The first ball is so quick through the air that David Miller is struck on the pad trying to nudge it. The second comes off a rounder action, prompting Miller to shimmy down the pitch and swing but he misses and is stumped by Rishabh Pant. Ball Three is shorter, allowing Mahipal Lomror to squirt it through midwicket for a couple. Ravichandran Ashwin is quickly back at the top of his mark for the next three—on middle and leg, fuller on off-stump and finally giving the ball some air like a traditional spinner. All three are dots. This is the fifth over of Rajasthan Royals’ innings, chasing 154/6 by Delhi Capitals (DC). They are 19/3 and Sanju Samson is left with all to do in a tricky chase.
While you were still trying to wrap your head around the confounding decision to bench Ashwin for four consecutive Tests, he’s back doing his thing: flipping the carrom ball, manoeuvring the crease, aiming for the stumps and making the batter toil for every run. Ashwin coming into his own in T20 shouldn’t be news, considering how Ashwin became Ashwin because of this format. But in what has been a strange year that saw him miss the cut despite going the extra yard for it, getting to bowl and taking wickets may well have assumed a new happiness for him. So less than a month away from the T20 World Cup, he is quietly ticking all the boxes while finding his rhythm.
One wicket in five games at an economy of 7.73 was Ashwin’s tournament aggregate when he left the IPL bio-bubble earlier in India to be with his family. By no means was it great. But having a multidimensional attack allows DC to not rely on one bowler too much. Saturday was one such day. On a slow Abu Dhabi pitch in 40-degree heat, Avesh Khan averaged 7.25 per over, Kagiso Rabada 6.5, Anrich Nortje 4.5 and Axar Patel 6.75 in Delhi’s 33-run win that propelled them to the top of the table with 16 points from 10 matches. Ashwin’s 4-0-20-1 looks equally devastating and yet it’s much more than that when you break it down to understand how his brain works.
Being able to set his fields help. As does the competitive streak that eggs him to stay ahead of the batter every ball. So when Samson was possibly guessing Ashwin would target his legs after he had reverse-swept the previous delivery outside off-stump for a boundary, Ashwin pitched it in the same spot. Hitting Ashwin for a six emboldened Lomror to exploit a packed off-side field more often but he was never again allowed the length for it. The change in pace has been subtle but effective as well. This is one area where Ashwin has been confounding batters a lot. Last match against Sunrisers Hyderabad, he averaged 93km/hr, his quickest clocking 99.6km/hr and the slowest nearly 84kmph. When you see Patel—quite possibly the quickest Indian spinner now—average 96km/hr with 101.2km/hr being his quickest in the same match, you know Ashwin has transitioned well.
Always indisputable however is Ashwin’s craft, landing the ball where he wants and wielding almost complete control on the kind of deviation he wants off it. The loopier version remains the go-to delivery. But with stock balls that chase the batters, Ashwin is getting more dot balls now. On Saturday, he bowled 12 of them. The match before that, four out of 17 deliveries were dots.
Where he is really messing with the batters though is in his expansive, often quirky, use of the bowling crease. The wide-of-the-pitch variant to left-handers is a tried and tested winner but against right-handers, Ashwin is mixing it up by coming from both sides of the wicket, often running in from wide and releasing the ball almost in front of the umpire. He did that last match with some degree of success.
All of this might make more sense and yield more results as the tournament progresses. Ashwin didn’t have a great start against Sunrisers, his first four balls being two boundaries bookending a no-ball and a wide. But as this match showed, he has been quick on the comeback. We don’t know how he will finally shape up for the T20 World Cup and whether he will be again ignored despite doing the hard yards. Until then, watch him conjure six types of balls in an over, underspinning it, reverse-carroming it, bowling military-medium, giving it some air and then quickly pulling back the length. Few do it as well as him.