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India vs England – Ashwin – Three-wicket haul at Edgbaston in 2018 one of my finest spells

He’s taken 35 five-wicket hauls, more than anyone in Test history apart from Muthiah Muralidaran, Shane Warne and Richard Hadlee. Two more, and only Muralidaran will remain ahead of him.

Despite having all those big wicket hauls to choose from, R Ashwin has picked three non-five-fors as his most memorable performances in Test cricket. Two of them are from overseas defeats: 3 for 59 in the third innings at Edgbaston in 2018, when he took out Alastair Cook (bowled with a pitch-leg, hit-off peach for the second time in the match), Keaton Jennings and Joe Root to leave England 39 for 3 (effectively 52 for 3); and 4 for 113 at Centurion earlier that year, when he led the way in bowling South Africa out for 335, making up for inability of India’s seamers to get through the top order on a first-day pitch.

The other is from a famous home win, Bengaluru 2017, but rather than his fourth-innings six-for, Ashwin picked his marathon 49-13-84-2 from the second, when the bowlers fought back to keep India in the match after they had been bowled out for 189 on day one.

“When you finish, it is Test wins that stand really tall,” Ashwin said in the lead-up to his 100th Test match in Dharamsala, when asked to name his best performances. “But having given it a lot of thought, one of the finest spells I have bowled has to be the one in Birmingham in 2018. I got three wickets on the morning of day three. I got Cook, Root and Jennings. I got seven wickets in the game. I felt like I had almost bowled India to victory in the game, but it didn’t happen. That has to be one of the finest spells I have bowled.

“A Test in Bangalore where I bowled a spell on day-two morning not for many rewards. And day one at Centurion in 2018 again against South Africa. I got a four-for. It could have been six or seven but it didn’t happen. That was a good spell. Those are three spells that will stand out. There are several five-fors and wins that have happened over the years, but these are the spells I will remember for how [the ball] came out of the hand, what it meant personally.”

One could detect, in Ashwin’s choice, a staunch defence of an overseas record that has come in for criticism through his career despite his numbers in Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa comparing favourably with other spinners of his time. He’s not had too much of a chance to break his duck of five-fors in those countries over recent years, since India have tended to play just the one spinner in those conditions and prefer Ravindra Jadeja over Ashwin due to the value he brings with the bat. Asked about this, Ashwin did not deny the disappointment of being left out even if he understood the team management’s reasons for it, and said he knew that they were doing it with the team’s interests in mind.

“The only way you can find an answer for that is if you had a time machine, me playing, and then whether the result would’ve been different,” Ashwin said. “It’s always disappointing not to play a particular game for your country. When you know you’re bowling well and all that. Again, I would definitely make peace with it saying the team definitely took the decision in the best interest of the team.

“I don’t think any captain or any coach really wants to leave out a player who is really of use in that particular game. From their perspective, they would have thought they made the best decision at that point of time. Even though you’re disappointed you’ll have to come around the fact that it is a team game and sometimes maybe someone else will play that game.

“Look, not a lot of teams around the world have what India has. The person who is taking my place is Ravindra Jadeja. He’s been batting pretty well, as you see [from] his averages with the bat. I think that’s where he outscored me in those games. The team believes that he’s been batting pretty well and bowling might not be that much of a factor because of the pitches we might play on in England and sometimes in South Africa. Yeah, so I’d say I’d make peace with that.”

On the road to 100 Tests, Ashwin has had numerous individual battles with the world’s best batters, but when asked about his most challenging opponents he didn’t just namecheck the greats of the international game but also three domestic giants he faced early in his Ranji Trophy career.

“I’ve loved bowling to Steven Smith, [Kane] Williamson and Joe Root,” Ashwin said. “They’re some of the finest batters going around the world right now.

“Before I played first-class cricket, I had the joy, and even in first-class cricket, the absolute privilege to bowl to some of the gun batters of spin that I’ve ever encountered. I’ll just name a few. I’ve had the privilege of bowling to him in the nets, I haven’t really encountered much of him in the game – [S] Badrinath. I felt he was one of the finest batters of spin.

“Then Mithun Manhas from Delhi, one of the finest players of spin. Rajat Bhatia, again from Delhi. These are, I feel, still some of the greatest batters of spin that I would have completely not wanted to encounter in international cricket. They were the most wonderful batters of spin and they were my finishing school before I started playing international cricket. I’d like to take my hat out to them because they gave me some valuable lessons.”

Ashwin learned some valuable lessons after starting his Test career too, most notably after the 2012-13 home-series defeat to England. Those four Tests brought him 14 wickets at the average of 52.64, and left him feeling he was on the verge of being dropped. It also led him to question his own bowling and start the process of rebuilding it and making it sturdier.

“One of the turning points of my life was the England series when Alastair Cook came here and made all those runs along with [Kevin] Pietersen, who had a great game in Mumbai. It has been spoken about a lot,” Ashwin said. “Leading into the next series against Australia at home, there was a lot of noise about me being left out of the team. Recently, one of the selectors who was involved also had a chat with me about it.

“At that time, it was a bit nervy because I did not know where it came from. I had played three series. I’d had my first series in Australia. I had bowled really well in Melbourne and had a decent Test in Adelaide. I had been player of the series twice before that and was on the verge of being left out. I was very young and I felt, ‘Is that all? Is that the time I’ve got here?’ But when I went back and reflected upon it, there was one thing that dawned on me about what was wrong with me. And that is a wonderful lesson I have still kept with me all these years down the line.

“Whatever happens, we can hold a lot of complaints against somebody external or blame it on another individual. But for me, if you looked internally, you can improve at least by another 5%. Until and unless there is something wrong with you, people aren’t going to throw punches at you or point fingers at you. When I looked back at it, I knew what I had to correct. Ever since, it’s been about addressing downs and troubleshooting for all the questions thrown at me. Some of the questions I raised myself, mostly and largely, and that’s probably been a motivating factor for me over the years to reflect on the downs and work on them. Maybe there’s a little psychic in there who wants those things to happen and wants to work on it.

“That’s why learning is one of the biggest things this game has taught me and correcting those mistakes is an ability I have acquired over the years and I am thankful for the game to have given that to me.”

Karthik Krishnaswamy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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