Despite NZ’s great escape at Kanpur, time to acknowledge Ashwin’s fourth-innings prowess at home, without reservations

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If one is an Indian spinner bowling in the fourth innings of a Test match in Asia, and particularly so at home, one is criticised after doing well, and even more so if one doesn’t. If the former happens, the pitch often takes more credit and if the latter happens, the spinner is often deemed to have let down the pitch itself, in addition to the team and the fans.

If even one of the few close shaves the New Zealand last pair had in Kanpur been just a bit closer, it would have been a fitting way for Ravichandran Ashwin to go past Harbhajan Singh as India’s third-highest Test wicket-taker. That Rachin Ravindra and Ajaz Patel held on for a draw in fading light should take nothing away from the fact that since he debuted exactly a decade ago, nobody has taken more Test wickets than Ashwin.

And contrary to the perception that all he has to do is turn up at home grounds to feast on clueless visiting batsmen, Ashwin, like any other bowler in Test cricket, has had to work pretty hard for his 419 wickets.

Since he made his debut in Delhi in November 2011, it has taken 51.4 deliveries on average for a wicket to fall in the fourth innings of a Test match in India. And contrary to India’s perception as a fourth-innings graveyard for batsmen, wickets in the last innings have fallen quicker in as many as four other countries – Bangladesh, Pakistan (albeit with a tiny sample size of three Tests), West Indies and counter-intuitively, England.

Even when India themselves have bowled in the fourth innings at home over the last decade, they have needed 49 balls per wicket, only marginally less than the overall figure of 51.4 for the country. It is then another indication of Ashwin’s quality that he strikes every 40 balls in the final innings of home Test matches.

At times, though, no matter how great a bowler one is and how monumental his body of work, he will be checked by conditions. The Green Park surface played low enough to serve up the odd grubber, yes, but more than that, it was its sheer slowness that blunted the spinners.

One needs the ball to rush batsmen off the pitch at least to some extent in order to force mistakes, especially when they are in no mood to take risks to score runs. But in Kanpur, even Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel, who usually bowl quicker than Ashwin in Tests, found it hard to hurry the determined Kiwis.

Unhelpful surface

As head coach Rahul Dravid said after the match, one felt that only bowled and LBW were the dismissals the fielding side had to go for (eight of the nine New Zealand wickets in the second innings came in that fashion). Both edges of the bat were hardly in play, and on the rare occasion they were, the ball wouldn’t carry even to close-in fielders who were kneeling to try and make up for the lack of bounce.

One recalls a 2017-18 Ranji Trophy match between Mumbai and Tamil Nadu at the Bandra-Kurla Complex ground on a pitch so unresponsive even on the final afternoon that no matter what Ashwin tried, it didn’t work. At one stage, he was even bowling flighted leg-breaks from round the wicket to right-handers. No impact. But he kept trying.

There was more assistance available in Kanpur, of course, but again, considerably offset by the lack of pace. Ashwin didn’t quite resort to leg-spin at Green Park. There was little else he did not try though, including a carrom-ball with the second new cherry that hit the rough from round the wicket and spun like a leg-break but somehow eluded Ravindra’s off-stump.

At times, then, one has to look at marathon match figures of 72.3-22-117-6 and acknowledge the effort, regardless of that one decisive strike that didn’t come. And also acknowledge all the effort over the past decade that has gone into earning 419 Test wickets that have come while enduring several days like the final one against New Zealand in Kanpur. Harbhajan Singh, with 417 scalps, would know.

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