TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
THABO Mbeki was less than a year into his tenure as president when SA’s batsmen exploded the myth that they struggle against spin bowling and on slow pitches.
That was in March 2000 in only their second test series in India, when they won both matches. But, when SA tour India this season, they will be under the spin spotlight once more.
Not, however, because of what their batsmen can’t do. Rather, because of what a particular Indian bowler can do.
His mother calls him Ravichandran. Cricket calls him Ashwin. And, after two tests of India’s series in Sri Lanka, he is shaping up as the fulcrum on which the rubber will turn.
Ashwin took the new ball in the second innings in Colombo, where India won by 278 runs on Monday, and with it 5/42. That performance put the off-spinner on 17 wickets at an average of 16.35 from the 87 overs he has bowled in the two tests.
Even Rangana Herath, the master of slow left arm bowling who tied SA’s batsmen in knots at Kingsmead in December 2011, when he claimed match figures of 9/128, hasn’t been able to top Ashwin: Herath has bowled 21 more overs in this series but taken six fewer wickets.
Ashwin has snared his victims with masterful control of flight, veering drift, enough turn, and superb catching by his teammates.
He was superbly backed on Monday by Virat Kohli, who showed an approach to captaincy at least as aggressive as his batting by peppering Ashwin’s fields with close catchers. Kohli’s reward was his first win in five tests as India’s skipper.
SA will doubtless do their homework on the Indians before their test series starts in Mohali on November 5. Just as doubtlessly, they will spend more time discussing what to do about Ashwin than most of India’s other bowlers – not least because Ashwin has played just one test against SA.
That was the drawn Wanderers match of December 2013, when he went wicketless in 42 overs. Those days, it would seem, are gone.
SA will also focus their analysis on Kohli, who will be bent on earning the support of his compatriots in what will be his first home series as MS Dhoni’s successor.
India’s handsome win was their first success in the format in more than a year and perfectly timed to bolster their confidence ahead of their engagement with SA.
Lord’s in July last year was the where and when of India’s previous win. They lost their next five tests – against England and Australia – then drew three against the Aussies and Bangladesh. However, it was back to their losing ways in Galle in the first test of their current series.
And now this convincing victory over the Lankans. The deciding test starts on Friday but the manner of India’s win on Monday tells all who will listen that they are back to their bristling best.
Led by Lokesh Rahul’s century, 50s by Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Wriddhiman Saha, and leg spinner Amit Mishra’s haul of 4/43, they earned a first innings lead of 87 runs.
Another century, this time by Ajinkya Rahane, helped set Sri Lanka a target of 413. The home side, perhaps distracted by the fuss and bother of Kumar Sangakkara’s last test, sank like a lead submarine for 134.
Four of Ashwin’s victims were members of Sri Lanka’s top six: he is no wrapper up of tails. SA, meanwhile, are no klutzes against spin. A pitched battle awaits.