Why isn’t R Ashwin, the all-rounder, as delighted as he should be? Why is he not the vice captain of the Indian test team? The failure of the first question lies with us, the viewers. The second reflects the conservative view of today’s Indian think tank, where they hedge from the known – and fail.
You don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone…. That thought may have been on the minds of many Indian fans as Ashwin scored the winning points in the Mirpur Test on Sunday. Trailing 74 for 7, Ashwin rocked India to another Test series victory and walked away with the Man of the Match trophy.
There are only two cricketers who have scored over 3,000 runs and taken over 400 wickets in test matches for India. One is Kapil Dev, the greatest all-rounder Indian cricket has ever seen, and the other is Ashwin. At 36 years old, he is the oldest on the team, and in a team with 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 in the past three years in which Jadeja has evolved more into a batsman, Ashwin has still played three innings that will no doubt hold a special place in his heart.
A few years ago there was a question about Ashwin the batsman. No doubt he has the talent, even Test centuries, but can he take the heat and still perform?
There was that epic with the SCG where he withstood the blows of a red-hot attack in Australia. There was that century with Chepauk, who silenced England’s batsmen who complained about the pitch. Last in the list is the unbeaten 42 against Bangladesh on Sunday, which has kept India’s World Test Championship final qualification hopes alive. And if these feats aren’t enough, look around: there’s Axar waiting to replace Jadeja, but there’s no classic off-spinner in the form of Ashwin.
All this makes for a great player. Even in a country that has spawned a number of cult spinners, if an all-time India XI is drawn, it would be nearly impossible to leave Ashwin out. Teaming up with Virat Kohli, Jasprit Bumrah, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant, Jadeja, Ashwin remains their MVP in Tests regardless of the circumstances. Of course, India chose to leave him out even in overseas conditions, even if they play five bowlers, but that’s more about playing four pacers so that none of them get overwhelmed. But when they return to subcontinental conditions, Ashwin keeps their first name on the team sheet.
But with India entering a transition phase, with no regular, reliable Test captain in sight, it’s curious that the selectors never really looked at Ashwin, even as a vice-captain material. After Kohli decided to step down as captain, India went with Rohit as captain of all formats, well aware of his fitness issues. And for the vice-captain, they went with Bumrah, a player struggling with injuries and whose workload must be carefully managed. So that left India to look at Rahul, a player who hasn’t even cemented his place in the XI, let alone seen as a long-term option. Beyond Rahul, India looked to Pant but only to name Cheteshwar Pujara as a substitute for the two Tests against Bangladesh. Even there, they don’t seem to have much confidence in their choices once Ajinkya Rahane faded: Rahul, Rishabh Pant, Pujara.
It is strange in many ways. Especially after the leadership vacuum India had after Kohli was pushed aside. Whether he calls himself a cricket scientist or comes across as a cricket obsessed player, Ashwin has one of the best cricket minds around. When listening to him, he always comes across as a player who is futuristic in terms of where the game is going and is a very good reader of the game. Yet even the vice-captain continues to elude him. When the baton was passed to Rohit, it was thought that Ashwin would make a perfect vice-captain for a team entering transition. When selectors took into account that he is not a certainty in the overseas test, he obviously missed, it is a mystery that they went with a player who has yet to establish himself as a regular in the long format.
In the past, the selectors and team management have had reservations about Ashwin as Tests captain. It was privately said that Ashwin has a tendency to overthink and end up exaggerating too many outside things (presumably Indian cricket is not yet ready for innovations), which is why they were hesitant to make him captain. Even here, with a good strong coach, that ability to overthink could be addressed, but that moment may have passed us by. But there are no such problems with vice-captainship because Ashwin has rightly earned the place to be part of the leadership group. He is someone with a gut for a fight, guiding up and coming players comes naturally to him.
The best teams tend to revolve around a thinking vice-captain, even if it’s an unofficial unappointed sounding board. Imran Khan had Mudassar Nasar – and it’s no surprise he’s the one at Pakistan’s NCA, producing one talented bowler after another. Clive Lloyd let Andy Roberts – “one of the most intelligent pacers I ever knew” in the words of Michael Holding – handle the team’s bowling plans on the pitch. Ian Chappell had Rod Marsh.
Instead, Ashwin has faced insecurities in the not-so-distant past when his position on the team was not handled as well as it could have been. With Rahul Dravid and Rohit Sharma, the increase was expected but has not materialised. The man with ideas and plans is not often overheard. At his age, he may not be captain material and may not command the kind of unquestioning respect and status within the team that Anil Kumble would have – and Kumble used all of that to once handle a mighty tough controversial tour of Australia. But Ashwin, the vice-captain, should be a no-brainer to lure the man into a comfort zone where he can contribute much more in terms of vision and tactics.
Particularly when the Indian cricket itself seems unsure of the available options they keep on musical chairs. And by naming unqualified picks as vice-captains, they ended up playing on the team with no achievements to support.
From the moment Kohli stepped down – end of the South African series in 2021 – India’s assignments have been against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh (away) and Australia. In any of these circumstances, Ashwin was certainly a starter and for all you know, with Rahul continuing to struggle in Tests, India could have tried Abhimanyu Easwaran at the top alongside Shubman Gill to groom him for the long haul. Instead, with Rohit missing, being the vice-captain, Rahul ended up playing both Tests and finishing well short of expectations.
During the first Test against Bangladesh, when Sai Sudharsan of Tamil Nadu scored a century on his Ranji Trophy debut, Ashwin made it a point to call him from Chattogram and say a few words of encouragement. When he is not part of the national duties, Ashwin does not even hesitate to appear in Chennai First Division matches. Last season, when his team Mylapore Recreation Club ‘A’ was looking for a spin bowling all-rounder, he contacted Harsh Dubey, a 20-year-old from Vidarbha, to give him the opportunity. Dubey eventually scored a century in the final to give MRC their first title at the level.
While big companies like India Cements, Sanmar and MRF dominate TNCA’s First Division circuit, Ashwin has changed the trend with Take Solutions, owner of MRC. Whether it’s entering a fitness program unheard of at First Division level or scouting talent, Ashwin is quietly engaged in a few behind-the-scenes things, especially in regards to running camps to train fast bowlers at to trace – something TN cricket sorely lacks. Players, who tend to think only of themselves, usually do not take such steps. These are traits often found in leaders who take it for granted.
With so many concerns about Rohit’s availability, Bumrah due to workload and fitness issues and Rahul not having strong arguments to be included in the squad, the new selection committee may consider Ashwin as a vice-captain option as he will undoubtedly play all matches (condition permitting) as India enters a transition period. That way, even if Rohit isn’t available, India will have a captain in Ashwin who isn’t new to the role and have someone like Pant groomed as well.