Ravichandran Ashwin’s fine performance playing for Surrey in the county championship has been the only redeeming feature for Indian cricket in the past week, what with the threat of Covid – one way or the other — dogging the teams in England and Sri Lanka. Ashwin displayed marvelous skills bowling in picking up 6-27 which helped Surrey skittle Somerset for a meager 69 runs in the second innings. In the first, the wily off-spinner had labored for a solitary wicket conceding 99 runs. However, he made this practice match count (for him) with a bagful of wickets when it really mattered.
It was sensible of the team management to release Ashwin as a replacement for injured Kylie Jamieson, and even for Surrey to include Ashwin in the playing XI at short notice. The Indian team has been bereft of any meaningful practice since the WTC final against New Zealand, which had become a worry for the management and a reminder to the BCCI of planning itineraries better.
Ashwin, always eager to hone his skills for overseas contests and get into a competitive groove early, didn’t dither about playing this match. Interestingly, he opened the bowling in the second innings. Clearly, the Surrey team management had been following his performances in Australia last season where he picked up important top-order wickets with the new ball.
For a spinner, making first use of the ball is off-beat in first-class and Test matches and adds a fascinating new dimension to Ashwin’s repertoire, as indeed for spinners going ahead. Cricket—even the longest format – is constantly evolving, thanks to players like Ashwin who are constantly experimenting.
Though spinners don’t usually have an early role to play in English conditions, I reckon we’ll be seeing him using the new ball far more in the Test series against England starting early next month. In fact, I’ll say that Ashwin could be the crucial man to watch out for in the Test series — by the opponents and even his own team management.
There was not much cheer otherwise for the Indian team in England despite the relaxation of Covid-related restrictions. Players and support staff were given three weeks off, and there were sightings of chief coach Ravi Shastri at Wimbledon while some players attended Euro Soccer matches.
But the week ended in turmoil with two from the squad – wicket-keeper Rishabh Pant and assistant trainer Dayanand Garani testing positive which effectively also put Wridhiman Saha and coaches Bharat Arun and Sridhar into a spell in isolation since they were considered close to Garani.
There has been fulmination about the whys and hows of Pant, Saha and Garani got infected, but I’d say this was more because of bad luck. Rules in England had been eased, and by the SOPs laid down for the tour, no player did anything outrageously silly. I was a trifle surprised that the BCCI kept the names of those affected in suspense for more than a week. This served no purpose and in fact, increased speculation and alarm.
Luckily, Pant should be available almost immediately and hopefully there no more cases will erupt as the Test series approaches. However, this episode is a reminder yet again that the Covid threat still looms large and players/coaches/support staff can’t afford to drop guard at any time.
In Sri Lanka, where another Indian squad is readying for two white-ball series, the situation was the opposite with some home team players testing positive forcing a 5-day delay in the start of matches. The ODI series now starts on Sunday, with the T20 rubber starting a week later.
On paper, India appear far stronger. The squad, led by veteran Shikhar Dhawan, is like the `Pick of the IPL’ and includes the likes of Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, the Pandya brothers, Prithvi Shaw, Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Navdeep Saini, Ishan Kishan, Sanju Samson. Coach is Rahul Dravid, who has a stellar record, albeit with the under-19 and A teams.
The maximum focus will be on all-rounder Hardik Pandya. If he is fit and shows good form, it will be big relief for Shastri and Kohli. Pandya is a strong finisher, can pick up wickets regularly and fields brilliantly. He can be the `X Factor’ but this comes with conditions applied: He should be fit not just to bat but also bowl to give the team depth, balance and heft.
Only a few places are open in the squad for the T20 World Cup due mid-October and competition will be intense. Some like Dhawan, Shaw, Bhuvaneshwar, Kuldeep, Hardik will also hope to put in performances that make them impress selectors for other formats too. Failure could put them out in the cold for a long while, perhaps even permanently.
Irrespective of how the two series pan out, there is a lot at stake personally for players mentioned above as they have been part of the frontline Indian team (barring Ishan Kishan) in the past few years. Apart from them, newcomers like Devdutt Padikkal, Ruturaj Gaekwad, Chetan Sakariya will also be vying for places.
Apart from not quite matching up in experience and talent, the Sri Lankans have also been badly hit by Covid, made worse by the strained relations between players and the cricket board. It would be fair to say Sri Lankan cricket is seeing its worst times, but this does not mean winning the two series will be a cakewalk for Dhawan and Co.
As underdogs, the Sri Lankans will be stress-free, even playing at home. The pressure is entirely on India.