There can be little doubt that Ravichandran Ashwin is India’s best all-rounder since the peerless Kapil Dev. All the praise for his bowling – perfectly understandable given his feats and the impressive stats associated with his name – should not camouflage the fact that he is a skilful late order batsman who has the technique and temperament to come good whatever the situation or the surface. His latest century in the second Test against England at his home ground of Chepauk underlined this and served as the ultimate tribute to his ubiquitous qualities. After all a century and five wickets in an innings is the quintessential all-round performance and Ashwin has done it not once, not twice but three times. The fact that only Ian Botham is ahead of him, having accomplished the feat five times, puts things in the proper perspective.
As soon as Ashwin made his debut in 2011 there were signs that in addition to his undoubted bowling skills, he could be quite handy with the bat. After all, in first class cricket he had scored a couple of hundreds besides being good enough to open the batting for his club side in Chennai. But could he make a successful transition into becoming a genuine all-rounder when it came to international cricket?
Ashwin did not take long to show that he had it in him to emerge as India’s next multi-skilled player. In only his third Test he came up with a hundred from No 8. Moreover, a serious approach to batting and his textbook strokes marked him out as someone who could bat higher up the order. But with the middle order having the “houseful’’ board firmly struck upon it with a number of stalwarts around there was no way he could be accommodated in the middle order.
Not that it bothered Ashwin who was happy taking wickets by the bucketful and adding more than his mite with the bat down the order. But two years later when he got a second hundred again at No 8, the cry for his promotion gained impetus. To boot, this time he shared a record 280-run partnership with Rohit Sharma for the seventh wicket while batting for almost five hours. While his batting was improving all the time there were fears in some quarters that there might be a dip in his bowling standards. There was no need for such trepidation for Ashwin was obviously made of sterner stuff and in fact he became the fastest Indian to 100 Test wickets.
While getting his first Test hundred in 2011 Ashwin also joined the ranks of all time Indian greats Vinoo Mankad and Polly Umrigar in taking five wickets in an innings. But he went one better by achieving the feat for a second time in the West Indies in 2016. A tally of four hundreds in Tests meant that Ashwin’s promotion could no longer be kept on hold and he was batting at No 6 – the right place for a genuine all-rounder. This also gave the Indian team the option of playing three specialist bowlers or four depending on the surface and the opposition.
Still the focus remained on his bowling. He was clearly India’s No 1 spin bowler, the immense variety in his repertoire bamboozled batsmen and the statistical highlights associated with his bowling continued unabated. He became the second fastest bowler to take 200 wickets in Test history behind the legendary Australian leg spinner Clarrie Grimmett. Wicket No 300 came up in a record 56 Tests and after another 20 matches he now has 394 scalps. With two more Tests to be played it is almost certain he will top the 400-wicket mark in the ongoing series.
And yet there was a brief while when Ashwin’s place in the Test side was not secure. He had already lost his place in the limited overs squads as far back as 2017 and the success of Ravindra Jadeja with bat and ball put Ashwin under pressure to retain his place especially when only one spin bowler was played. The runs dried up and his batting came under the scanner. Then there was the challenge from younger spinners like Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav. But Ashwin is made of sterner stuff and the recent tour of Australia brought out the fighter in him in full measure. Excelling with both bat and ball he proved that he remained India’s No 1 all-rounder by a long way and the two Tests against England have only underlined this fact.
(Partab Ramchand is a veteran sports journalist, the views expressed here are personal)