The Rise Of The Ashwin-Bhakt

R Ashwin has not played any of India’s first four Tests in England. Its not obvious that he will play in the 5th Test. I’m writing this a few hours before that Test is scheduled to begin. Fanatical support for the individual player is not a new phenomenon in Indian cricket. We have had Gavaskar-bhakts, Kapil-bhakts, Tendulkar-bhakts, Ganguly-bhakts, Dhoni-bhakts and Kohli-bhakts. A new God has been added to this pantheon in 2021, and this is worth recording for posterity.

How does one normally observe cricket and the teams that are selected? We look at the conditions, the available squad, the selections, and, commentary from the selectors involved (selector, coach, manager, captain, or if you’re feeling adventurous, “source close to the team”) if any, and consider the squad that’s been selected. And then we might form an opinion about the selection.

For what its worth, this is the Test record for Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja (his chief rival) outside Asia since the start of 2018. It includes India’s Test tours of South Africa, England, Australia, West Indies, New Zealand, Australia and the World Test Championship Final, in that order. It does not include the current series against England.

There’s nothing in it on the bowling side of things. Ashwin, for instance, had a terrific time in Australia in 2020-21. But so did Jadeja (took 7/105 in 37 overs there).

The conditions in England have been favorable to seam bowling. England would much rather face Muralitharan than they would a seamer when the ball is seaming, in the same way that visiting teams would much rather face Ishant Sharma over Washington Sundar on a raging turner. Its why India leave out at least two out of their four fast bowlers in most Tests in India, and play 2 or 3 spinners. If the pitch is green, Shardul Thakur offers more threat than a great spinner. If this wasn’t the case, great spinners would consistently out-bowl journeymen seamers in seaming conditions, and they don’t.

In every Test in this series, there has been unusual amount of help for the seamers. There has not been a single win-the-toss-and-bat-first beginning to a Test match here. In 3 out of the 4 Tests, the team batting first has been bowled out for less than 200. The other Test was played on the least friendly ground for spinners in England in recent times.

So, the evidence points to the idea that if there are 4 fast bowlers who can be picked, its a good idea to pick them. Further, the choice (see the table above) between the spinners suggests that while there’s very little in it one way or the other between Ashwin and Jadeja (two bowlers with very different styles to be fair) as bowlers, Jadeja’s percentage approach at the batting crease, and the fact that he bats left-handed, could be of use. India have only 2 plausible lefty bats in their squad - the keeper Pant, and Jadeja.

A reasonably curious cricket fan might consider all this evidence and conclude that playing four fast bowlers and one spinner, and picking Jadeja as that sole spinner is a perfectly reasonable selection decision. There were other combinations which would have been equally reasonable (and many of these would include Ashwin, because he’s a great bowler), as there are bound to be from a squad as good as India’s. So, a great spinner being left out is interesting, but not unreasonable.

The bhakt starts from a different place to a reasonably curious cricket fan. To a bhakt, anything other than unconditional worship of their deity, and this involves placing their deity on the team sheet before anyone else in the nicest handwriting, is a crime. Leaving the deity out can only occur due to ulterior, underhanded, corrupt motives, or rank incompetence. So the bhakt, faced with cricket, is hopelessly cornered and can only produce debris until they are exhausted.

So, the Indian captain has it in for Ashwin. There’s a conspiracy against South India. Ashwin is opinionated, and this counts against him (yes, Ashwin himself, poor fellow, is a casualty of the Ashwin-bhakt’s rampage too). Anyone who points out that given the record and the conditions, an XI without Ashwin is entirely reasonable is an arrogant know-it-all who is unreasonably certain about the marginality of the choice. Jadeja, one of the villains of the piece, is not fit to lace Ashwin’s boots. Kohli is a capricious leader at best, always chopping and changing the Test team, unlike in the old day (this is not true, but people are convinced that it is). The world is against justice, reason and competence. How can it not be if it leaves the deity out?

To be sure this rather pathetic picture is constructed about some player or the other, in some quarter or the other, whenever an Indian side is selected. And with three formats, a lot of Indian sides are selected these days. But those are small quarters which do not rise above the every day din. Ashwin-bhakti falls in the rare kind of fanaticism. It is like the joyrider rampaging through the city streets on a bike with a broken muffler and bottomless cash and time to burn on petrol.

In a way, Ashwin-bhakti it is a tribute to Ashwin. He’s a magnificent bowler. But now he belongs in the pantheon of Indian all time greats. It is rare for player to make this grade in India without being India captain. But Ashwin has.

A disturbing proposition here is that perhaps the machinery of bhakti is better oiled today that it has ever been (thanks to the democratization of publishing on micro-blogging sites like Twitter, and networks like LinkedIn and Facebook). This democratization helps with the sharing of reason and empiricism. But it also helps, as we learn everyday, with the sharing and propagation of fanaticism. Ashwin-bhakti offers a Walt Disney example of this phenomenon.

Everyone has their anxieties, and everyone has the capacity to be curious. Everyone has moments when they are ruled by one or the other. And sometimes, the broader discourse is captured by one or the other. When it is captured by anxieties, dark times are upon us. When it is captured by our curiosities, the world is a brighter place - bettered observed, understood, appreciated, and perhaps advanced. Through eruptions like Ashwin-bhakti, cricket offers a parable for this reality.