The R Ashwin conundrum: Should the ace Indian spinner play the fifth Test?

When R Ashwin was not picked in the fourth Test despite the non-availability of Ishant Sharma and Mohammad Shami, a lot of people were seething with anger. Everyone from Harsha Bhogle to Michael Vaughan expressed their shock at the decision.

Thankfully, not picking a senior veteran like Ashwin did not affect India. They registered a thumping victory courtesy some special performances from Rohit Sharma, Shardul Thakur and Jasprit Bumrah. So the big question before the fifth and final Test is – who will India leave out to accommodate Ashwin?


Will it be Shardul Thakur who scored two crucial half-centuries in the fourth Test? Will it be Ravindra Jadeja who came out to bat at No. 5 instead of Ajinkya Rahane? Will it be Umesh Yadav who bent his back and provided crucial breakthroughs? Not many armchair critics want to answer those questions.


For sure, Ashwin will be disappointed especially after taking six wickets at the venue not so long ago in a County Cricket match for Surrey. For sure, Ashwin has spent a lot of time in England in the recent past and needed a few matches to vindicate that decision.


If you look at the stats, Ashwin has done well in SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) countries. In fact, he has the best average among all spinners in those conditions since 2015. He averages 30.43 at an economy rate of 2.62. Even in this year’s WTC final, Ashwin troubled the Kiwi batsman and caused them a lot of problems. Alas, he couldn’t prove to be a matchwinner on the final day but his presence did give the fans some hope.


As an athlete, Ashwin knows the art of bouncing back. He was dropped from the team after a string of poor performances in 2014. Instead of being bogged down by the enormity of the task (making a comeback to the starting XI isn’t easy), he chose to go to India’s bowling coach Bharat Arun and told him that he wanted to be the best in the world. Together, they worked on his bowling action (he started using his hip a lot more) and today, R Ashwin is the best spinner in the world according to ICC rankings.


Along with his action, R Ashwin was also able to alter his line, introduce dip and bring subtle changes of pace to outfox the batsmen. “Before, if I had to slow the ball down, it was much more visible to the batsman. Now, when I’m fitter and putting more body into the ball, the difference in speed variation is that much more subtle. When you can do that with a lot of control, you can also play around with your lengths. It’s a different ball game. You start enjoying your skills much more than before. Before, it was about getting the batsman out. Now, there’s more joy in the way I bowl,” he said in an earlier interview with Wisden.


The Old Trafford pitch is expected to assist spin and England have drafted Jack Leach into their squad. If the Indian team management wants, they can rest Ravindra Jadeja (who has been off-colour with the bat) and play Ashwin. On the other hand, they can also go with the same team as you should not fix something that’s not broken.


At the moment, Virat Kohli’s only responsibility is to win games and he’s doing that in style. It’s incredibly tough to win Test matches in English conditions (we were thrashed black and blue on our last two tours) and it’s not easy to drop a player of Ashwin’s calibre. Failure is not an option as everyone will tear apart your strategy if it fails.


Whatever happens, Ashwin’s exclusion speaks a lot about the unreal depth in the Indian bowling attack. Every player is raring to go and it’s a good headache to have for the team management.


Note: There's a valid fear that the final match will get cancelled after another member from the Indian support staff tested positive for Coronavirus. Because of this, the Indian team cancelled their practice session on Thursday. Earlier, Ravi Shastri, R Sridhar and Bharat Arun had returned positive tests and were isolated.


It is believed that BCCI wants the match to be cancelled but the final decision hasn't been taken yet.