In the buildup to the 2023 Border Gavaskar Trophy, you may have heard something on the lines of India will be preparing akhadas, dust bowls or rank turners. Which, by accounts of the recent past is a prime factor behind them being the most successful home side in Test cricket in the 21st century. A factor which in 2023 is identified by their fabled spin troika of Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel.
Since 2001, India have played 36 Test series at home, losing only thrice to Australia in 2004/05 and England in 2011/12. In doing so, they’ve secured the best Win Loss ratio at home among all Test playing nations.
During this time period, 68.75 of the team’s total wickets taken have come from spinners. 1195 wickets in 101 matches, averaging 26.35.
Of those 1195 wickets, almost 44 percent have been shared by Ashwin, Jadeja and 2021 debutant Axar. Ashwin has been a constant menace for visiting sides over the past decade. Since Ashwin’s debut in November 2011, no other India bowler has picked wickets in triple digits in home Tests (Ashwin: 312 and Jadeja: 172) apart from the duo. Between them, they shared a total of 99 wickets in just India’s last two home series against Australia i.e. eight matches.
In fact, no other bowler has picked more wickets in home conditions around the world than Ashwin. The right arm off spinner has had a knack for luring the left handers by taking the ball away from them but also by using his carrom ball, coming right in.And with his reverse-carrom, he can flick it away from the left-hander as well.
Off his 226 dismissals against left handed batters, 99 times has the off spinner got rid of them by cleaning them up or trapping them leg before wicket. Ashwin coming round the wicket to a left hander creates a dilemma for the batsmen. The carrom ball is as good as his stock delivery. Variations in pace and length add to the mystery that is the direction the ball will take after pitching.
The dismissal of Ben Stokes from the 2021 Chennai Test comes to mind. Bowling round the wicket, Ashwin pushed Stokes on the back foot with a good length delivery. The next one was drifted onto the middle stump from a high-arm angle. The England all-rounder tried to whip with the angle, but the ball kicked up viciously from the turf and crashed into the off-stump.
Later that year, Ashwin explained the reason behind his success against southpaws, “I would like to think that it is because I challenge both sides of the edge. I get a batsman out through the inside edge and the outside and get the slip, short leg and silly point in play. I think that is one of the reasons the left-handers find it difficult. Also, I change the angle; I go over the wicket and to the extremes for around the stumps also. So challenging both sides of the bat gives me the edge.”
Despite the fact that his economy and average goes up by two against right handers, the likes of Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith won’t forget the leg side trap they were caught in the last time India played Australia.
For the left arm orthodox, Ravindra Jadeja there’s been an obvious advantage against right handers, more than 66 percent of his dismissals have come against them. The kind he turns the ball away from.
Not the biggest turner of the ball, Jadeja’s simplicity to bowl in line of the stumps is efficiently evident from his 25 wickets against Australia in the 2017 Test series at home. Leading wicket taker of the series got most of his wickets without having to cater beyond the fictional fourth stump. While getting an angled in delivery to turn away from the right hander round the wicket is an obvious arsenal, Jadeja’s wicket of Steve Smith in the Ranchi Test from over the wicket by uprooting the off stump after the ball pitched outside leg diversifies his portfolio.
Beyond his wicket taking repertoire, Jadeja the bowler has been known for the high frequency of overs he can bowl on trot and round them up quickly. In a Ranji Trophy match against Mumbai, in 2011, he bowled 36 at a stretch, finishing with a total of 56 (one third of the total number of overs Saurashtra bowled). In the next season, he went for 32 successive overs in a total of 52 against Odisha. Even if things aren’t going his side’s way, Jadeja is the never say never bowler a team can use to hurry up the opposition.
In Axar, India have found another persistent left arm orthodox, who caters to a similar line that Jadeja does.
The most baffling thing about Axar that has made him take wickets in a bucket-full is that not many batsmen seem to be able to decipher his release: they aren’t able to guess its destination from the hand. In fact, the Australians reportedly have been spending a lot of time queuing up with their video analyst trying to pick any clues from the screen.
That innate strength has rewarded him with otherworldly possession numbers. In just the eight test matches he’s played, Axar has 47 wickets to his name at an average of 14.29. Axar however, has kept it even simpler than Jadeja in terms of his go-to delivery. While Jadeja’s stock ball is the one that goes away from the right hander, Axar’s is the one that comes with his arm, the straighter one.
While Jadeja looks to lure the right hander from around the wicket by bringing the ball in to him and turning it away after pitching, Axar looks to make it go through between their bat and pads on most occasions. A difference in approach through which he completes India’s most effective bowling trio at home.
In the Kanpur Test against New Zealand in 2021, the three featured together, accounting for a total of 188 overs across the two innings. This, while the two pacers in the XI, two of India’s most experienced in the century, Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma bowled only 52.
One has to go back to November 2017. The last time India played a Test match in Nagpur. Skipper Virat Kohli is questioned who he would prefer to pick as the spinner in his XI. Ravichandran Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja. Even though they both had been impressive features of India’s test team, especially in sub continental conditions. Cut to 2023 and the returns of Ashwin, Jadeja and Axar have made it easier for India to opt for three spinners in their lineup.