In theory, both Ravichandran Ashwin (373 Test wickets at 25.2/53.3) and Nathan Lyon (391 Test wickets at 31.7/63.2) are both off-spinners. Watch them bowl, and you begin to notice the poverty of the classification.
Lyon bowls side-on, gets the ball to curl away from the right-hander in the air, and dip on account his top spin. He’s constantly attacking the top of off-stump. Lyon’s game is drag the batsman out and challenge both edges of the outstretched bat. Should the batsman hang back, the top spin usually means that the ball invariably hits the bat higher than the batsman would like and brings the leg-trap into play. It is high-quality classic off-spin - nearly 400 Test wickets worth.
Ashwin bowls front-on compared to Lyon. His lines are straighter. He’s rumoured to possess the carrom ball which spins away towards slip against the right hander, but this rumour often appears deadlier than the delivery itself. Ashwin gets the ball to curl in the air too. He gets it to dip and he gets it to rip off the pitch.
Ashwin does not attack the top of off-stump. Not unless its turning. It wasn’t turning at the MCG today. And so Ashwin set out to bowl a restrictive, negative line of middle and leg stump to a packed leg side field. This is not unusual on a first day wicket. The spinners job to provide control from one end while the fast bowlers see what they can do at the other. Usually the spinner will bowl to the given field and ensure that the batsman has to take a chance to score a boundary and otherwise keep the scoring down to two or three and over.
But Ashwin is not your average spinner. He’s an all time great bowler and on this Australian tour, not only has he shown why (as he invariably does), but he’s gotten the wickets to show for it. He has dismissed Steve Smith twice, very early in his innings. There’s always an element of good fortune when a bowler gets a batsman out that early twice. But both times, Ashwin beat Smith in the flight. The first one was the flatter, quicker ball which stays with the arm to which Smith stayed back when he should have played forward. It caught the outside edge and went to hand. The second was a slower one which dipped on Smith, beat him in the flight and lured him into the leg-trap.
Those two Smith dismissals represent both Ashwin’s methods and Australia’s problems. Ashwin’s method has been to keep a restrictive middle and leg line and keep the batsman honest by varying flight and speed. He has the ball on a string. And the Australians, perhaps because they’re worried about the carrom ball, seem to be hell bent on reacting to every tug of the string. The classic approach against Ashwin would be for the batsman to be bloody-minded and decide that for a certain range of line and length the batsman is going to stay back, and certain other range of line and length the batsman is going to play forward, and just keep the ball out. The runs will come when Ashwin is then forced to try and break the stalemate by offering a different line and length - usually something wider outside off stump. This is how Aravinda de Silva famously played against Kumble and how Sehwag and Lara played against all spinners. Beyond a point they decided that it was fruitless to care very much about what the bowler was doing.
The Australians seem to want to score against him every ball, and aren’t getting anywhere close to that. This has allowed Ashwin to control the game. And there, his magnificent control of flight and turn and his ability to push the batsman around has come to the fore. The Australians have had this idea that they’ll go after Ashwin early, and so far in this series, that has not worked. Worse, it has played into Ashwin’s hands.
This, then, is how a great bowler bowls a negative line. Not for Ashwin the honest plodding toil of firing it in on middle and leg ball after all. Ashwin’s guile lies in getting the batsmen to believe that he’s doing everything but that, even though, in sum, this is pretty much all he’s been doing - bowling to his field and keeping the runs down. He varies pace, trajectory, length and line to his given field without giving the batsman a boundary ball too often. Great baseball pitcher are capable of “widening the plate”. Ashwin seems to be able to widen the definition of a good ball with his variations. And this is not mystery bowling. It is successful precisely because the batsman knows exactly what’s coming and is still worried about it. Mystery doesn’t survive in Test cricket. But guile and control are eternal. And Ashwin possesses those in spades.
Shane Warne used to announce new deliveries before a big series. But his real art lay in giving the batsman absolutely nothing without getting predictable. That is high art. Nathan Lyon does it too, but he does it in classical fashion of the orthodox off-spinner. Ashwin marches to his own tune. And what a tune it is! It is not for nothing that Ashwin is arguably India’s greatest ever Test match wicket taker.