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The Ashwin-Jadeja Debate, And Final Frontiers

Dileep Premachandran |Cricketnext | Updated: November 29, 2017, 12:48 PM IST
The Ashwin-Jadeja Debate, And Final Frontiers

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Even as they elected to play this Sri Lanka series on pitches that vaguely resembled those that lie in wait for them in South Africa, the Indian team management insisted that they wouldn’t take their eyes off the ball. The crushing innings win in Nagpur vindicated that stance. But with several of the Test stalwarts downing tools after the third and final Test in Delhi, it’s perhaps inevitable that minds jump ahead to Newlands and January 5.

South Africa and Australia remain Indian cricket’s final frontiers. India’s recent record in the southern cape is nothing to be ashamed of, having drawn a series in 2010-11, either side of narrow defeats. With a little more composure and a little more honesty from the players, India should have won in 2006-07, when they eked out a 41-run lead on first innings in Cape Town.

Seven years later, they bossed a Test match at The Wanderers before a remarkable partnership between AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis nearly inspired an epic South African victory on the final day. And after another strong first-day showing in Durban, two batting collapses gave South Africa the series.

India’s pace bowlers, whether it was Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan in 2006-07 or Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma in 2013-14, have generally made excellent use of the conditions. Of the spinners, Harbhajan Singh had a huge part to play in the series-levelling victory in Durban in 2010.

For R Ashwin, that Wanderers Test of 2013 brings back grim memories, of bowling 36 overs without reward as South Africa nearly pulled off the pursuit of 458. He was benched for Durban, where Ravindra Jadeja took 6 for 138 as South Africa piled up 500. It would be another year before he got back a regular place in the Test side.

Jadeja made his Test debut five years ago, but in all that time, he and Ashwin have played only two matches in tandem outside of Asia. In Manchester in 2014, as India lost by an innings inside three days, Ashwin finished with 0 for 29, while Jadeja had figures of 1 for 36. Last year, at Gros Islet in the Caribbean, both picked up three wickets in a comfortable Indian win.

But with India now having a genuine pool of skilled pace bowlers to pick from, it’s almost certain that only one of Ashwin or Jadeja will play in Cape Town. Both may be considered all-rounders, but with Hardik Pandya in the mix and enjoying the confidence of the management, it’s doubtful that two spinners will be employed on what’s likely to be a seam-friendly surface.

Over the past two years, India have played most of their cricket at home. Only Australia, thanks to Steve O’Keefe’s dream spells on an underprepared pitch in Pune, escaped a thrashing. Ashwin and Jadeja have both been central to that incredible run of success. In 19 home Tests in that time, Ashwin has taken an incredible 121 wickets at 21.16. Jadeja’s haul – 99 wickets at 19.81 – is no less praiseworthy. He has been more economical than Ashwin (2.19 runs an over compared to 2.67), but the senior man has the better strike-rate (47.4 to 54).

Jadeja offers control, which can be precious when playing only four bowlers, but against a South African line-up that boasts some of the game’s greats, Ashwin’s greater variety should tilt the selection debate in his favour. Jadeja can play the odd game-turning innings, as he did at Lord’s in 2014, but it’s Ashwin that’s the more organised and dependable batsman. In the field, Jadeja has few peers.

This either-or discussion will play out dozens of times over the next 18 months, as India tour England, Australia and New Zealand after the trip to South Africa. Ashwin is acutely aware of how overseas displays will influence his legacy, and will take heart from the experiences of Anil Kumble, who was his coach for a year.

On his first tour of Australia in 1999-2000, Kumble took just five wickets at 90, and was derided as a stock bowler. Four years later, he took 23 in three Tests, including 12 in Sydney as India nearly pulled off a series win. Until he does something similar, Ashwin knows that that Wanderers performance will always be held up, quite unfairly, as an example of his limitations.

Both Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri have shown that they’re inclined to be flexible when it comes to selection. In that sense, the Feroz Shah Kotla Test won’t be a bowl-off between Ashwin and Jadeja. Both know that chances to play in South Africa will largely depend on the conditions. But after two years of lording it over all-comers on home turf, this will be the final dress rehearsal before the spin twins find themselves tussling for one spot in the XI.
First Published: November 29, 2017, 12:48 PM IST

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