On a day of fluctuating fortunes, two Indian offspinners put up diametrically contrasting performances as India let Australia off the hook on day one of the first Test in Chennai. R Ashwin had a decidedly ordinary series against England and his below-par showing forced many to question his ability as a Test bowler. In particular, his proclivity to try too many variations was criticized by former cricketers and cricket analysts.
Harbhajan Singh was no better off. Barring a solitary Test against England at Mumbai, he had been out of Indian team for over a year and was recalled to face Australia largely because of his splendid record against the opposition - 90 wickets in 16 Tests.
In many ways, it is a very crucial Test for Harbhajan and Ashwin. Harbhajan has a point to prove - that he's still good enough to serve India at international level for some years. The fact that he is playing his 100th Test only heightens the significance of the occasion for him. Ashwin, on the other, is keen to vindicate that he can emulate his limited-overs success in Test matches. He started his career with 22 wickets in his first Test series and made it two Man-of-the-Series awards with 18 wickets in two Tests against New Zealand. But his inability to exert dominance against stronger teams cast aspersions over Ashwin's spin prowess.
On Friday, Michael Clarke won the toss and opted to bat. His decision was ratified when David Warner and Ed Cown who gave the team a terrific start by attacking the bowlers. Australia were 43 for 0 in eight overs when Ashwin got the ball, and immediately troubled Warner. He tossed the ball up and got it to bounce; Warner tried to cut was flummoxed as the ball turned across him sharply. The outside edge went to Virender Sehwag at first slip, but he spilled a sitter. Ashwin was visibly disappointed. In his second over, he lured Warner out with teasing flight and the batsman was duped by the dip and steep bounce. However, MS Dhoni couldn't collect the ball and Warner got his second reprieve.
In that first spell (11-2-30-2) Ashwin took a complete departure from how he bowled against England. He didn't try to deploy too many variations and stuck to a probing length, drawing the batsmen forward and making both southpaws play across the line. Crucially, he imparted flight on the ball and made it dip deceptively. Suddenly he looked a dangerous bowler.
Ashwin's efforts were rewarded in the 15th over when Cowan danced down the track but was beaten in the air for Dhoni to execute the stumping. Next to go was Phillip Hughes who was smothered in Ashwin's previous over before being lulled into playing the cut. The ball came slower than Hughes anticipated and he chopped it onto the stumps.
What Ashwin lacked was support from the other end, where Harbhajan bowled poorly and leaked runs which took the pressure off from the batsmen. Harbhajan was wayward and bowled far too many short balls which were duly dispatched to the boundary. He looked like a pale shadow of the bowler he was once. His rhythm was missing and his demeanor on the field was devoid of any exuberance.
Ashwin struck in the first over after lunch as Shane Watson was done in the canny use of the quicker ball, which skid through after pitching and caught the batsman on the back foot. The setup was smart; Ashwin fed Watson with a couple pitched-up deliveries and suddenly threw in a faster one. In his next over, Ashwin finally got rid of Warner after deceiving him on a number of occasions. Warner was finding it hard to pick Ashwin's length and played back to a flatter trajectory which caught him in front of the wickets.
Soon after, Matthew Wade fell to a flighted delivery which straightened. After that second spell (9-2-19-3) Ashwin was given a breather with Australia reeling at 164 for 5. Harbhajan and Ravindra Jadeja failed to build on the momentum spawned by Ashwin and squandered the advantage. Harbhajan tried to bowl quick and ended up being downright flat and short, failing to learn from Ashwin, and produced an utterly forgettable spell. Harbhajan has served India with distinction over the last decade, as his record indicates, but the time is ripe for him to have a hard look at himself.
If the first day's action is anything to go by, it is apparent has Ashwin has learned his lesson from the failure and put in the hard yards, along with a lot of thought, to scale up his repertoire. He must remember that he's an offspinner first and foremost and must utilise his finesse to the hilt. His variations become more potent when he gains rhythm by sticking to archetype off-spin mode in the initial phase of his spell.