During India’s 1999-00 Test series in Australia, Anil Kumble‘s returns were significantly poor. The Indian spin legend managed just five wickets in three Test matches, his average being 90 and strike rate 175.6. Consequently, Kumble, who was India’s biggest match-winner at home during those times, copped a lot of criticism over his inability to perform in alien conditions.
The next time India toured Australia for a Test series in 2003-04, Kumble was left out of the starting XI in the first Test in Brisbane, and Harbhajan Singh was preferred. For Kumble, not being able to perform in Australia was like a blot on his career. He desperately wanted to set the record straight. In Brisbane, Harbhajan failed to find his straps, finishing with match figures of 1/169. That opened the door for Kumble in the second Test in Adelaide. In the next three matches, Kumble went on to pick 24 wickets at 29.58 (SR 51.5). He had silenced his critics in the most emphatic way.
Like Kumble, Ravichandran Ashwin – India’s biggest match-winner in home conditions in the last 10 years – underwent a similar grind in his first two tours Down Under. In 2011-12, Ashwin managed just 9 wickets in three Tests at an average of 62.77 (SR 112). Then during the 2014-15 tour, Ashwin scalped 12 wickets in three Tests @ 48.66 (SR 85.8). On both tours, his wickets mostly came when Australia had already put a massive total on the board and went for the slog, or against tailenders.
In the 2018-19 trip, though, Ashwin seemed to have got the hang of how to go about his bowling in Australian conditions. In the first Test in Adelaide, Ashwin scalped six wickets – three each in two innings – and five of those were of top-order batsmen. He played a major role in India winning the Test by 31 runs. However, disaster struck as Ashwin couldn’t take further part in the next three matches due to an abdominal injury.
Cut to the present, the ongoing Test series in Australia is proving to be Ashwin’s Kumble story of 2003-04. In the four innings that he has bowled so far, Ashwin has got 10 wickets @ 17.70 (SR 51.1). The story within the story is the way he has got Steve Smith’s wicket twice in the series. Ashwin’s deception, guile and clever variation of pace have all come in for praise.
“I have probably never let any spinner dictate terms to me ever in my career,” Smith told SEN Radio about his struggles against Ashwin, who dismissed him for 1 in the first innings in Adelaide and nought in the first innings in Melbourne.
“I probably haven’t played Ashwin as well as I would’ve liked. I would have liked to put him under a bit more pressure. I’ve sort of let him dictate terms. I should have sort of taken it to him, been a bit more aggressive and made him change things. I haven’t allowed that to happen, probably because I’m searching for just being out there for long enough.
“It’s kind of a two-edged sword in a way, but I think I need to have confidence to take him on and play my own game,” Smith, who won the ICC Men’s Test Player of the Decade, said.
Knowing Smith’s importance in Australia’s batting line-up, Ashwin, on his part, has planned meticulously against the run-scoring machine. “Coming down to Australia and if you cannot Steve Smith out, it is always going to be an uphill task. He pretty much holds the entire batting line-up together,” the off-spinner told Channel 7.
“To get him out early is something that we have always worked upon. We have put together plans and when those plans come together, it is a pleasure.”
Ashwin just needs to remain fit and injury free for the remainder of the tour to complete his redemption song.