R Ashwin gave two masterclass performances on two consecutive days of the second Test in Chennai. Ashwin - the bowler returned with a fifer and routed England for 134 in the first innings thereby giving India a massive 195-run lead and the ascendancy in the match on Day 2. The Ashwin we have missed - Ashwin - the batsman - produced a brilliant hundred under pressure on Day 3 to bat England out of the match. Together, Ashwin - the all-rounder by some time in the afternoon tomorrow, would have won India the match and levelled the series.
Ashwin has made a big statement both with the bat and ball when his team needed it the most, in what was perhaps their biggest challenge at home in recent years against a spirited opposition. While the off spinner is widely regarded as India's greatest match-winner with the ball at home in Test cricket his batting dipped in the last few years.
Ashwin just managed to score a mere 602 runs in 39 Test innings in 29 Tests at an average of 16.72 with no hundred and only one fifty between 2017 and 2020. His batting average went down by more than half - this was a massive fall in his batting numbers and although he continued to torment opposition line-ups with the ball, India lost Ashwin the all-rounder in this period. This affected the team balance as it prolonged India's tail which was often found wanting in overseas conditions in SENA.
Prior to 2017, Ashwin had an aggregate of 1816 runs in 44 Tests at an average of 34.92 in the period from his debut in November, 2011 till the end of 2016. All four of his Test hundreds came during this period. 10 of his 11 fifties also came in this time-frame.
Ashwin's 106 today in Chennai was reminiscent of his earlier performances with the bat for India - great timing, excellent judgement and that little extra element of a few meaty hits and some risk on a difficult Chepauk wicket. He played the role of the aggressor while his skipper batted with a steely resolve at the other end not to throw it away for India. Ashwin took the calculated risk, had luck on his side and benefitted. He scored 56 of 81 deliveries of the match-defining 96-run stand with Kohli batting England out of the contest, throwing out of the window whatever iota of chance they had to claw back into the match.
He batted beautifully with the tail scoring 50 of the 84 runs scored by the last three Indian wickets accelerating as he reached his hundred in the last wicket stand of 49 with Mohammed Siraj.
Coupled with his fifer on Day 2 and Ashwin has given one of his finest all-round performances for India in the match. Ashwin achieved the unique double of scoring a hundred and picking a fifer in the same Test for the third time in his career. Remarkably the feat has only been achieved on 5 occasions by an Indian player! Just for perspective, only one all-rounder in the history of Test cricket - Ian Botham - has achieved this unique double more times than Ashwin. The England legend did it on 5 occasions. Greats like Garry Sobers and Jacques Kallis have achieved the feat only twice.
Ashwin had combined with Washington Sundar and put a fine 80-run stand in the first innings of the series opener in Chennai too. He had come out to bat at 225 for 6 under pressure with England's mammoth 578 on the board. Ashwin scored 31 off 91 deliveries and took India to a respectable 300-plus total.
His batting resurgence started in Australia in the greatest save in India's Test cricket history when he battled pain and back spasms and batted for close to 43 overs defying the great Australian attack in their own backyard for 128 deliveries and 190 minutes to remain unbeaten on 39 and ensure that the series was still alive for his country.
Three fine batting performances for his country under pressure at crucial junctures in the match and series, Ashwin has not only shown tremendous skill with the bat but also remarkable courage and temperament. He has also adjusted to two completely different conditions - at the SCG and Chennai against contrasting bowling units and come out on top.
His form with the bat in 2021 suggests that Ashwin the all-rounder has made a comeback for India and is here to stay.