The Oval, venue of India’s fourth Test against England, has seen some highs by spinners. Shane Warne took 32 wickets in four Tests; in his only Test there, Muttiah Muralitharan captured 16 wickets. Of the top four wicket-takers at the venue, two are spinners—England left-arm Derek Underwood (45 wkts, 10 Tests) and off-spinner Jim Laker (40, 8). For Indian fans, leg-spinner BS Chandrasekhar took eight wickets to bowl India to a historic win in 1971.
If the pitch curator sticks to tradition, spin will be a factor in the game starting on Thursday with the team tied 1-1.
It remains to be seen if Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri deviate from their tactics of picking four pacers till now in the series tied 1-1. Cricket logic suggests off-spinner R Ashwin should get his first game. Even if Ravindra Jadeja retains his place as the spin-bowling all-rounder, there’s a good chance India will select two spinners.
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It is not just the venue that could make India alter their playing eleven. Despite taking 20 wickets in the first two Tests, their bowlers have not found a way to check Joe Root’s prolific scoring.
The bowling strategy found success at Trent Bridge—drawn after the last day was abandoned due to rain—and Lord’s—India won by 151 runs—though the England skipper has made the difference, scoring a hundred in each Test.
Kohli has pointed to pitch conditions to justify keeping out Ashwin. The off-spinner though is in form. His record in England is average but experienced bowler is on a high after correcting his record in Australia on the 2020-21 tour.
In seven Tests in England, Ashwin has 18 wickets at an average of 28.11. In the only innings in which he bowled at the Oval, in 2014, he took 3/72 in 21.3 overs.
His last competitive match was at The Oval, when he played a County game for Surrey to get game before this series. He took six wickets in the second innings to bowl Surrey to victory.
In the past, to adapt to English conditions, he has played for Worcestershire and Nottinghamshire. His ability to adapt to typical English conditions showed in the World Test Championship final against New Zealand at Southampton in June when he took two wickets in each innings.
Former India left-arm spinners, Maninder Singh and Venkatapathy Raju feel Ashwin will be a handy addition to the bowling at the Oval as well as Old Trafford, the final Test venue.
“Ideally, I would now go in with a 3-2 pace-spin combination. The first three pitches helped the fast bowlers, so I can understand the team going in with four fast bowlers. Now the pitches that are there are better for batting; you might as well have two spinners because your fast bowlers won’t get that much support. Ashwin was my first choice spinner anyway; if I had to play one spinner, I would go with Ashwin,” said Maninder.
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Raju felt Ashwin will like the bounce at the Oval. “It’s a big ground, different soil with decent bounce and Ashwin has the ammunition. Basically, you need to look for a guy who can pick wickets. You don’t have to take five wickets, he can give crucial breakthroughs. He is a decent bat too,” the former national selector said.
If Ashwin gets in, his battle with Root will be keenly watched. In Australia, the ace spinner won the battle against Steve Smith. In 2018, he got Alastair Cook cheaply in both innings of the first Test at Edgbaston, where batting was a letdown in India’s narrow loss. Root though will be a tougher challenge.
“Ashwin likes his challenges, he’s got those variations, enough ammunition and he’s done that before. The spin option should be the guy who can give you breakthroughs and pick up wickets. They tried a combination for three games, it is time he got a chance,” said Raju.
Ashwin’s challenge will be shaking off the rust, the 34-year-old having warmed the bench till now. Getting into rhythm straightaway won’t be easy. That is also why he had the Surrey game in the build-up to this series.
Root though is at his best, having aggregated 507 runs at an average of 126.75. The off-spinner will have to bring in all his guile to win this battle.
Former England skipper Alec Stewart, Surrey’s long-serving director of cricket, told The Guardian that unlike the Surrey game Ashwin played on, the pitch for the Test won’t offer much spin. England opener Joe Burns was Ashwin’s captain in that game.
“That was seven weeks ago,” Stewart said. “Whatever he did then will have no bearing on now, though if Burns gets a Test hundred after a long time watching him bowl in the field, I might get a pat on the back.”
Root was asked the Ashwin question in Tuesday’s pre-Test media conference.
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“His record speaks for itself,” he said. “He is a world class player, we have seen him score runs and take wickets against us. We will certainly make sure we are prepared for the challenges he poses coming into this Test along with the other possible combinations India might throw at us. Ultimately, you can get wrapped up and end up playing the player, but it is really important to play the situation and play the delivery.”
Time is running out for Ashwin in more than one sense. In two weeks he will turn 35. These could be the final two Tests to set the record straight in England.
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