Former India Test skipper and arguably the most successful spinner to represent the county, Anil Kumble, once shared what can be considered the success mantra for a spinner. Talking about the art of spin bowling, the veteran of 965 international wickets said, in an interview to ESPNCricinfo, "For a spinner, it is the last column that matters." Not known as a great turner of the ball, Kumble, fondly referred to as Jumbo, relied heavily on his ability to pick up wickets in heaps.
Indian off-spinner Harbhajan Singh' s career graph adds weight to Kumble's words. By the time he was out of favour with the national selectors, Harbhajan had lost his knack of picking up wickets. Once the form began to fade away, it took along with it, the confidence and the courage to challenge and fox the best of batsmen. Harbhajan eventually lost his spot for being ineffective. Ravichandran Ashwin, with a lot of tricks up his sleeve, usurped Harbhajan's spot to become the frontline spinner across formats. While wickets in the longest format of the game came along, his ODI form was always questionable.
In ODIs, Ashwin failed to create the kind of impact a leading spinner is expected to. In January 2013, he managed to pick up just seven wickets versus England in the five-match series at home. On spinning tracks, this was a below-par show. In India's successful outing in the ICC Champions Trophy in UK, Ashwin managed eight wickets while Ravindra Jadeja finished as the highest wicket-taker of the tournament with 12 scalps.
Back home a seven-match series against Australia followed where Ashwin tried multiple variations including his 'stop and deliver' bowling action but could only manage nine wickets. On India's tour of South Africa, he picked up just one wicket in two ODIs while his form further plummeted, as he was restricted to just one wicket in five ODIs in New Zealand.
If form and inability to challenge a batsman could lead to Harbhajan's ouster, there is no reason why Ashwin should get a different treatment, especially when someone like Amit Mishra is biding his time for so long with good performances in the domestic circuit.
Spinners' role in T20
The growth of the slam-bang version of the game has been inversely proportional to the respect given to a spin bowler. In a format that requires batsmen to score consistently at more than 10 runs an over, spin bowlers appear to be the punching bags as balls that come slower through the air or off the pitch, gives batsmen enough time to clear the short boundaries. This implies that batsmen are bound to take far more risks with spinners which is where Mishra will be a better bet.
With the wickets drying up and his multiple variation not bearing fruit, one has seen Ashwin try to contain the runs rather than look for opportunities to take wickets. On slow decks, that ploy will make it even more easier for batsmen to go after him while Mishra's ability and fearlessness to give the ball some air and generate sharp turn could be a perfect trap for big-hitting batsmen. Ashwin did generate good turn in the match against Pakistan in the Asia Cup in Bangladesh, but his urge to resort to defensive and negative tactics the moment he is hit for a few runs makes him a liability in this format of the game.
Ashwin's reputation vs Mishra's guile
Speaking strictly from the point of view of limited overs cricket, it does appear that Mishra has more to offer than Ashwin at the moment. Mishra has played just 23 ODIs as compared to Ashwin's tally of 79 and yet Mishra seems to have a better wicket-taking ability. Ashwin has an average of 32.91 with his best figures being 3/24 while Mishra has two four-wicket hauls and a fifer with best figures of 6 for 48.
If form in the Indian Premier League is anything to go by, Mishra should get the nod ahead of Ashwin in partnering Ravindra Jadeja as the team's twin spinners. While Ashwin's form for the Chennai Super Kings has been fairly consistent through six seasons, Mishra has proved to be bigger asset due to a better average. Mishra has 95 wickets in 76 matches at an average of 17.52 as compared to Ashwin's tally of 62 in 67 games at an average of 22.76. Ashwin's best bowling figures for CSK has been 3/16 while Mishra has a five-for (5/17) and three four-wicket hauls. Mishra's tally of 95 wickets is only second-best to Lasith Malinga in the list of all-time wicket takers.
While Ashwin, at 27, can still afford to take a break from international cricket and return to the drawing board to rectify his follies and regain his form, it is a race against time for the 31-year- old Mishra. The Haryana leggie deserves a vote of confidence from the selectors and his skipper. Between the team's regular spinner with indifferent form and a brave, handy wicket-taking leg spinner, the choice should be pretty straightforward.