. At which point Ashwin decides, with a poker player’s cunning, to change things up again.

Ashwin’s next delivery is the carrom ball, full and straight with the little flick of the middle finger to move it away from the right-hander. Warner anticipates, sinks to one knee, and goes for the reverse sweep – a reverse reverse, if you will – gets himself into a fantastic tangle and is plumb lbw. So flummoxed is Warner that he does not even consider a review for the inside edge that would have saved him. For me, those few seconds seem to encapsulate the story of modern cricket, a game of innovations and improvisations, of feints and counterfeints, at the end of which – somehow – Ashwin is still standing, still thinking, still half a step ahead.

It is 13 years since Ashwin made his white-ball debut for India, an era in which the existence of a young spin bowler has rarely been more fragile or hazardous. The bats are as thick as bibles and the batters are weight trained to within an ounce of their body fat. The formats are fluid and interchangeable. Devise a new delivery and within hours every analyst with a MacBook has it worked out. Every little competitive advantage eked out through months and years of training is a naked flame in the world’s most powerful wind tunnel.

Yet Ashwin has endured, albeit not without the odd bump in the road. His Test record outside Asia and the Caribbean, where he has taken all 34 of his five‑wicket hauls, continues to caveat his place among the all‑time greats. He wasn’t picked for the 2019 World Cup in England. For all his perennial threat in the Indian Premier League, his potency in 50-over cricket – a format in which he had played just twice in six years for India until the current series – was long thought to be in recession.

David Warner is dismissed lbw by Ravichandran Ashwin
Australia’s David Warner is dismissed lbw by Ravichandran Ashwin of India in the second one-day international in Indore. Photograph: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

Ashwin, for his part, has never accepted the cloaks of obsolescence, never stopped trying to decipher the game, never been content simply to run in off eight paces and bowl darts into the pitch. There is a mind constantly at work, sketching out each new scenario with the precision of a draughtsman. Indeed, it is striking how many of India’s great spin technicians – Ashwin, Anil Kumble, Erapalli Prasanna, Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan – emerged from engineering backgrounds, bringing a scientific rigour to the game’s finest art.

Everything here is plans and contingencies, decision trees and mind games. You think I’ll do this, so you’ll do this, so I’ll do this instead. It is how he has been able to switch from finger-spin to wrist-spin, from side-spin to top-spin, to play with the wrist and the crease and the run-up, to manipulate wobble and drift in ways that still feel new and unfamiliar. The carrom ball that dismissed Warner on Sunday was subtly different to the one that removed Marnus Labuschagne, a delivery he began to develop a couple of years ago after noticing batters were beginning to line up his conventional carrom ball.

He can bowl with the new ball. He averages 14 with the pink ball. From sneaky run-outs to tactical retirements, from placing fielders straight behind the bowler to taking off his pads at the non-striker’s end so he can run faster, Ashwin has reimagined the sport to an extent that no spreadsheet or statistic can adequately describe. All this merely to stand still in a game that continues to shift furiously beneath his feet.

What this great career lacks, in narrative terms, is a crowning moment: a signature performance on the biggest stage. Kumble had his 10-wicket haul. Harbhajan Singh had his Australia series. For Ashwin, a home World Cup could be that flourish. But of course there are layers and mirrors to this thing. Ashwin’s place is by no means secure. Axar Patel and Washington Sundar are still pushing him hard and perhaps for many India fans this is a largely transactional question: who fits best into this team in this tournament? But for the rest of us, it feels like a decision freighted with something more: a parable for modern cricket and its quirks, its efficiencies and inefficiencies, its quixotic and often unstable relationship with pure genius.