India vs England: Ravichandran Ashwin, a perpetual student of the game, can make a difference for visitors

From the onset, Ashwin strikes you as a student of the game, eyes transfixed on how the batsman, bowler and the pitch are playing out this game of puppets.

There was a very distinct characteristic in the successful Indian Test teams from the last couple of decades. The core was made up of statesmen cricketers, who looked at the sport with reverence, worshipped it almost, and imbibed that the battle was always between bat and ball, everything else was an embellishment. They were leaders with or without the tag of captaincy and every time they took the ground, there was a sense of security that the right kind of men is representing the national team.

That was a generation who had been told in age-level coaching camps that “cricket is a gentleman’s game”, and they played out their entire careers as if it was a commandment. The world and the sport of cricket itself have changed since then. The booming commercialization has led to salaries getting fatter, and it now is starting to become a lucrative life option, rather than just a passionate pursuit. Cricket has certainly become more professional, but the honest work-ethic that defined previous generations isn’t as fashionable anymore.

Ravichandran Ashwin is the invaluable thread that connects the modern-day Indian cricket to its glorious past. From the onset, he strikes you as a student of the game, eyes transfixed on how the batsman, bowler and the pitch are playing out this game of puppets. He’s patient in his scrutiny. It should tell you something that in Tests, Ashwin takes well north of 10 overs to get his first wicket, and the strike-rate drops heavily after. In those first 10 overs, he isn’t leaking runs, but like a scientist, he’s slowly trying out how his subject reacts to different kinds of inputs.

By the end of it, he usually has the measure of a batsman, the pitch and soon enough, entire teams. Like his old idols, Ashwin has always yearned to be multi-dimensional too; his batting ability has allowed Virat Kohli the immense luxury of playing five proper bowlers regularly. Ashwin, though, doesn’t enjoy the unabashed popularity that a cricketer of his pedigree should. For someone who has picked up a staggering 300+ Test wickets in just under 60 Tests, there is far too much discussion on what Ashwin has not achieved.

Every time there is a mention of the bowling colossus he has turned into, there is also a hushed silence around his record outside Asia and the West Indies. It is an expectation almost every Asian cricketer is unfairly burdened with as soon as they get their first Test cap. There is little doubt that the elite will want to have a shining report card everywhere they go, but over a 70 or 80+ Test career, a fifth of those Tests shouldn’t define anything more than a small detail.

In Ashwin’s case, it’s usually a lazy hypothesis more than anything else. He has played only 11 of his 58 Tests outside India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the West Indies, and just the two since the last Australia tour of 2014-15 — both of them came in South Africa this year. During the same period, he has played 32 Tests in the subcontinent or the Caribbean. The great thing with statistics is that if you approach it with the answer already decided, you’ll probably find something to back your theory.

The real charm lies in digging deeper and finding the actual truth. Most great cricketers have a phase of metamorphosis, where they transform their game to go from good to elite, and India has just not played enough away Tests in the period where Ashwin has completed the journey from a mystery spinner to the second name on the team-sheet. This year will finally give him the chance to bury those conversations for good.

He was effective and dependable, without being spectacular, in South Africa this year. Pitches in that country absolutely abhor finger-spinners, and yet, Ashwin had a respectable average of 30, a strike rate of 65.57 and he never gives away too many runs per over anyway. The English aren’t the best players of spin, as was starkly evident during their India tour in 2016, and Ashwin will again spearhead in Kohli’s endeavor to get past a left-handers-heavy England Test side. As a batsman, Ashwin’s role in the Indian team tends to be glossed over very easily.

In an away tour, especially for Asian teams, where the batsmen score lesser runs than at home, the lower middle order is often the differential between 150 all out and 230. If India is to have any chance of winning this series, their middle and lower middle order will have to contribute handsomely. Even in the mega home season in 2016-17, there were a number of times when Ashwin, along with Wriddhiman Saha or Ravindra Jadeja, bailed India out of precarious situations.

There’s another aspect which makes Ashwin special, and a vital cog in this Indian wheel as they begin a 12-month period which, if everything falls in place, will firmly elevate them as one of the greatest Indian teams of all time. He’s a man who likes challenges and adversity. At the end of the Champions Trophy in England last year, the ugly head of his less-than-brilliant output on alien conditions reared again. Before he could blink, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav are now the toast of Indian spin bowling, at least in white-ball cricket.

So what does he do? He goes back to the drawing board and develops more variations because predictable is the one thing Ashwin doesn’t want to become. Reports have it that he’s even developed the leg-spinner and bowls it with a proper wrist action. England won’t face an Ashwin who’s out to prove his critics wrong, but one who will go to any lengths to ensure no batsman can ever fully read him, and that can’t be pleasing if you’re Joe Root and Co.