R Ashwin’s increasing stocks as a batter adds to his status as one of India’s greatest Test cricketers of all time. Sarah Waris asks if he deserves to be considered among the great all-rounders.

Rewind to the morning of the second day of the first India-Bangladesh Test. After being 261-4 on the first evening, India were in danger of squandering their dominance, losing Cheteshwar Pujara and Shreyas Iyer either side of stumps to slip to 293-7. Bangladesh had won the ODI series earlier in the month and could not be taken lightly. The game was wide open.

By the time the innings actually got over, India had reached 404 to wrestle control of the match, thanks to Ashwin (58 in 113 balls) and his partnership with Kuldeep Yadav (40 in 114).

Fast forward to the second innings of the second Test match, where the threat of defeat was even more real. Chasing 145 to clean sweep the series, India’s famed batting line-up was floundering against Bangladesh’s spinners, and at 74-7, a forgettable year for Indian cricket was on the verge of a gloomier end.

Enter Ashwin yet again – after having taken six wickets in the Test match – in the kind of do-or-die situation where his batting seems to flourish. A calculating, counterattacking 42 in 62 saw him forge an unbeaten 71-run stand with Iyer, who too has made it a habit of saving India’s blushes ever since his debut last November.

Since the start of 2021, Ashwin averages 27.17 with the bat, with a hundred and two fifties. Overall, he is the sixth-highest run-scorer for India in this period, above KL Rahul and Jadeja. The latter has regularly kept Ashwin out in overseas matches due to his superior batting form, when India decide to go in with four fast bowlers. Overall, he averages 27.41 with the bat and 24.30 with the ball. These are exceptional numbers. For perspective, his batting average is higher than Richard Hadlee’s.

The manner in which Ashwin has made his runs in that time also marks him out. Let us begin with arguably his best knock in the format, at the Sydney Cricket Ground to guide India to a come-from-behind draw. Battling a back pain that had prevented him from sitting down as he watched the batters before him, Ashwin faced 128 balls, taking blows on the body and withstanding a barrage of words from the Australians, as he played a memorable supporting act with Hanuma Vihari. The two kept out 42.4 overs to hold the hosts at bay.

A few matches later, Ashwin scored his fifth Test hundred on a tricky Chennai wicket against England. In an innings where Virat Kohli was the only other batter to cross fifty, Ashwin made 106 to pile on the pressure and help India level the series. He proved that he could excel across conditions at Johannesburg where, batting at No.7 in the absence of Jadeja, made a fine 46 against an attack consisting of Kagiso Rabada and Marco Jansen. He eventually ended with the second-highest score from his side, after Rahul’s 50.

It was only a matter of time

Before his Test debut, Ashwin used to be a reliable batter for Tamil Nadu, scoring three fifties and two hundreds at 34.54 in 22 First-class games. India got glimpses of his batting talent early on when he made 103 in just his third Test innings, in his debut series against the West Indies, before another pivotal knock to guide India to a scores-level draw. A 76-ball 62 at the SCG followed, then 68 and 91 not out against England. In 2013/14, Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell series, India collapsed to 83-5 against West Indies at the Eden Gardens before Ashwin rescued them with his second Test hundred.

Between his debut and August 2014, Ashwin averaged 38.86 with the bat. He was still yet to reach his prime as a bowler, but his bowling average was still  under 29. Yet, only 21 Tests into his career, he was not hailed as a great.

His bowling surged since 2015 as his numbers propelled him into the pantheon of greats. From then until the end of 2020, he grabbed 261 scalps (at 23.20) with 18 five-fors, the most among all bowlers on both counts. These years coincided with Kohli’s ascendency as a Test batter, and between them, the duo played the two key roles in the most dominant era in India’s Test history.

Over the course of six years, Ashwin cemented his legacy as one of India’s great bowlers, but his batting took a hit. He made two hundreds, but his average fell to 23.58. From 2018 to 2020, he managed a high score of 38 in 18 Tests – numbers hardly befitting of the all-rounder tag.

Recurrent injuries to Hardik Pandya led to India being often short-handed in overseas Tests, and the focus soon shifted to getting in a fifth bowler while still ensuring balance to the XI. The rise of Jadeja the batter helped solve the issue to some extent, allowing India the liberty to go in with four quicks when the situation demanded.

India’s fast-bowling strength increasingly reduced their dependence on spinners overseas, and Ashwin paid the price. Jadeja was not necessarily the better spinner, but he was the better all-rounder. What was more, he batted left-handed after a top-order dominated by right-handed batters, and he bowled left-arm spin into the rough created by Indian right-arm fast bowlers.

Realising that he had to improve his batting in order to remain in contention away from home, Ashwin made a conscious effort. “I have been working on my batting,” he said in June. “A little bit more communication, understanding and learning on the go with the batting is starting to help me a lot more. (I am) understanding game situations.”

The visible improvement has led to a resurgence in the returns from India’s tail. India need not fret over Jadeja’s absence in overseas Test matches as much. While Ashwin might still have to sit out when Jadeja is in the mix away, it may not be long before he gets the nod ahead of the man from Saurashtra.

Ashwin currently has 3,043 runs and is one shy of 450 wickets. The inevitable milestone will help him become only one of three players, along with Shane Warne and Stuart Broad, to the double of 3,000 runs and 450 wickets. Overall, only six players in the history of the game have made done the 3,000-run-400-wicket double: the other five are Kapil Dev (5,248 runs and 434 wickets), Shaun Pollock (3,781 and 421), Broad (3,550 and 566), Warne (3,154 and 708), and Richard Hadlee (3,124 and 431). It is a stellar list to be part of, and yet, he is yet to be considered an all-time great all-rounder. Warne and Broad are seldom hailed as all-rounders – but Ashwin may get there.

It is 2022, and Kohli is struggling, but Ashwin continues to be as deadly as ever. If he can continue to contribute with the bat as he has done of late, he may end up not only as India’s greatest match-winner of the modern era but also deserves to be hailed as one of the greatest all-rounders in the history of Test cricket.