When Ravichandran Ashwin eventually hangs up his spikes, and the tributes pour in from all quarters, this second Test against England in Chennai will surely be cited among the very best of his all‑round performances for India.
Ashwin had already sent the match on a seemingly irreversible path with the ball on the second day, taking five for 43 as Joe Root’s side were gutted for 134 all out. It was the off‑spinner’s 29th five-wicket haul, and in less than half the 295 innings it has taken Jimmy Anderson to secure 30.
But Ashwin, it transpired, was not done there and on the third day the 34-year-old went further still, completing a rare all-rounder’s double with a fine century from No 8 – 106 from 148 balls, with 14 fours and one six – to send supporters in his home city of Chennai gaga and drive England further into the much-debated dust.
India were all out for 286 when he finally chopped Olly Stone on to his stumps, setting an improbable 482 to win. It gave the tourists a tricky hour to negotiate before stumps and presented Ashwin with the chance to cap off an already memorable day. Sure enough the off-spinner claimed one of three batsmen to fall as England closed with 53 runs on the board.
Only the sourest of sleep-deprived supporters watching back at home in the UK would have begrudged Ashwin his moment in the sun, with his century sealed after tea when a skewed edge off Moeen Ali ran away fine to spark wild celebrations.
Not since Garfield Sobers at Headingley in 1966 has an all-rounder taken five wickets and scored a century against England. This was the third time Ashwin has achieved the feat in his Test career; only Ian Botham, with five, boasts more.
During India’s recent series win in Australia the home captain, Tim Paine, questioned whether Ashwin’s teammates like him and yet – going by the scenes witnessed in the home dressing room upon reaching his fifth Test century from 132 balls – we can deduce this sledge from behind the stumps in Sydney was wide of the mark.
Ashwin’s captain, Virat Kohli, certainly had his back during the final over of the day. The off-spinner had already winkled out Rory Burns for 25 – an edge to second slip sandwiched between Axar Patel’s smart removals of Dom Sibley and the nightwatchman Jack Leach – but was utterly convinced he had the prized scalp of Root also. It was not obvious if India were going up for a caught behind or lbw but the umpire Nitin Menon gave it not out. The replays showed no bat was involved and with the impact on pad shown by Hawk‑Eye to be umpire’s call, Root was spared and Kohli began furiously remonstrating with the official.
Given the state of the match, the reaction seemed over the top and could yet result in a sanction from the International Cricket Council match referee, Javagal Srinath. Kohli has worn a determined look all Test, it must be said, and the return of his brooding intensity, coupled with the spectators in the ground, has contributed to India’s dominance.
England were already staring at defeat when Ashwin strode out to the crease at 106 for six in the morning. The lead had just ticked past 300 and Kohli was looking to not simply address his first-innings duck – taking 20 balls to get off the mark – but also grasp the swirling debate about the pitch and stuff it in a blender.
This was certainly achieved in a three-hour 62 and a stand of 96. And though Kohli fell lbw to Moeen – amid figures of four for 98, and eight in the match overall – Ashwin went on to ram the point home further; as he said the evening before, there are runs to be scored on this surface if you stay patient.
As well as a tennis-smash four off Stone that brought up his half‑century, a couple of dominant straight drives off the slightly neutered Stuart Broad, and the confidence he gave the No 11 Mohammed Siraj in a maddening 49-run stand, a key feature of Ashwin’s innings was the sweep.
After stumps Ashwin revealed the shot had only just returned to his armoury for the first time since, aged 19, he was dropped from a local team for getting out playing it. When he slog-swept Moeen for six over cow corner to reach 97, a recent 10-day crash course in the nets had fully paid off.
By this stage England were going through the motions a bit, worn down by events and some lives granted to Ashwin on 28, 56 and 70. Ben Stokes had dropped a sharp catch at slip, while Ben Foakes missed an edge and a possible stumping.
Other keepers might have considered these mere quarter-chances but Foakes has set a high bar, as demonstrated in the morning when he became the first England wicketkeeper since Alan Knott in 1968 to effect three stumpings in a Test. Having snared Patel in the first innings, he produced more sublime work off Leach to remove Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant.
The pace of Stone has been another bright spot for England, so too further progress for Leach with figures of four for 100 from 33 overs and six in the match. Moeen struggled with the full toss issue that blighted Dom Bess previously but there have been flashes of the old magic in between. If he flies home to rest after this Test, with overs finally under his belt, their rotation plan will again be queried.
All told, Root’s men have simply met an India side better equipped for the extreme – but not unfair – conditions rolled out in Chennai and must go into the day-night third Test in Ahmedabad next week knowing parity is a halfway scoreline they would have taken. Their hosts will be brimming with confidence, however, and none more so than the irrepressible Ashwin.