The Art of Ashwin: Spin king navigates India back to winning position against South Africa

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Ravi Ashwin is congratulated by his India teammates after he takes the wicket of Vernon Philander, his fifth victim of the innings, on Day 3 of the 1st Test against South Africa in Visakhapatnam on Friday. (AP Photo)

“I am elated to be back. There is nothing like picking up a five-wicket haul for your country,” Ravichandran Ashwin said after the end of play on Day 3 in the 1st Test against South Africa in Visakhapatnam on Friday. He was speaking after taking two crucial wickets in the last session of the day – of Quinton de Kock and Vernon Philander – which got India back to a position of strength very late in the day.

Ashwin completed the day with figures of 5/128 from 41 overs – his 17th five-wicket haul in Tests. This was his first Test fifer since August 2017.

South Africa shaded most of Day 3, getting themselves back into the match with big scores from Dean Elgar (160) and De Kock (111). Till when De Kock was in the middle, it looked like the visiting team were on track to bat for a large part of Day 4 as well, thus taking the match out of India’s reach.

The last hour of Day 3, however, belonged to Ashwin. With the pitch cracking up and the ball getting harder to spot in the fading light, Ashwin brought out the best of his craft.

How Ashwin got the wicket of De Kock was a spin puritan’s delight. In the 110th over, Ashwin set up the No.7 for the perfect con. The first two balls of the over were off breaks which turned more than 6 degrees – the first a flat ball and the second a loopier one. De Kock tried to play both deliveries on the front foot, with the ball whizzing past his bat. The third ball was De Kock’s undoing.

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Ashwin bowled a flat delivery, which pitched in the same area as the two previous balls but went on to go on straight through De Kock’s bat and pad. The degree of spin on this ball was 1.2 – a drastic change from the previous two balls.

De Kock tried to play the same shot he had played for the previous two balls but was befuddled to see his furniture being clattered with the third ball. As the Indian players converged around Ashwin in celebration, De Kock was seen shadow practising that same front foot defence, wondering where he had gone wrong.

The next wicket, that of Vernon Philander, was also a work of art – for the amount of turn Ashwin got as well as for the setup. In the over before the wicket, Philander had walked up to his partner, Senuran Muthusamy, and advised him to play the Indian spinners on the front foot. Muthusamy, who was staying notoriously on the back foot, was seen acting immediately on Philander’s advice.

Ashwin observed that Philander was committing to the front foot defence and he acted accordingly. He fired a venomous off cutter wide off Philander’s off stump line. Philander moved to the pitch of the ball but missed it. The ball turned a mile to knock off his off stump. South Africa’s tail had been exposed at the very end of the day. For the first time in the day, India saw an opening to get back into a winning position.

South Africa finished the day with their tail exposed and 117 runs behind India. India can now aim to finish off the first innings quickly on Day 4 and set up a big target for the visitors on Day 5. India could hope that Ashwin picks up yet another fifer in the second innings and South Africa crumble in the fourth innings.

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