TELFORD VICE, Mohali
SA’s tour match in Mumbai at the weekend meandered through its two days with all the intensity of a piece of chewing gum left on the bedpost overnight.
Bowlers bowled, batsmen batted, fielders fielded, umpires umped, fans fanned, scorers scored, and reporters fell asleep. And all for what, exactly?
But, for a few minutes on the torpid second day, every Indian in the Brabourne stadium jerked to animated attention.
AB de Villiers was at the crease and on his way to a century, but even that wasn’t what had caught many pairs of eyes. In fact, nothing on the sharp side of the boundary had caused the fuss.
Instead, those eyes were glued to an event unfolding in the twilight zone between the boundary rope and the fence beyond.
In that no-man’s-land the test series itself was surely being decided: Ravichandran Ashwin was undergoing a fitness test.
That De Villiers was at the crease was poetry itself. Had Ashwin not dismissed this jewel in cricket’s crown in both Twenty20s? Had his removal from the one-dayers with a side strain in the first match not been vital in De Villiers scoring three centuries and spurring SA to a series victory?
And now, there Ashwin was, skipping this way and that as he fielded and threw balls and tried to convince the Indian team’s physiotherapist, Patrick Farhart, that he was good to go in the test series starting in Mohali on Thursday.
That he did, and the prospect of the off-spinner’s return has been a prominent topic of the pre-test talk.
“There’s no doubt he’s a very good bowler,” Dean Elgar said on Tuesday. “I think he’s possibly India’s spearhead. That’s a great challenge and I really look forward to facing him.”
How had Elgar readied himself?
“We’ve got a few off-spinners in our side and I’ve faced them quite a bit. We’ve also got a few of our coaches to throw off-spin.
“But facing a guy in the middle and preparing for him in the nets are two different things.”
Faf du Plessis cut to the chase: “The way we play Ashwin in this series will definitely determine the success we have.”
Big words. Ashwin is indeed a fine bowler, better than his haul of 145 wickets in 28 tests would suggest. But he has played just one of those tests against SA, conceding 108 runs for no reward in 42 overs at the Wanderers in December 2013.
However, at home Ashwin has taken 95 wickets at 24.20 in 15 tests, banking nine five-wicket and two 10-wicket hauls.
Indian team director Ravi Shastri, canny operator that he is, managed all in one sentence to say SA were doing the right thing and the wrong thing by concentrating on Ashwin.
“Ashwin’s bowling magnificently, but we’ve got two other spinners who might just surprise SA if they focus too much on Ashwin,” Shastri said.
In his only test against SA, at Kingsmead in December 2013, left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja had a match analysis of 6/154. Leg spinner Amit Mishra has four wickets after taking on SA in Nagpur and Kolkata in February 2010.
And both Jadeja and Mishra have dismissed De Villiers in tests …