Column | Why was Ashwin overlooked in England

R Ashwin did not play a single Test in the series against England. Photo: AFP

A communique issued by the Indian team management on the eve of the fifth Test at Old Trafford stated that Ravindra Jadeja had developed a niggle and would not be fit for playing in that game. This was reported by sports correspondents covering the matches as an indication that Ravichandran Ashwin might make his appearance for the first time during the series. However, it was not to be as the Test itself was not played on account of India informing that they were not in a position to field a playing eleven. The exact status of the match, whether it is abandoned, rescheduled, or forfeited, will be known later after the England and Wales Cricket Board and Board of Control for Cricket in India discuss this and arrive at a consensus.

Thus, the four-Test series ended without Ashwin playing a match. With 413 wickets in Test cricket, which includes 30 five-wicket hauls, besides picking up 10 scalps in a match on seven occasions, Ashwin is certainly among the best spin bowlers in contemporary cricket. He is all set to overtake Harbhajan Singh’s tally of 417 test wickets, which will make him the most successful off spinner to emerge from India. He is widely experienced, having toured England twice prior to this series, and was contracted to play county cricket for Surrey at the start of this cricket season. Further, he is no mean performer with the bat, with five centuries and 11 fifties to his credit in Tests, thus making him eligible for being given the tag of an all-rounder. It is these credentials that make the omission of Ashwin from the playing eleven so surprising.

Ravindra Jadeja
Ravindra Jadeja did his reputation no harm in England. File photo: AFP

The Indian team management decided to play Jadeja, a left- arm spinner and lower order batsman, whose credentials (227 wickets and one Test century) are good, but comes nowhere close to that of Ashwin. To be fair, Jadeja equipped himself quite well, coming good with the bat and ball at critical junctures. Hence, his selection over that of Ashwin could not be faulted. This, along with the reading of team management that India needed to field four fast bowlers to make the best use of the pitches and conditions in England ensured that Ashwin was forced to warm the benches during the series. The blunder of playing three seamers and two spin bowlers in the World Test Championship final in June might also haveprompted the decision to go in with only one spinner.

Ashwin’s plight brought comparisons with the situation faced by Erapalli Prasanna during the tour of England in 1971. Prasanna had established himself as the leading spinner in the world by picking up 100 wickets during the period from 1967 to 1970, when India played 16 Tests, eight each against Australia and New Zealand, both at home and abroad. Ian Chappell, the Aussie captain, had gone on record that Prasanna was the best spin bowler he ever faced. However, when India toured England in 1971, Prasanna found himself in the wilderness, as skipper Ajit Wadekar decided to go in with the combination of Bishan Singh Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekar (Chandra) and S Venkataraghavan (Venkat).

Wadekar’s theory was that Chandra had to play as he was a match-winner, while Venkat was required to be in the eleven as the stock bowler who could keep one end tight. This left Bedi and Prasanna in the running for the spot of third spinner in the playing eleven. They were both attacking bowlers, who were not afraid to fligh the ball. Wadekar decided to play Bedi as he was a left-armer and hence brought some variety to the attack. Thus, Prasanna was left out of the playing eleven in all the three Tests.

The decision of the team management to keep him on the benches baffled Prasanna. The deep hurt that he felt, which even forced him to consider taking an early retirement from the game, has been recounted by him in his autobiography “One More Over”. But, to be fair to Wadekar, his stand stood vindicated as Chandra bowled a marvellous spell in the third Test at The Oval that set India on the road to victory. Moreover, Prasanna’s record in England, both during the tours in 1967 and 1974, when he played in Test matches was not great. Except in the Test at Edgbaston in 1967, where he picked up seven wickets in the match, he was not successful with the ball on the pitches in England.

Almost all the commentators and observers of the sport wrote about exclusion of Prasanna while discussing about Ashwin being left out of the playing eleven. While doing so, they forgot a similar instance during the tour of England in 1982, when another eminent off spin bowler was omitted from the playing eleven. Shivlal Yadav was the player who suffered this fate as he had to watch the game from the confines of the pavilion during the three-Test series. And the player who took the field during two of the said three matches was none other than Surendra Vithal (Suru) Nayak, whose selection to the touring party had drawn huge criticism.

A career record of 1,799 runs with two centuries and 133 wickets in 68 first-class matches spread over 12 seasons tells the story of a moderately successful cricketer. But Sunil Gavaskar, then leading the national squad, thought otherwise and promoted the case of Nayak leading to his selection for the tour of England in 1982. One can appreciate the angst of the followers of the game at this decision when it is seen that among those who did not get the nod of selectors for this tour was Mohinder Amarnath. After India lost the first Test at Lord’s by a margin of seven wickets, team management decided to make two changes in the playing eleven. They dropped opening batsman Ghulam Parker and middle order batsman Ashok Malhotra and brought in Sandeep Patil and Nayak.

Nayak played in the second and third Tests, scoring a total of 19 runs and picking up one wicket. In the second Test he batted at No. 10, which indicated that he was not chosen as a batsman and turned his arm over in only 12 out of the 153 overs bowled by India, which showed that he was no frontline bowler either. But still Gavaskar ensured that he played in the next Test as well. After this tour nothing much was heard of Nayak and he continued turning out for Mumbai till he faded away from the game.

Yadav, on the other hand, was made of stronger stuff and staged a comeback to the national side in November, 1983, during the home series against the West Indies. He played international cricket till the end of the 1986-87 season and finished with 102 Test wickets. In all probability he would also felt hurt and disappointed at the treatment meted out to him during the tour of England in 1982.

In the case of Prasanna and Ashwin, one can take solace from the fact that the replacements were players of high calibre and the stand of team management proved to be correct. But neither of these could be said in the instance of Yadav as Nayak did not possess the skillsets for playing Test cricket nor did he come up with any inspired performances in the opportunities that he was presented with.

Ashwin has been included in the Indian team for the T20 World Cup. Photo: AFP

Ashwin has been included in the national side for the ICC T20 World Cup, which means that he will be part of the plans for white-ball cricket for some more years. It is certain that he will be back in the playing eleven when the next Test is played in India. But, it will serve him good to put this time to think why his performances in pitches outside India do not match those in games played within the country. He should realise that Prasanna and Venkat earned their spurs by taking wickets in Tests played outside the Indian sub continent; the former was a master on the pitches in Australia and New Zealand while the latter found those in the Caribbean islands to his liking. Ashwin should also prove his mettle by winning matches in wickets outside India to be considered as an equal member of this distinguished club.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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