Vizag T20I: Pied Piper Ashwin leads Sri Lanka to doom as India win series in a canter

For the second time in the three-match T20I series between India and Sri Lanka, the game was decided by top-order batsmen’s failure to read the true nature of the pitch while batting first and the inability of the middle order to recalibrate the par score.
In Pune, India’s much-vaunted batting line-up paid the price for adventurism before the bowlers made a fight out of a meagre target.
In Visakhapatnam, however, there was only one winner from the moment Ravichandran Ashwin picked up the new ball and bagged four wickets within the fifth over.
Putting the disappointment of Pune behind, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s team roared back to tame the Sri Lankan lions and clinch the series 2-1, with a thumping nine wicket win in the decider.
The pre-series narrative of India being a force to reckon with in the shortest format was re-established on the back of two thumping wins.
The architect of the win was without doubt the Tamil Nadu off-spinner. Ashwin’s decisive opening spell had figures of 3-1-5-4. He eventually finished with 4 wickets for 8 runs.
Hit the rewind button to Australia and remember that Ashwin was dropped after the second ODI where he went for plenty on the flat tracks in Perth and Brisbane.
While India ended up losing the series 1-4, the now-familiar argument about Ashwin’s impact overseas reared up again. But, in Ravindra Jadeja’s company, he came back in the T20Is to play a small but crucial role in the 3-0 whitewash with 5 wickets in three matches.
But there’s no denying that Ashwin on sub-continent pitches is a different beast. Not just on rank-turners, even on pitches like the ones in Ranchi and Visakhapatnam.
On Sunday, when everyone thought the pitch would be a belter by the looks of it, Ashwin got the white new ball to turn square off the very third ball of the match to beat an advancing Niroshan Dickwella with sensational loop and drift.
The last ball of the first over was another beauty from around the stumps, to beat Tilekaratne Dilshan’s inside edge by a good few inches and catch him on the crease, LBW.
But the stand-out dismissal, in my opinion, was that of Sri Lanka captain Dinesh Chandimal — he who counter-attacked India out of the Test match in Galle not so long ago.
Trying to hit his way out of trouble again, Chandimal gave Ashwin the charge, seeing the flight on offer from the bowler.
But the true mark of a good off-spinner is to fool the batsman into thinking that a loopy off-spinner is just an overpitched delivery when stepping down the track and then, as if the cricket ball is controlled like a top whose thread the bowler holds, make it land a few yards shorter than where the batsman thinks it will.
See the replay of Chandimal’s dismissal from the side angle and you will see that he was nowhere close to the pitch of the ball. The result — a mistimed slog, a straight-forward high catch and the best batsman in the team is back in the hut.
And Ashwin does all this with a new ball.
“Ashwin is the pick of the bowlers when it comes to the new ball, (with seven men) in the circle,” Dhoni said after the match.
“He still flights the ball, asks the batsmen to step out and play the big shot. That is crucial in this format. At times you tend to bowl too flat, but he is somebody who mixes it up really well.”
Ashwin, a very self-aware bowler, knows the importance of drawing the batsman out early in his innings, in the limited overs format. He was the only bowler to trouble the South African top-order, AB de Villiers included, in the matches he played in the T20 and ODI series last year.
Dhoni handing Ashwin the new-ball is not a new thing.
The surprising part is, however, how consistently he delivers. In the last three T20Is that Ashwin has opened the bowling in, his collective figure reads 12-1-46-10.
Contrast that to Indian fast bowlers struggling to get wickets in the first powerplay (irrespective of the format) and you know why Ashwin is a bona-fide match-winner.
Hoping that this run of form ‘lasts forever’, Ashwin said after the match: “I thought I would get a five-for today. The wicket had a bit of dampness in it. I have a couple of variation when using the new ball. I want to keep the batsmen guessing, and wickets make me a different bowler. I always have the courage to flight the ball.”
Along with the consistency of Jadeja, and the very useful part-time skills of Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina, the option to bowl Ashwin at the beginning of an innings or the middle, opens up the combinations immensely for MS Dhoni.
For starters, he can keep Jasprit Bumrah exclusively for the death overs, without having to pick more than two seamers, like he did in Ranchi and Vizag.
If India are to go the distance in the ICC World T20, this flexibility within a settled bowling line-up will play a role as crucial as the top-order’s batting form.
And Ashwin, is undoubtedly, the leader of that bowling attack — irrespective of when he comes in to bowl.