<
>

Is it Ashwin and Jadeja, or Jadeja and Ashwin?

play
Agarkar: India's call to play three seamers brilliant (8:29)

India registered their biggest Test win over South Africa and a record-breaking 11th home Test series win on the trot in Pune (8:29)

"Bowling *inaudible* bowling daalta hai, aur kuch *inaudible*!"

It was the fourth day of the Pune Test, and Dean Elgar had just driven Ravindra Jadeja through cover, where R Ashwin had dived to his right, a fraction of a second too late, and failed to stop the ball.

Jadeja had addressed these words to the sprawled fielder. He had turned away from the wicket, so the stump mic didn't pick them up too clearly, but the gist seemed to be, "This guy can bowl, but the other thingsā€¦"

Team-mates say these things to each other in the heat of the moment, so this isn't about reading into Jadeja's words for signs of animosity between the two spinners. Some bowlers simply can't hide their annoyance when fielders don't back them up to the fullest degree, even if they've made a valiant but failed effort. Anil Kumble, a soft-spoken man off the field by all accounts, became an embodiment of seething rage whenever someone misfielded off his bowling.

But the message contained in Jadeja's words may well be the one that's deciding the hierarchy between the two spinners when India need to play just one of them. In the tour of the West Indies that preceded the series against South Africa, India preferred Jadeja over Ashwin in both Tests.

It isn't fielding that kept Ashwin on the bench, notwithstanding the massive edge that Jadeja, perhaps the world's best outfielder, may have over him in that department. It is, rather, the two players' divergent batting returns over the last few seasons.

ALSO READ: Virat Kohli moves to within a point of No. 1-ranked Steven Smith

Until the 2016 tour of the West Indies, where he batted at No. 6 and made two hundreds, Ashwin was clearly ahead of Jadeja on the batting front. By the end of that tour, Ashwin had scored 1439 Test runs at 34.26, with four hundreds and six fifties, and Jadeja 495 at 20.62, with just the one fifty in 26 innings.

It's been a different story since then, though, with Ashwin's returns falling away and Jadeja rediscovering his inner batsman. The batsman who came to Test cricket with a first-class average of 53.66, and three triple-hundreds for which he, and India's first-class system, were mocked rather than celebrated.

In this second coming as a lower-order batsman, Jadeja has scored 1226 runs in 40 Test innings at an average of 47.15, with 11 fifties and a maiden hundred. If there's a single montage that captures India's domination of home Tests in this period, it's his bat-twirling celebration of personal landmarks, cutting immediately to a grinning Virat Kohli calling his batsmen back in. Through his Test career, Jadeja has averaged 74.70 when India have declared, with seven fifties and a hundred in 21 innings.

He hasn't just been a declaration specialist, though. Last year's run of away tours may have begun with question marks still hanging over his ability in pace-friendly conditions, but he delivered whenever he got the chance, displaying not just the strokeplay he is always been capable of, but also the temperament of a top-order batsman.

ALSO READ: Wriddhiman Saha's rare weekend in the spotlight

At The Oval last year, for instance, he came in with India 160 for 6 in response to England's 332, and made an unbeaten 86. It wasn't a slap-happy romp like his third-innings half-century at Lord's in 2014; it was a proper, measured innings where he trusted his defence and his judgment outside off stump. He left 36 of the 101 balls he faced from the fast bowlers, employing shouldered arms more frequently than any other shot.

Even during his 91 in the Pune Test, he was quite happy to take his time early on, and was on 6 off 29 balls when Kohli brought up the half-century stand for the fifth wicket. He was on 9 off 44 when he hit his first boundary, a drive against the turn off Keshav Maharaj. He followed this with an incredible bit of timing, a back-foot flick that beat midwicket to his left and then a sprinting, diving deep square leg to his right.

When he plays shots like that, and when he gives himself time to settle at the crease before playing shots like that, Jadeja looks like a proper No. 6. There's a relaxed air about him, a naturalness about the way he sets up at the crease. If he's made any adjustments in his technique over the years, they've probably been subtle ones, and on the surface he seems to have stuck to the same batting mechanics through all his highs and lows. It's much the same with his bowling.

Ashwin, on the other hand, is an inveterate tinkerer, whether it's all the load-ups he has used while bowling, or all the variations he's attempted and mastered, or, indeed, all the ways he's faced up to bowlers.

When the ball flies effortlessly off his bat, Ashwin can be a joy to watch. But for one of the most natural strikers of the ball in Indian cricket, it's strange how unnatural his batting can look until that moment of bat meeting ball. Over the many years of his international career, he's tried various trigger movements, discarded his bat-tap and taken to waggling an upraised bat behind him, and made multiple changes to his alignment at the crease.

There was a time when he used to be, in his own words, "extra side-on", which prevented him from playing fluently down the ground, and he opened up his upper body to be able to do so. During his only appearance with the bat in this series, in Visakhapatnam, he seemed to have reverted to a closed shoulder position, but it's not clear if he'll stick to it in the long term.

It may or may not be related to all the tinkering, but Ashwin's batting output has declined in recent months. There have been a few good knocks, particularly away from home - he made 38 out of a 71-run partnership with Kohli at Centurion; top-scored in both innings of the disastrous Lord's Test; and scored 25 in Adelaide after coming in at 127 for 6, helping Cheteshwar Pujara through a key part of his match-turning first-day hundred - but there have been no fifties since August 2017. He's batted 23 times in that period, and averaged 17.90.

It's for all these reasons, probably, that Kohli, while talking about them, has lately tended to say "Jadeja and Ashwin" rather than "Ashwin and Jadeja".

But as important as their batting contributions may be, they will always be judged as bowlers first. When India had to choose between Jadeja and Ashwin in the West Indies, they were choosing between two spinners with exceptional records, with no clear statistical basis to say one was better than the other. You don't take 200 Test wickets at an average below 25 without being a bloody fine bowler. It's a caricature to say Jadeja is just a metronome for the captain to wind up and point in the batsman's direction.

But Jadeja hasn't looked at his best since the West Indies tour. His action has always been mostly shoulder, but at times during that tour and against South Africa it's seemed all shoulder, without the full thrust of his back hip at the crease, and as a result his trajectory has looked flatter than before, without the late dip he gets when he's at his best. When batsmen have played forward to him in defence, they've seemed to get closer to the pitch of the ball than they used to, meeting the ball with the lower rather than upper half of their bat.

The lack of dip perhaps explains why he's been hit for so many boundaries down the ground - he's conceded 10 sixes and 16 fours in the V in these last two series, not just to the top order but also lower-order biffers like Kemar Roach and Dane Piedt.

Since coming back into the XI in Visakhapatnam, meanwhile, Ashwin has been at his teasing best, finding ways to get past batsmen on surfaces that haven't offered exaggerated help for the spinners. He's averaged 21.64 against South Africa to Jadeja's 34.40 and, for once, there's been some truth to the idea that Ashwin has the tools to trouble batsmen independent of conditions while Jadeja needs a certain amount of assistance. Their first-innings numbers in this series support that idea, with Ashwin averaging 19.45 to Jadeja's 68.33.

Ashwin might not be getting too many opportunities to contribute with the bat just yet, but with the ball he's done everything he can to remind his captain and coach of his qualities. Nonetheless, Jadeja's bowling blip, if it's a blip at all, cannot last forever. This is a tussle for primacy between two world-class competitors, and we will doubtless witness many more twists before the next Test match that has room for only one of them.