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Door Remains Open for Ravichandran Ashwin’s Inclusion in India World Cup Squad

On August 21, India captain Rohit Sharma said the “door is open for all”.

The skipper’s comment came in response to a query on the no. of off-spinners and leg-spinners in the squad for the multi-nation tournament. India picked both Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel, two players with a very similar skillset, and both captain and men’s senior selection committee chairman Ajit Agarkar were questioned on three left-arm spinners in the mix.

While Ajit Agarkar’s rationale revolved around Kuldeep Yadav spinning it the other way, Rohit focussed on the depth that Axar and Jadeja bring with the bat. The skipper, however, reiterated that off-spinners and leg-spinners were discussed at length and remained in the mix for the World Cup.

Four weeks and an Asia Cup later, the mere thought of having some variety in the spin attack became a move worth considering and Axar’s injury only seeped the thought further. Washington Sundar was called up for the Asia Cup final vs Sri Lanka but Rohit revealed Ashwin was very much in the mix.

“As a spinner-all-rounder, Ashwin is in the line, I have been talking to him on the phone,” Rohit told reporters after winning the title.

Between the two quotes, the management, mostly due to Axar’s injury, was forced to look an offie way and the temptation to add more variety in spin attack became too difficult to resist. Things took an official route when Ashwin, who had played only two ODIs in the last six years before the ODIs vs Australia, was named in the squad on September 18 and Axar was ruled out of the first two ODIs.

Ashwin signals intent

Ashwin, meanwhile, had begun his preparations well before the official announcement. He checked into the National Cricket Academy (NCA) and later played a local club game in Tamil Nadu before linking up with the squad in Mohali for the series opener. On the eve of the match, the seasoned off-spinner got into battle mode and trained hard for what would have been his first 50-over fixture since January 2022.

The first spell – 6-0-36-0 – wasn’t an incisive one, where he was dealt with comfortably by David Warner and Steve Smith but the next four overs were in much more control and he leaked only 11 runs while also picking the wicket of well-set Marnus Labuschagne. All this happened on a track where conditions were brilliant for batting and not much was happening off the surface. While India registered a thumping win, Ashwin wasn’t done yet. Moments after the match ended, the 37-year-old put his batting gear on and went for a hit in the nets. Coach Rahul Dravid had insisted that the series is not a “trial” but an “opportunity in the format”. To that end, Ashwin is putting his best foot forward to make it count.

Bag of Tricks in Indore

Action shifted to Indore for the second game of the series and the think-tank persisted with Ashwin and kept Sundar on the bench. Short boundaries, proper batting paradise and India’s 399/5 in the first innings meant it could be a similar leather-chasing kind of day for the Indian team too. Not much was happening but the playing surface drastically changed after the rain break. The ball started to grip for the spinners and Ashwin was ready to unzip his bag of tricks.

The loop, the drift and the carom balls were on display as the offie used his experience to outsmart the Aussie batters. Labuschagne was cleaned up, Warner’s switching tactics didn’t affect his rhythm and Josh Inglis’ sweep plan wasn’t going to work against an on-song Ashwin who ended with figures of 7-0-41-3.

Even Rohit was all praise for Ashwin at the pre-match presser in Rajkot.

“R Ashwin has got the class, experience of playing the sport and handling pressure. It’s just that he hasn’t played this format in last one year. In the last two ODIs, we saw how well he bowled. We have a lot of backups ready,” said Rohit.

The variety

In the space of a few days, Ashwin gave an account of what he can do on contrasting surfaces and why he will add more edge to the spin attack. With most World Cup oppositions heavy on left-handers, an off-spinner will lend more control and penetration in the middle overs.

It will also allow the think-tank to explore the opportunity of fielding three spinners in the playing XI – a thought unlikely with the original squad. Both Jadeja and Axar have not featured together in the XI for many limited-overs fixtures and it’s likely to be the case for the World Cup too.

Not only are the two very similar to each other but lend the attack a very one-dimensional look, and will put a lot of pressure on Kuldeep Yadav, a certain starter in all games, to do the heavy lifting in the middle overs. Ashwin, with all his experience, can help break that monotony and will allow Kuldeep to do his magic from the other end.

India have two more days to make that big World Cup call and it now remains to be seen whether they course correct by bringing Ashwin through the open door or continue to play the waiting game with Axar.

For Ashwin, the Rajkot ODI will be an opportunity to ensure the door remains open.

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