Ravichandran Ashwin: Joe Root’s antidote at The Oval

There’s no point stating the obvious, that Joe Root’s scintillating form has been India’s biggest obstacle. But there’s a pattern in this golden run – fast starts, quickly getting into the groove. India’s counter-measure at The Oval could be Ravichandran Ashwin, arguably the world’s best off-spinner, who hasn’t yet got a game in this series.

Root’s fast starts have subdued the Indian bowlers. In the first Test at Trent Bridge, on his way to 109 in the second innings, the England captain opened his account with a four. He was into the 30s off just 35 balls, and his half-century came in 68 deliveries. This was done coming in at 46/2 with England trying to save the game.

Al Lord’s also, when Root scored 180 not out in the first innings, he was quick off the blocks. His first 10 runs came off 19 deliveries, and he didn’t get fidgety during a relatively quiet period when the Indian bowlers managed to peg him back a bit.

In the third Test at Headingley, in favourable batting conditions, Root at times toyed with the Indian bowling. He never had any scoreboard pressure, and as he scored another century, his series strike rate jumped to 61-plus, attesting total dominance.

“Yeah, we have given him pretty fast starts and obviously we have looked deep into those areas,” Indian team bowling coach Bharat Arun said at the pre-match press conference.

In India earlier this year, when Root’s double hundred flattened the hosts in the first Test on a good Chepauk pitch, Virat Kohli and company had dust bowls to fall back on in the next three matches. Rank turners were laid out to unlock the Root secret.

It’s a different ball game in England. First of all, Root is in such electric form that he is even scoring off good deliveries. He is taking singles and twos to rotate strike and punishing everything that is erring in the line and length even by a tiny margin.

The Oval traditionally helps spinners as the match progresses, but unlike in India, the ball will not turn square. Ashwin’s mastery in the air and off the pitch can be Root’s antidote.

Over the last three years, the off-spinner has done enough to change the perception that he is a spin-track bully. He has 43 wickets in 12 away Tests during this period at a creditable average of 28. Further break-ups are even more revealing. In the last three years, Ashwin has 18 wickets from four Tests in Australia, 15 scalps from five matches in England, seven from two in South Africa and three wickets in one game in New Zealand. Only in New Zealand, bowling on a green-top, did his average go past 30.

On top Down Under

The Test series in Australia last winter captured Ashwin at his wiliest. Revisit the pink-ball Test in Adelaide, played on a surface with 9mm live grass, where Ashwin’s working over of Steve Smith and Travis Head was fascinating. With a forward short-leg, a leg slip and a backward square leg in place, he set up Smith with off-breaks, before making one skid through, which took the outside edge. He then accounted for Head with a dipper after tying the batsman to the crease.

In the second innings of the next Test in Melbourne, Ashwin foxed Marnus Labuschagne with a delivery that went the other way. His variations never allowed the Aussies to settle down.

In the World Test Championship final also, the offie bagged New Zealand’s first wicket in the first innings and briefly opened the game for India on the final day.

READ | India-England series still wide open: Ravi Shastri

“Ashwin no doubt is one of the best bowlers that we have,” Arun said. But India couldn’t accommodate him in the playing eleven in the first three Tests. The 4+1 template, with Ravindra Jadeja as a spin-allrounder, worked well at Trent Bridge and Lord’s, but at Headingley, where the pitch was less spicy, it felt like the team management missed a trick by not playing their best spinner. Of course, 78 all out wouldn’t have given him anything to bowl with, but when Moeen Ali made a ball turn almost at right angles on the fourth day to clean up Mohammed Shami, Ashwin’s absence was felt.

The senior off-spinner has dismissed Root five times in 16 Tests. Also, one aspect of Root’s batting can work to Ashwin’s advantage. So far in this series, the England skipper has scored the bulk of his runs square-of-the-wicket and in the third man region, seldom playing attacking shots in the ‘V’. With Ashwin bowling with a leg-trap – short-leg, leg slip, backward square and short mid-wicket – Root’s scoring areas on the leg-side, especially during the early part of his innings, would be limited. On the off-side, trying to force the pace against the turn could be a high-risk option. Only about a month-and-a-half ago, Ashwin had a six-for at The Oval, playing for Surrey in the County Championship against Somerset. The Indian team management would be naive not to pick him for the fourth Test.

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