India vs England: R Ashwin Ticks Chepauk Childhood Dream in Potential Last ‘Home’ Match
India have 106 on the board in their second innings and Virat Kohli has faced 53 balls for 25. Kohli has the look of a batsman who missed out in the first innings and will make amends at all costs. There is an intensity to Kohli, a purpose to his defence and a conviction that there is nothing in the pitch or bowlers to fear. There is one problem. India have lost six wickets. This is when R Ashwin comes out to the middle to join his captain.
At the end of the second day’s play, when Ashwin spoke, he talked about the need to have patience, as a batsman, in these conditions. He said that the challenge of playing on turning tracks was similar to playing on a seaming pitch in that you needed to grind early on and then cash in.
Off the second ball he faced, Ashwin planted his left knee and swept Moeen Ali flat and hard. It was a clean connection and the ball screamed to the square leg fence. Three balls later Ashwin switched things around, reverse sweeping. This time the ball speared off the edge, landed in the vacant short third-man region and Ben Stokes, from slip, gave chase and put in the dive. The batsmen had run three, but the umpire checked the replay and declared the boundary.
Stokes was upset, not for the extra run conceded, but because this meant that Ashwin would not be on strike to face the first ball of the next over. The England team correctly thought that they would rather have Kohli at the non-striker’s end, and attack the new batsman, coming in at No. 8. But, sometimes in cricket, you have to be careful what you wish for.
Ashwin was in no mood to be cowed down. Having given England’s slow bowlers a masterclass on how to bowl in Indian conditions on the previous day, he settled into a rhythm that suggested he was going to prove this pitch was no minefield. Once he had a base of runs to work with, Ashwin settled down to a more familiar style of play, driving watchfully, whipping the ball through the on side and pulling out the occasional sweep shot.
It was when Kohli fell, trapped in front by Moeen on 62 that Ashwin the batsman really emerged. Having begun his career in junior cricket as an opening batsman, Ashwin has always fancied himself a more than decent batsman. Four previous Test hundreds are testament to ability, but in the recent past his batting had tailed off. A rebirth of sorts happened during the Australia tour, when Ashwin batted hours in a stirring rearguard to help save the Sydney Test.
But, these were different conditions. On a pitch that had English experts complaining about dustbowls, minefields and beaches, Ashwin was not looking to merely survive, but to play like a proper batsman.
As wickets fell at the other end, Ashwin realised that he needed to control the strike and the tempo of the game, and take some calculated risks in order to get to his century. “After the last Test, we were talking about how we were going to counter Jack Leach and probably start bringing the sweep to the game,” explained Ashwin, when he spoke to the host broadcaster at the end of Day 3.
“The last time I was sweeping was when I was 19 years old and hit a couple of sweep shots and was dropped from the first XI and never played the sweep for the last 13-14 years. I’ve been practicing the shot for the last week to 10 days and thankfully the plan paid off. The pitch is such that you have to get your runs square of the wicket.”
When the ninth wicket fell, bringing Mohammad Siraj to the crease, Ashwin needed 23 more to get to his hundred. “Once Siraj came, I knew I had to get it done in a few overs. I was thrilled how he batted and hit the ball out of the ground,” said Ashwin. “I was just telling Siraj to look at the line of the ball and go wherever he wants. Every time he slogged one over midwicket, he was like ‘I will go with the spin when they are expecting me to go across the line. It was exciting to see how excited he was when I got my hundred and that says a few things about how the dressing room is. We have lived a dream over the last 2-3 months.”
This current dream may have grown over three months, but for Ashwin, a Test hundred at Chepauk was a childhood dream. In what might be his last Test appearance at the venue — it’s unclear when the next Test will be played at this ground and Ashwin is 34 — Ashwin’s love for the MA Chidambaram Stadium, and the Chennai fans’ love for a son of the soil came together in perfect harmony.
Ashwin brought up his fifth Test hundred, and put India far ahead in the game. “The moment I got the runs I looked up at the balcony. I cant thank the crowd enough,” said Ashwin, who raised his bat to each and every stand, acknowledging the cheers. “The applause has been thunderous.”
And, you can be sure it will ring around Chepauk for years to come, and live in Ashwin’s heart and memory forever.