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India’s best chance of first Test series victory might be without spinner Ravichandran Ashwin

India’s best chance of first Test series victory might be without spinner Ravichandran Ashwin
Ravichandran Ashwin of India celebrates the wicket of Kane Williamson which is later overturned by DRS during the Reserve Day of the ICC World Test Championship Final between India and New Zealand at The Hampshire Bowl on June 23, 2021 in Southampton, England. (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

One of the biggest questions India’s captain Virat Kohli and coach Rahul Dravid face before the three-Test series, is how best to deploy ace off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin over the summer.

Ravi Ashwin is undoubtedly the leader of the Indian bowling attack when they play at home or in any spin-friendly conditions. But away from home, especially in seamer-friendly conditions, his role is more opaque.

India’s newly appointed coach Rahul Dravid, as well as captain Kohli, will have to make the tough decision of going with four fast bowlers on South Africa’s traditionally seamer-friendly pitches, or go with one of the world’s leading spin bowlers.

Ashwin is currently the world’s second-ranked Test bowler and has the most wickets for any active spin bowler. He has taken a spectacular 427 wickets in 81 appearances. The next closest is Australian Nathan Lyon, with 403 wickets in 101 test matches.

Outside of India, Ashwin still has a respectable record, having taken 127 of his wickets at 30.55. At home he has snared 300 wickets at 21.40. It’s obvious where he is most dangerous, but even though his record away from home is less impressive, he offers variation for Kohli.

South Africa, though, is Ashwin’s least favourite hunting ground. He has played three Tests in the country, the first being in 2012/2013 when he played the first match, contributing figures of none for 108 runs in the 42 overs he bowled in the match, consequently being dropped for Ravindra Jadeja in the second Test.

Ashwin returned to South Africa in 2018 with the hopes of redeeming his performances from the previous tour. He fared slightly better, recording match figures of two for 24 in the first test match and five for 198 in the second match, before being dropped to accommodate an all-pace attack in the final match at the Wanderers. It was the only match India won in the series.

Ashwin’s average in South Africa is a meagre 46.14 compared to his incredible overall average of 24.12.

India might therefore be inclined to play a four-pronged pace attack in the first two matches in the highveld and leave out Ashwin, who has already taken 52 wickets in eight Tests this year – the most by any player in 2021.

Ravichandran Ashwin of India bowls during day 3 of the 2nd Test match between India and South Africa at Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium on October 12, 2019, in Pune, India. (Photo: Isuru Sameera Peris/Gallo Images)

However, the Proteas have long been susceptible to spin bowling.

In recent years, of Proteas batters, only Aiden Markram and Temba Bavuma have had success against right-arm off spinners in South Africa.

Since the start of 2018, Markram has only been dismissed once and has scored 136 runs against bowlers spinning the ball toward him, while Bavuma is yet to be dismissed by an off-spinner, scoring 71 runs. Meanwhile, Dean Elgar, Quinton de Kock and Rassie van der Dussen average 19.5, 25.5 and 37.5 respectively against the slow right-arm bowlers.

Therefore, the temptation to play Ashwin, despite his modest record in South Africa and the fact that pitches are not expected to assist him, will  still be there for Kohli and the rest of the leadership team.

 Top team

India are currently the top-ranked side in Test cricket while South Africa sit at number six. The upcoming Indian tour to South Africa is the start of a new ICC Test Championship cycle. The Proteas must, therefore ensure that they start the championship off well with a strong showing against an Indian team that is filled with experience, talent and depth in every department.

Meanwhile, India will hope to continue in their rich vein of form and become the first Indian team to win a series in South Africa when the two teams meet in the highly anticipated series starting on 26 December.

While India have not won a series on South African soil, Kohli – who was recently relieved of the captaincy of both white ball formats and is now only captain of the Test team – and his men will believe that this tour is their best chance to rewrite history.

India’s last visit to South Africa at the start of 2018 ended up being a 2-1 victory to the hosts. The Proteas leading run scorer in that series, AB de Villiers and their player of the series, Vernon Philander, have since retired from international cricket. 

By contrast, India’s leading players in that series, Virat Kohli (most runs) and Mohammed Shami (most wickets), have returned to South African shores this month with a real belief that a test series victory is possible.

South Africa’s pitches

The venues of the three-match series, starting at SuperSport Park in Centurion before moving on to the Wanderers and Newlands, traditionally favour the Proteas.

 The Proteas have only lost twice at Centurion, the two matches being against teams with historically strong fast bowling line-ups in England and Australia.

The loss against England in January 2000 at SuperSport Park was the infamous Test in which it was later discovered that then Proteas captain Hansie Cronje accepted a bribe to ensure there would be a result in the match. It led to the popular captain’s downfall as a history of match-fixing was uncovered at the subsequent King Commission, which resulted in Cronje being served a life ban from the game.

The second loss the Proteas suffered at SuperSport Park was the result of a superhuman player-of-the-match effort by Aussie fast bowler Mitchell Johnson. The left-arm quickly ripped through South Africa’s batting line-up in both innings, taking 12 wickets in the match to secure Australia’s first and only win at the venue.

It’s the ideal venue for the home team to open the series and will assist the Proteas in making a positive start to a big summer of cricket. With only three matches, it’s obvious that winning the first Test heaps all the pressure on the loser.

On paper, the second and third Tests will be India’s best chance of winning as the games will be played at the Bullring and Newlands respectively.

 With the dates of the series moved out by a week because of India’s delayed arrival due to uncertainty over the Omicron Covid variant, the Wanderers will unusually host the The New Year’s Test. That fixture has, since readmission in 1991, been the preserve of Newlands.

But in order to lessen the travel for the two teams in an effort to mitigate the chance of breaking the biosecure bubbles, Gauteng is the preferred choice for the first two Tests before the series moves to the Western Cape.

The Proteas have not been as successful at The Wanderers, losing 13 of the 42 test matches played there while winning 18. It was also the venue where India won their last Test in South Africa, in January 2018.

Comparatively, the Proteas have a slightly bigger winning percentage at Newlands, winning 28 of the 56 matches played at the venue and losing there 21 times.

The three aforementioned venues are the same venues at which the previous Freedom Trophy matches were played in early 2018 and they are some of the least spin-friendly in the country.

This has the potential to somewhat nullify a historic strength of India – their spin-bowling department. And Ashwin in particular. DM

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