Sometimes, one ball can illuminate multiple aspects of a bowler’s craft. Case in point, R Ashwin’s dismissal of Kraigg Brathwaite on the third and final day of the West Indies vs India Test in Dominica.
Let us begin with the angle. Ashwin not only goes around the wicket here, but also delivers with a lower arm than usual. This is partly because Ashwin varies his release points constantly, but partly also because he has spotted a technical issue creeping in whenever he has gone a little roundarm to Brathwaite.
After bowling India to an innings win with match figures of 12 for 131 – his best away from home – Ashwin explained the thinking behind that ball to Brathwaite during a chat with commentators Ian Bishop and Samuel Badree.
“I’m thinking constantly like a batter when I’m bowling,” Ashwin said. “[During] the first few overs, I’m settling into a nice rhythm. I’m looking for different angles, trying to see whether my round-arm ball spins, or the up and over spins, or the flatter trajectory spins. I try and gauge the pitch, I try and gauge the right pace to be bowling with, and then I’m looking at the batter.
“That’s the next phase for me – where is the head moving, where is he looking to score those runs, is he falling over, is his front leg coming over? – those are the things I’m looking at. Today, when I was bowling at Kraigg Brathwaite – it was something I was working on in the first innings as well – I felt like when the round-arm action was coming in, he was losing his head.”
By this, Ashwin didn’t mean Brathwaite was playing irrational shots, but that his head was falling over.
Freeze the replay of Brathwaite’s dismissal at the point where the ball pitches, and you’ll see that Brathwaite’s head has fallen a long way to the off side of the ball, which has pitched on a middle-stumpish line. It leaves Brathwaite in a dangerous position, since his bat cannot come down straight to access the ball. It will instead have to slice across his front pad, which brings in three modes of dismissal depending on how much or little the ball turns: lbw, caught off the inside edge, or caught off the outside edge.
On this occasion, there’s barely any turn, and Brathwaite’s bat traces a path that’s something like a mirror-image C – across the line at first before being drawn outwards, towards the ball – and brings about a healthy edge to Ajinkya Rahane at slip.
The vagaries of natural variation are at play here too, but how much of it is entirely natural? Cast your mind back to India’s innings, and the one phase of it where their batters were being constantly troubled. This was the first session on day two, when Rahkeem Cornwall got the ball to turn and bounce awkwardly on multiple occasions against both Rohit Sharma and Yashasvi Jaiswal. As uncomfortable as both batters looked during that spell though, Cornwall really made them worry only about one edge each: the right-hander’s inside edge, and the left-hander’s outside edge.
This is seldom the case with Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja. What makes them dangerous is how much they test both edges even on pitches where the ball turns square. They bring natural variation into play more than most spinners, and they do it because they have ways to maximise it.
The spin-vision replay of the Brathwaite dismissal gave one clue as to how they may be doing this. Right through India’s home series against Australia in February-March, it had been evident that both Ashwin and Jadeja were frequently getting the ball to wobble in the air, no matter what seam position they employed. Ashwin’s ball to Brathwaite came out with a wobbly seam as well: it could have behaved in a variety of ways depending on which part of the ball landed on the pitch.
Over recent years, the media and former players have thoroughly scrutinised the wobble-seam ball and its effects, but only when it has been delivered by fast bowlers. It’s perhaps time that the spinner’s version enters the discussion too.
Ashwin didn’t go into the mechanics of his release during his post-match chat, but he dwelled on the effect of natural variation on batters’ minds.
For this, he took the example of Jermaine Blackwood, his second victim during his second-innings seven-for. Ashwin dismissed Blackwood with another ball from around the wicket: this one turned in sharply after pitching just outside off stump, with ball-tracking suggesting it would have gone on to hit the top of leg stump. Blackwood’s response suggested he was playing for much less turn: his front pad went a long way across, and his bat came down to defend the ball into the cover region rather than down the pitch. In the end, he ended up with his bat blocked by his front leg.
“I’ve played so many Test matches, right? It’s always about getting those one or two dismissals early on in these pitches,” Ashwin said. “One caught the outside edge, one catches the inside edge, and suddenly the team walking in, they’re thinking, ‘Okay, here I am; can I defend, can I go forward, should I go back?’
“The moment a batter walks in, you know what he wants to do, and Jermaine Blackwood was a clear example of how [after] Kraigg Brathwaite nicked it off to slip, he was [worried about] the outside edge, wanting to protect it. It’s pretty much [about gauging] very quickly when a batsman walks in – whether he wants to drive, whether he wants to sit back – so when you make that early gauging of a situation or a batter, you’ve got a better chance of attacking him up front.”
For Ashwin, Dominica was just another Test match on a turning pitch, but don’t be fooled by how easy he makes it look. There are layers to his craft, acquired over years of experience and experimentation that most other spinners simply don’t possess.
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