Even as conditions in England in the early summer will be overcast and suit the fast bowlers and despite India boasting of a world-class pace quartet, New Zealand batsman Henry Nicholls has picked out Indian spinners R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja as the ones to watch out for when the two teams collide in the final of the World Test Championship in Southampton from the 18th of June.
What is the rationale behind Nicholls choices? Ashwin and Jadeja have been India’s greatest match-winners at home during the last few years and are unarguably the finest bowling pair working in tandem for India in their Test history. But what about their struggles overseas? Have their numbers improved?
Let us examine.
ASHWIN - FROM A RESTRICTIVE BOWLER TO A THREATENING ONE IN SENA
Ashwin has picked 123 wickets in 31 away Tests at an average of 31.18 and strike rate of 63.7. His record in SENA, when seen in absolute terms, does not look very flattering. The off-spinner has bagged 63 wickets in 20 Tests (34 innings) at an average of 40.11 and strike rate of 84.1. He does not have even one five-wicket haul in an innings in SENA and for long had become India’s second choice as the specialist overseas spinner losing that position to Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav.
But even during his struggles in these countries in the initial years, Ashwin did produce a few noteworthy performances. He picked five wickets both at the MCG and SCG in 2014-2015 in what were two commendable draws for India. He kept things quiet and tight at one end even when not amongst the wickets.
In the period till the end of the Australia series in 2015, Ashwin played 9 matches in SENA and returned with an economy rate of 3.25 which was a testimony of his disciplined line and length and ability to bowl long spells. The average economy rate of the team in these matches was 3.66. Ashwin was a decent support act and a filler for the fast bowlers in this period.
Ashwin was out of the overseas Test team in SENA for a period of three years from 2015 to 2018.
His numbers have taken a dramatic turn (for the better) since his return for the South Africa tour in 2018. While he has continued to be brilliantly restrictive with an economy rate of just 2.5 in SENA in this period, Ashwin has also weaponized himself and become a more threatening wicket-taker for India in this time-frame. He has bagged 39 wickets in 11 Tests (20 innings) at an average of 29.97 and strike rate of 71.7 during this period. That is a stunning transformation from the average of 56.58 and strike rate of 104.2 in the period before.
Ashwin picked up 4 wickets in the first innings against South Africa at Centurion and opened the bowling with the new red cherry in the second! Significantly, when India toured the Old Blighty last in 2018, he again grabbed four in the first innings of the series opener in Birmingham which included the wickets of Cook, Stokes, Buttler and Broad. Ashwin then reduced England to 39 for 3 in the second innings getting rid of Cook, Root and Jennings to end with 7 for the match - which remains his best performance in SENA.
He picked three wickets in Southampton and bowled as many as a little over 37 overs in England’s second innings also sharing the new ball with Jasprit Bumrah - that was double the number of overs delivered by any other Indian bowler in the innings.
Ashwin played the leading role with the ball in India’s famous win at the Adelaide Oval in 2018 - five of his six wickets in the match were of the Australian top and middle order all dismissed cheaply. He also played a crucial role with the ball in India’s historic comeback win at the MCG in 2020 - the off spinner got the wickets of Wade, Smith (for a duck) and Paine in the first innings conceding just 35 runs in his 24 overs. He then got the prized scalp of Labuschagne in the second innings.
Interestingly, amongst the five highest wicket-takers amongst spinners in SENA (only considering away matches for a bowler), Ashwin is not only at the top but also has the best bowling average only after Ravindra Jadeja. Just for perspective, his average and strike rate are both better than Nathan Lyon (not considering his matches in Australia) and Yasir Shah in this time-frame.
JADEJA - A SIMILAR STORY TO ASHWIN
Jadeja has tallied 41 wickets in SENA in 13 Tests at an average of 35.12 and strike rate of 76.9 and has been India’s preferred choice overseas in these countries, especially after Virat Kohli took over the captaincy. His return as a destructive lower-order batsman and Ashwin’s decline as one had also made the left-hander the obvious choice.
Jadeja bagged six in an innings in his first innings in SENA - in Durban in South Africa in 2013 though India were comprehensively beaten in the match. Though he bagged 5 in Southampton in 2014, he was not a major threat with the ball in these conditions till his return in 2018.
Since the Oval Test in September, 2018, Jadeja has been a genuine threat with the ball even in SENA for India. He bagged 7 in the match in London, got five big wickets in the famous win at the MCG in 2018 and again picked four in Australia’s first innings at the SCG in 2021. Overall, in six Tests since September, 2018, Jadeja has returned with 23 wickets at an average of 26.47 and strike rate of 57.
Given Ashwin and Jadeja’s form with the ball since 2018, they will not only play the role of a ‘supporting-act’ to the fast bowlers but also be a major threat in their own right capable of running past the New Zealand team in Southampton. Both have tasted success at the venue on different tours and will know the conditions well. Also, New Zealand, while comfortable against pace, barring Kane Williamson, are not known to be great players of quality spin.
The Ashwin-Jadeja pair might well be India’s trump cards with the ball come the 18th of June.