Ravichandran Ashwin said on Saturday that leaving Johannesburg wicketless during the fourth innings of a Test match four years ago had made him determined to make an impact whenever India returned to South Africa.
Ashwin was dropped from the team after that game ended in a draw and had to work harder than ever to stage a comeback, which he did the following year.
Clearly the memory of that performance has scarcely faded from the mind of India’s premier spin bowler since, as he gave his side the edge on the first day of the second Test against the same opponents at SuperSport Park on Saturday.
South Africa finished on 269-6, but at one point they had been cruising at 246-3 and seemed set for a big total after winning the toss and batting on an easy-paced pitch.
Aiden Markram (94) and Hashim Amla (82) were mainly responsible for getting South Africa into a strong position despite some good bowling by off-spinner Ashwin, who took 3-90 in 31 overs.
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“It was a reality check in terms of not being able to win a Test match for the country on Day 5 when all things were set up for a spinner,” said Ashwin, who went wicketless in 36 overs on that day in 2013. “It hit on my professional pride and from then on I knew I had to work on certain things.”
In 38 Tests since being dropped, Ashwin has taken 205 wickets at an average of 23.82, proving himself one of the best spinners in the history of the game.
“I worked on making my action a lot more repeatable. I worked on my wrist action at the point of release,” the 31-year-old all-rounder said. “I ironed out a few things, used my wrist a lot more when I delivered the ball, used my palm when I bowled the floater.”
Aside from Ashwin’s bowling, India were also aided by an outstanding piece of fielding by Hardik Pandya, who ran out Amla.
Two more wickets fell in the next 14 balls.
Amla, who looked set for a century to end a poor run of form which had brought scores of 5, 3 and 4 in his previous three Test innings, played a ball from Pandya to the on-side and was called for a sharp single by South Africa captain Faf du Plessis.
On his back foot, Amla was slow to start and Pandya raced to pick up the ball, turned and threw down the stumps at the bowler’s end.
“There was some extraordinary work by Hardik and a bit of luck for us,” Ashwin said.
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The second new ball was due but India captain Virat Kohli persisted with Ashwin and was rewarded when Quinton de Kock edged Ashwin to Kohli at slip to be out first ball.
It got worse for South Africa when Vernon Philander set off for a suicidal run and found himself at the same end as Du Plessis to be run out without scoring.
Contrary to expectations, there was no assistance for the fast bowlers and Ashwin carried the bowling attack, taking 2-53 in an unchanged 17-over first spell before coming back to bowl another lengthy spell.
Markram, playing in his fifth Test, looked set for a third century to go with hundreds he made against the modest opposition of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.
He struck the ball with authority, particularly off the back foot, before he tried to guide a ball from Ashwin towards third man and was caught behind by wicketkeeper Parthiv Patel. “It was a bit of a nothing shot, I am still not over it,” he said.
There was some consolation when Kohli ran across to congratulate the rising star. “He just said ‘well played’ and that I was unlucky to get out. It was a great gesture and it did mean a lot,” said Markram, who made his 94 off 150 balls and hit 15 fours.
He, as well as a struggling Dean Elgar (31), put on 85 for the first wicket before Elgar went down the wicket and was caught by Murali Vijay at silly mid-off, checking a drive when Ashwin bowled the ball a bit shorter so that Elgar could not reach the pitch of the ball.
India made three changes to the XI that lost the first Test at Cape Town last week. Lokesh Rahul replaced Shikhar Dhawan, Parthiv came in for the injured Wriddhiman Saha, and Bhuneshwar Kumar made way for Ishant Sharma.