The decision of the men’s national cricket selection committee to include Ravichandran Ashwin for India’s World T20 campaign caught everyone by surprise.
There are no doubts about Ashwin’s ability, but the 35-year-old off-spinner — with more than 400 Test wickets — has not played any white-ball cricket for India since 2017.
His last game in coloured clothing for India was in the Champions Trophy final in 2017 and since then the team has preferred wrist spinners over finger spinners in the limited-overs format. The idea behind the move was that wrist spinners could extract more spin from the pitch and get wickets during the middle overs in this era of flat pitches and high-scoring games.
Around the same time, India also found a young all-rounder in Washington Sundar, who bowled accurate off-spin with impeccable control over line and length in T20 cricket. A change of strategy and an arrival of fresh blood meant that the team management had decided to look beyond Ashwin.
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During the time away from international cricket in the shorter formats, Ashwin did not stay still and developed newer variations. In the immediate months after being overlooked, the off-spinner seriously pursued and started bowling wrist spin with leg-breaks, flippers, and googly.
In the last four seasons of the IPL, Ashwin has bagged 45 wickets with an economy rate of 7.61, showcasing his skills in the shortest format. When the slot became available Ashwin was a natural choice.
The pitches in the UAE are expected to be tired after the second phase of the IPL, and it should offer generous assistance to the spinners when the Super 12 stage of the World T20 begins in the last week of October. Chairman of the selection committee Chetan Sharma had indicated the above reason while speaking about Ashwin’s inclusion.
“R. Ashwin has been playing in the IPL regularly and we have been seeing how well he has done. For the World Cup, it is important to have an off spinner. The wickets in the UAE where the second half of the IPL will be played, will be slow, low and could assist the spinners,” the chief selector had said. Importantly India plays four of its five matches in Dubai, the largest of the three venues and the big boundaries should act as insurance to field a strong spin-led attack.
India has a problem of plenty when it comes to choosing the spinners for the Playing XI. The last-minute exclusion of Axar Patel — despite a successful IPL campaign — ensures Chennai Super Kings’ Ravindra Jadeja’s selection as the left-arm spinner.
The competition for the other two spinners slot would be between Ashwin, mystery spinner Varun Chakravarthy and leg spinner Rahul Chahar.
T20 cricket has evolved, and the emphasis now is on matchups against individual batters and, that could largely determine the combination the team picks.
Against a side stacked with left-hand batters in the top six — like Pakistan, New Zealand — the off-spinner will be in the pole position ahead of the others.
Though Ashwin has picked up only seven wickets in this year’s IPL, he has bowled with control, conceding just 7.41 runs per over.
The wily off-spinner brings loads of experience to the table and that can be vital when the stakes are high in a competition like the World T20. Barring Jadeja, no other spinners in the side have the experience of playing in a big multi-nation event.
Ashwin might not be a certainty for every match of the tournament, but the call back is a just reward for his relentless efforts to become better across formats.
He has continued to reinvent himself, trying to stay relevant.
He showed a will to fight and a burning desire to do well in the shortest format whenever he played the IPL, TNPL (Tamil Nadu Premier League) or the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
Ironically, the wheel has come a full circle with Ashwin replacing an injured Washington in the World Cup squad. The latter’s first break came in the 2017 IPL for Rising Pune Supergiant as a replacement for an injured Ashwin.