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India vs England – Root on the challenge of facing Ashwin

Why is batting against R Ashwin such a challenge? There are few people better qualified to answer that question than Joe Root, an accomplished player of spin. He’s faced 693 balls from Ashwin in Test cricket and, despite scoring 418 runs at an average of 59, he admits he’s not always comfortable against the offspinner. Root’s been dismissed seven times – twice in the ongoing series – by Ashwin, who is gearing up to play his 100th Test against England in Dharamsala.

“I’d say with Ashwin, (it) is making sure that you don’t play the previous ball,” Root said on the Sky Cricket vodcast hosted by former England captains Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain, when he was asked about the difference between facing Ashwin and Australia’s Nathan Lyon. “He’s (Ashwin) very good at trying to drag you across the crease, get your head one side of it, try and beat both edges quite frequently.

“With Lyon, it’s all about overspin, especially in the first half of the Test match. (He) is (trying) to get really over the top of the ball, get bounce or bowling between your knee-roll and hip, and, try and bring short leg and leg slip in the game as much as he can. And then just slowly get slower with his pace and drift wider into those footholds that Mitchell Starc has so kindly done for him for such a long period of time.

“Ashwin is, probably, slightly more trying to find ways of getting you out, rather than trying to weigh you down like Lyon will over long periods of time.”

Root was both witness and victim of Ashwin’s innovative ways in the second innings of the fourth Test in Ranchi, on a pitch that had variable bounce but little turn. On the third day, Ashwin volunteered to bowl with the new ball and dismissed Ben Duckett and Ollie Pope off successive deliveries in the fifth over of England’s second innings.

Root was his third and most crucial wicket. Bowling wide of the crease from around the wicket, Ashwin drifted the ball across the right-hander, drawing Root forward and across with his drift, nearly making him stumble, before spinning the ball back past the inside edge to hit the pad. Given not out on the field, and overturned after DRS showed three reds on review.

After taking his first five-wicket haul of the series in Ranchi, Ashwin said he had to “rewire” his bowling to adjust to the lack of bounce and turn, relying on side-spin with the new ball and on over-spin later on.
In a tribute to Ashwin in the lead-up to his 100th Test, his team-mate Cheteshwar Pujara wrote that Ashwin tests batters by pitching on an “in-between length”. Root agreed.

“It is the way the it (ball) gathers pace off the wicket because of his seam position and how cleverly he can move it around,” Root said. “Obviously it is the shiny side that has that extra bit of skid. So you have got to make sure that your footwork’s sharp and you are in position that little bit quicker. You are not lazy with your feet because that’s when he comes really into his own, is when you are still on the move and the ball’s in that sort of danger area that you want to avoid playing it from. If you have got a nice firm seam and then skidding it on, you have got both edges in play for long periods of time and the fact that he can get really tight in and drift the ball away from straight, can bring slip in as well as those fielders tight in on the leg side too.”

Root said Ashwin posed a unique challenge because of his singular skillset. “Clearly anyone that can take that many wickets regardless of how many of them are in home conditions, to be able to be that skillful, and to offer a very different skillset to a lot of off spinners as well. He uses the crease very differently to how your traditional off spinner might. He bowls over-spin, side-spin, can get really tight into the stumps, can use the crease (and) get wider, has got carrom balls and lots of different tricks. So you have just got to be really wary of all the different threats that he poses and make sure you have got really good skills to combat that and try and get on top of him.”

When asked by Hussain whether he could pick Ashwin’s seam position, Root reckoned he could, even if it was half in jest. “Yeah, I’d like to say so. I’d like to think so, but he’s probably going to get me out twice in the game now this week! You are trying to look for as many cues as you can to give yourself the best chance as early as possible. You have to look to try and play off the wicket as well, but you want to be in a position where, if you can smother the ball or you can give yourself as much time as possible to get right back and see what it does off the surface, then you are going to give yourself the best chance to succeed.”

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