As New Zealand took on England in the first semifinal of the ICC T20 World Cup 2021, Kane Williamson was facing a matchup dilemma. Mitchell Santner had failed to dismiss any left-handed batters in the tournament and considering England had Dawid Malan and Moeen Ali batting at No. 3 and 4, Williamson was understandably hesitant to introduce that matchup.
As things panned out, Santner (1-0-8-0) bowled just one delivery to Malan and his remaining five to Jos Buttler. Williamson, instead, turned to Glenn Phillips who went for 11 from his over.
New Zealand managed to seal a thriller but away from the action, R Ashwin took an exception to Williamson bowling Phillips over Santner. “2 lefties – so bowl a keeper who can bowl a bit of off-spin and bowl Santner for 1 over 8 runs. Santner has never got a left-hander out in his career. #PerceptionsAboutTheGame. And for all those who will come to create a war between individuals, let me tell you, this is a perception challenge that a spin bowler is living with. It’s a challenge all around the T20 game. #spinbowlerslife,” he would go on to tweet about Williamson’s decision.
Ashwin knows all too well how perceptions can impact a player. Since the 2017 Champions Trophy loss against Pakistan, Ashwin hasn’t played a single One-Day International. Only in 2021, he has been able to make a return to the national T20 setup and featured in three World Cup games in UAE after last playing a T20I in 2017. In December 2017, the then chairman of selectors had stressed both Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja had important roles to play in the limited-overs setup but the management was leaning towards wrist spinners. And that meant, Ashwin found himself as a Test specialist.
Ashwin, since being sidelined, has not only produced performances to keep him in contention but has tirelessly advocated that the perception that wrist spinners hold the edge over finger spinners needs to change. “The world spins and everything will spin around. It’s only a matter of time as more often than not Indian cricket is built mostly on perceptions,” he had said during the 2018 Deodhar Trophy. “I am always battling benchmarks that I have created for myself. Unfortunately, people don’t take that into account and I don’t expect them to do it. That’s never been an Indian way and I am not worried about it.”
As things stand, Ashwin’s battle against certain perceptions seems to be coming to an end. In the last four editions of IPL, Ashwin has 45 wickets at an economy of 7.60 and has been rewarded with a berth in India’s T20I side. The reason, according to Virat Kohli, was because the spinner has managed to revive “his white-ball skills altogether”. “He bowls with a lot of courage in white-ball cricket,” Kohli had pointed out. “If you saw the IPL in the last couple of years, he’s bowled difficult overs, he’s bowled against the top players in the IPL, and not being shy to put the ball in the right areas. Spinners can get intimidated by the way power hitters hit the ball, but Ashwin believed in his skill set.
“Wrist spinners were the ones in demand, mostly through that middle period, but now the finger spinners with that accuracy have come back into the game again, so we also have to evolve as a team with the evolving trend of the game. With Ash and the likes of Ravindra Jadeja as well, performing beautifully.”
Ashwin’s performances have been bubbling for a while. In the T20 World Cup, Ashwin’s six wickets came at an average of 10.60 and an economy of 5.25. On Wednesday, it was his experience and guile that tilted the game in India’s favour. New Zealand were 106 for 1 in 13 overs with Mark Chapman stitching a century stand with Martin Guptill for the second wicket. Ashwin removed Chapman and Phillips in his final over to leave New Zealand at 110 for 3 at the end of the 14th. That phase pushed New Zealand back and they ended with a below-par total.
On the night, it was Ashwin’s experience that helped India. The first 19 deliveries Ashwin bowled in the game, only two were below 90kph. The first time he did – his 11th of the match – he had Chapman in all sorts of trouble after the left-hander had decided to come down the track. Ashwin – who had consistently fired deliveries at around 95kph till then – slowed it down to 83.1 kph, got the ball to dip and spin away. Chapman, though beaten by the dip, managed to get his body behind the ball to avoid a stumping opportunity.
In his final over, after the opening ball was driven wide of cover for a boundary, Ashwin once again tossed it up to Chapman. The loop on the delivery that was bowled at 84.1 kph did Chapman as he was bowled trying to play a big shot. If you want to see the mastery of a spinner over his art, find yourself the clip to that over from Ashwin. Phillips poked and missed his first delivery and then awkwardly fended the next one to keep it out. Ashwin had sowed the doubts he needed to and it was time to reap the rewards. He asked Rohit Sharma to move to the first slip and was hoping to find the outside edge. Instead, the carrom ball had Phillips lbw for a duck.
From having an average speed of 95.4 kph in his first three overs, Ashwin brought it down to mid-80s for his final over. Ashwin not only was seemed in control of his battle against Chapman but also aced his match-up against Guptill (70 off 42) by conceding a run-a-ball seven to the right-hander. “The slower you bowled, there was more purchase you got on this pitch,” he pointed out after the game. “If you hit the seam and tossed it up, it did do things like Santner showed in the second innings.
“It’s tricky in T20s, you can’t miss your lengths and you don’t know when to toss it up but here it did help to give it some air. I bowled the first over in the powerplay, and figuring out the pace to bowl is important and it took me some time to figure that out. It’s about varying to pace and knowing when to vary it. It’s important to take each of the 24 balls as an event, and look at each ball in isolation and as an opportunity. You might have to play catch-up, but the batsman is trying to play catch-up and trying to play you too, so you can’t get intimidated.”
As Ashwin continues to put in impactful performances, it’s becoming increasingly likely that he’ll be part of India’s plans for the T20 World Cup in 2022 in Australia. And the master tactician that Ashwin is, expect the show to get better from here on.