There is an immortal in the making in the Indian Test side and it isn't Virat Kohli. If Ravichandran Ashwin was to retire tomorrow, he would, arguably, be the best all-rounder in India's Test history. Better than Vinoo Mankad, better even than Kapil Dev. We think of Ashwin as a young man making his way in the world. He isn't. He is 30 years old and he has played 41 Test matches. He isn't a veteran yet, but he's an experienced player in his cricketing prime. For comparison, Vinoo Mankad played all of 44 Tests over a 13-year career. It's only in the context of modern cricket where durable geniuses run career marathons - Kapil Dev (131), Sachin Tendulkar (200), Muttiah Muralitharan (133), Shane Warne (145), Jacques Kallis (166) - that Ashwin seems like a stripling still doing warm-up laps.
In 41 Tests, he has taken 231 wickets and scored 1,677 runs. These gross numbers, impressive as they are, don't begin to tell the story. For that you need his batting and bowling averages. His batting average (the runs he scores per innings) is exactly 10 runs higher than his bowling average (the runs he gives away per wicket), 34 to 24. No Indian bowler with more than a hundred wickets has come within shouting distance of a per wicket cost of 24. The averages of Anil Kumble, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna, Bishan Bedi, Kapil Dev, Javagal Srinath, Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh are either nudging 30 or over it. In bowling terms this is the difference between the great and the good. Perched in the early 20s, Ashwin is in the company of Test cricket's bowling pantheon: Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Wasim Akram, Curtly Ambrose, Malcolm Marshall, Muralitharan, Fred Trueman...
Apart from his day job -being the best Test bowler in the world - Ashwin is also a No. 6 batsman, a position often filled by a specialist in contemporary cricket. If his batting average around 35 seems a modest return for a world-class all rounder, bear in mind that Kapil Dev, Ian Botham, Richard Hadlee and Imran Khan averaged (give or take a decimal point) 31, 33, 27 and 37 respectively. Richie Benaud averaged 24. In terms of the batting record of bowling all-rounders (all-rounders whose principal skill is bowling), Ashwin's batting average puts him in the upper reaches of the category. One way of reckoning his worth as a batsman is this: if you subtracted Ashwin the bowler from Ashwin the all rounder, you'd have Rohit Sharma left over.
But it's Ashwin's bowling achievements that underwrite his claim to cricketing immortality. If batsmen were trees, Ashwin would be a forest fire. No modern bowler has reached 200 wickets faster than he has. He averages five-and-a-half wickets a Test; only Muralitharan, the statistical gold standard amongst bowlers, does better: he finished with 800 wickets in 133 tests, which works out to six wickets a match. Apart from Ashwin, no one - not Warne (4.8), not Ambrose (4), nor McGrath (4.5) - comes close.
Taking five wickets in an innings is for bowlers what scoring a century is for a batsman. McGrath pioneered the ritual of holding up the ball to the crowd much as a centurion raises his bat. In 41 Tests, Ashwin has earned the right to raise the ball twenty-two times. Had Ashwin been a batsman, this is the point where the knowing ones would have started whispering, 'Bradmanesque'.
Bradman's record for the number of centuries in a career has been long since overtaken by half-a-dozen lesser men. What has never been matched is the number of Tests it took him to rack up those 29 hundreds. If Ashwin adds seven five-fers to his current tally in the next 11 matches, he will tie Bradman's record for 29 big ones in 52 Tests. And that, after a fashion, will be Everest scaled. Pundits will scoff but since so many of them were happy to celebrate Tendulkar's hundred 'international' centuries as a landmark achievement, we can ignore them. Wisden and Statsguru are unlikely to acknowledge Ashwin as Bradman's bowling twin if he ties him at 29 (nor should they), but those who live for the long game will have the comfort of knowing that their phantom milestone is derived from Test cricket's lore, not the PR brainwave of a marketing hack.
The great Murali bagged five wickets or more in an innings sixty seven times. Warne, who played a dozen more Tests than Murali did, fell 30 short of that absurd figure. Nobody will ever catch up with the great Sri Lankan, but Ashwin's figures are so good that if you assume his current form as a constant and extrapolate it over a long career, you arrive at 67 five-wicket hauls by the time he gets to his 133rd Test. The fact that his record lends itself to this sort of exercise is a token of his mastery.
Ashwin is halfway through his career and definitive comparisons with champions like Kapil Dev will have to wait upon the results he achieves by the end of it, since one of the measures of greatness is longevity. Meanwhile we can put his stats on hold and enjoy watching this remarkable player perform. He isn't your standard high-end athlete, he's an original. Actually, Ashwin isn't an athlete at all; compared to his lean, ripped skipper, he is a throwback to a time when gyms in India were clubs you visited for sandwiches and beer.
One of the pleasures of watching Ashwin bat is the weird beauty of his strokeplay. To watch a repurposed bowler drive through cover with the grace and timing of V.V.S. Laxman and then reinforce that resemblance by timing a good straight ball through mid-on, is to shake your head in disbelief. The disbelief has something to do with the dissonance between the stooping clumsiness of the initial movement and the loveliness of the completed shot. That ponderous preliminary lets you into Ashwin's secret: his game is, to an unusual degree, invented in his head, as if a cerebral creature had, by sheer force of will, adapted its body to exertions it wasn't designed for, like a hyper-intelligent camel unbending to the alien task of driving off the front foot.
His bowling has the same eggheaded quality to it. He began as a trick bowler with a knuckle ball. Novelty artists have notoriously short career spans. Not Ashwin. He set himself the task of mastering a stock off-break, complete with metronomic accuracy and drift, and reinvented himself. But he still isn't your orthodox off-spinner. This is apparent, not just in the baroque excess of his action, all twirls and loops like Gogia Pasha prancing in to bowl, but in his willingness to experiment with it.
There is that little trick he has of holding his action for a heartbeat in his delivery stride to disrupt the batsman's trigger movement. There was the time he decided to bowl with his sleeves buttoned down to see if he could get more revolutions on the ball by 'doing a little bit with my elbow'. The perfectly grooved action seems to mean less to him than it does to most bowlers; in the first Test in Rajkot he began bowling exaggeratedly side-on mid-innings because he thought he wasn't getting enough drift, rather like a golfer re-modelling his swing mid-tournament. Ashwin assumes that he can think his way through innovation on the fly.
Through some happy oversight by the accountants who run the BCCI, this marvellous player has a long season of Test cricket ahead of him. There are three Tests left to play against England and then four more against the touring Australians. India is also meant to play a Test against Bangladesh sometime next year. What are the chances that Ashwin will take seven five-fers in these matches to get to 29? Long odds, I imagine, but these are home Tests and this is Ashwin. I'd bet on him; maybe someone should open a book. Remember, if the stars align and he does the reverse-Bradman, you read it here first.