A day after the Indian spinners were taken to the cleaners in the second ODI against England at Pune, former chief selector Dilip Vengsarkar said he would have brought Ravichandran Ashwin back into the limited-overs scheme of things if he were the selection committee chairman now.
Chinaman Kuldeep Yadav and left-arm spinner Krunal Pandya gave away 156 runs between them in 16 overs without a wicket in the second ODI, as Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes made a mockery of a steep chase.
Together the two England batsmen accounted for 17 sixes in the game, with Stokes scoring his last 49 runs in just 12 balls. The performance of the Indian spinners, Kuldeep’s implosion to be precise, has thrown open a debate, if Ashwin should be considered for the shorter formats again. Former India captain Vengsarkar backs the idea.
“If I were the chief selector (now), I would have brought Ashwin back (to the white ball set-up). Why not? Because he is such an experienced bowler and he has variety. As they say, spinners mature late and he has done so well over the years. He is in terrific form in red ball cricket. I think it will suit the team if he is brought back,” Vengsarkar told The Sunday Express.
During his stint as chief selector from 2006-2008, Vengsarkar took some major decisions including Sourav Ganguly’s recall in the Indian team, giving MS Dhoni the limited-overs captaincy, appointing Anil Kumble as the Test captain after Rahul Dravid stepped down and picking Virat Kohli for the national team.
Kohli is now the India captain and according to him, the limited-overs squad has a like-for-like in Washington Sundar who is doing well. In fact, Kohli seemed a little annoyed when he was asked about Ashwin’s limited-overs comeback ahead of the T20I series against England.
“Washington has been doing really well for us. So you cannot have two players of the same discipline, playing in one spot. So unless Washy has a drastically horrible season and things go south for him (this will not happen),” Kohli had said at the pre-match press conference ahead of the T20I series opener.
Vengsarkar differs. “Washington Sundar is no match if you compare him with Ashwin purely as a bowler. Where is the comparison?”
Players of “the same discipline”, however, have featured in the Indian squad before – the Ravindra Jadeja–Axar Patel combo was a case in point. So why not Washington and Ashwin? “Yeah, absolutely. In the ODIs, when the spinners bowl, their job is to get wickets in the middle overs. If they fail to get wickets, then the opposition can score a huge total, with wickets in hand. So basically Ashwin’s job will be to get wickets and he is good at that. The variety he has, he would be a very good attacking option and very few can match his variety. As far as spinners are concerned, you don’t contain the batsmen (in this format), especially in the middle overs,” Vengsarkar said.
Ashwin hasn’t played for India in the shorter formats since July 2017. The off-spinner was phased out of the white ball set-up after the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy final against Pakistan. Fakhar Zaman laying into him and Jadeja puts brakes on his white-ball career.
The two spinners had conceded 137 runs between them in 18 overs in that game following which the Indian team management gradually turned its attention towards wrist-spin at the expense of the finger spinners.
Jadeja eventually returned to the limited-overs fold, but Ashwin’s wait continues despite his terrific Test form, a spectacular show in Australia followed by a Man of the Series performance against England, and his IPL exploits.
Last year, Ashwin had 13 wickets at an economy rate of 7.66 in 15 matches for Delhi Capitals in the IPL. The year previously, he had 15 scalps at an economy rate of 7.27 from 14 games for Kings XI Punjab.
Preference for wrist spin
The Indian team management fell for wrist-spin after the 2017 Champions Trophy to have more attacking options. The ‘Kul-Cha’ pair was formed and with MS Dhoni acting as their in-game mentor from behind the stumps, the two wrist spinners made rapid progress. Maybe, it’s no coincidence that both Kuldeep and Yuzvendra Chahal now look a touch predictable in the face of onslaughts. Especially Kuldeep. On the eve of the final ODI, stand-in England ODI captain Jos Buttler spoke about his team’s approach of “putting the pressure back on the opposition”.
In 12 ODIs after the 2019 World Cup, Kuldeep has taken 12 wickets but his average during this period has nosedived – 58.41 compared to his career average of 27.90. As for Chahal, in five ODIs post the World Cup, he collected eight scalps, but his average, too, has slipped – 37.12 during this period compared to his career average of 27.29. The leg-spinner’s last ODI was against Australia in Sydney in November 2020. He was dropped from the T20I XI after the first three matches against England. In Chahal’s case it could be a temporary blip but Kuldeep’s fortunes have been on a downward spiral for a long while now.
To put things in perspective, the 2019 World Cup was Dhoni’s international swansong. Last year, Kuldeep publicly spoke about “missing” the former captain.
Is the chainman bowler going downhill fast? Vengsarkar doesn’t think so. “It will not be proper for me to say if he is lacking confidence. I’m not with the team. I’m watching the matches on television. I will also not come to a conclusion that he is not getting the zip off the wicket, because it also depends on the nature of the wicket,” the ex-India skipper told this paper.
Yadav’s mentor-of-sorts Brad Hogg in the past, the former Australian chinaman bowler who he first met in IPL, has always desired one tweak in Yadav’s action.
“I would like him to straighten up in the delivery stride. He bends his knees a bit too much at release,” he had told this newspaper.
It can help him be more fluent in the action, get more fizz and revolutions on the ball, and hence the ability to hang the ball that much more in the air. The two had worked on it for a few net sessions but Hogg remembered Kuldeep telling him, “Sir, I am not going to do it. It’s not working for me”. Hogg didn’t push it as it’s purely individual comfort feel but did believe that could make a difference to Kuldeep’s bowling.
India will have to solve their spin conundrum fast in a T20 World Cup year. Bringing back Ashwin will see the team management make a U-turn. An overload of wrist spinners in the squad – Chahal, Rahul Chahar and Rahul Tewatia – for the recently concluded T20I series against England attested India’s reluctance to ditch their ‘wrist-spin’ belief.