Is R Ashwin overrated or has Sanjay Manjrekar made a blunder again?

Manjrekar has a "few problems" with R Ashwin being considered an all-time great and that trivializes him and India's achievements in Test cricket under Virat Kohli.

Ashwin dismisses Smith
Is Ashwin's 3-35 in Melbourne the best WTC bowling performance by an Indian?

“Don’t say like this, my heart pains” is the approximate translation to a meme Ashwin shared on social media recently. It was in response to an assessment of him by cricket commentator Sanjay Manjrekar who claimed to have a “few problems” with the off-spinner being termed as an all-time great.

The tweet by Ashwin was more in gest than anything. Cricketers in India cop more criticism than most others in the world and hence, grow largely immune to most detractions. The overwhelming nature of Indian fans often causes the players to develop a thick skin in order to cope with the pressures from the outside.

Ashwin, perhaps a recipient of more hate than most, is cognizant to the importance of self- awareness as the ultimate barometer of his ability. A man with such clarity of thought and ferocity of mind in defending one’s action is rare. He also possesses a sense of humour and intelligence that is refreshing.

Majrekar’s “few problems” with Ashwin

Sanjay Manjrekar
Sanjay Manjrekar sharing a light moment

Hence, Ashwin’s tweet, quoting a dialogue from a Tamil movie can be passed off as yet another instance of his funnier side. However, one would not be too far off the mark if they were to take the post seriously. Especially when contextualized.

On a recent show for a popular cricket news website, Manjrekar had rather carelessly cast aside Ashwin from the discourse pertaining to the best Test bowlers in the world at the moment. It seemed a little harsh at the time. And with the benefit of hindsight, the manner of the argument presented by the former India cricketer still feels coarse.

This was not even a debate of all-time great Test bowlers. This was a question of top 5 best Test bowlers of this generation. There were 3 experts and two more in-house cricket journalists who comprised the panel. Only one man’s list did not have Ashwin and that was Manjrekar.

“Ravichandran Ashwin, with due respect to him, I think he’s a great guy at what he does, but when people start talking about him as one of the all-time greats, I have a few problems with that,” Manjrekar had said.

Thus, Ravichandran Ashwin falls in a rather unique category of cricketers. It is difficult to imagine any other in world cricket who is quite like him. Not just for his wonderfully unabashed and socially awake off the field persona, but also for the cricket he plays.

He falls in that rare category of sports people who have to constantly prove their worth to the wider world. It seems almost unfair, to the extent that if Ashwin hangs up his boots as on date, he would – in hindsight – be most definitely considered a great of Test cricket by the sole virtue of his records. For the football enthusiast, he would perhaps equate to a Romelu Lukaku, who has enviable goal scoring records that have evaded some who are considered “all-time greats” in his sport. And Ashwin, arguably, is more complete in his sport than the Belgian is in his.

Ashwin at home

Warner dismissed by Ashwin
Warner dismissed by Ashwin in a home Test match

For one, Ashwin is not just a contributor with the ball, he has 5 Test centuries. The latest of which came on a dust bowl in Chennai when everyone around was falling like ninepins. It was a glorious display of batsmanship against quality spin bowling – a lesson in survival, counter attack and eventual prosperity for the English batsmen who seemed to have no clue against the Indian spin bowlers, led by Ashwin himself.

Ashwin has three centuries at home in total to accompany his 286 Test wickets in India. The offie averages 21.89 at home which is courtesy of 24 five-wicket hauls and 6 ten-wicket hauls. India is yet to lose a home Test series since December 2012, and it would be no exaggeration to state that Ashwin’s role in this run has been unequivocally decisive.

Manjrekar, however, inserted a caveat for Ashwin’s home performances too. “The other thing – you talk about him running through sides on Indian pitches, when pitches are suited to his kind of bowling. But in the last four years, (Ravindra) Jadeja has matched him with wicket-taking ability throughout a series,” he said.  

Ashwin celebrates with Kohl
Ashwin celebrates with Kohl

“So, Ashwin is not a guy who soars above the others. And interestingly, in the last series against England, Axar Patel got more wickets than Ashwin on similar pitches. That is my problem with accepting Ashwin as an all-time great.”

There lies an inherent fallacy and quizzical contradiction in Manjrekar’s statement here. He uses data from the past four years, which is less than half of Ashwin’s career, to discard him as an all-time great. When, in fact, better sense would state an all-time comparison to be a fairer metric.

In that regard, Ashwin’s 286 home wickets (and 409 overall) stand well above Ravindra Jadeja’s respectable 157 at home (and 220 overall) and Axar Patel’s fledgling career haul of 27 Test wickets.

Ashwin away from home

Ashwin dismissing Alastair Cook
Ashwin dismissing Alastair Cook with a wonder ball in 2018

Manjrekar’s major bone to pick with Ashwin, though, is his away record. “One basic problem that I have with Ashwin is that when you look at SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia), the countries for batsmen and bowlers, places where Indians find themselves outside their comfort zone – it’s amazing that he doesn’t have a single five-wicket haul. Not one five-wicket haul in all these countries,” Manjrekar commented.

Ashwin has taken 123 wickets away from home at an average of 31.18 in 31 Test matches. These numbers are world-class for a bowler operating well outside his comfort zone. In the SENA countries, he has 63 wickets in 20 Test matches. And in Manjrekar’s metric of the last four years, he has gone wicketless in an innings only twice. In one of those occasions, he bowled only the solitary over.

Even the five-wicket haul criteria, thrown twice in as many sentences for the viewer to choke on seems a stringent standard. It completely ignores context and circumstance. It is like comparing Tendulkar’s hundredth hundred against Bangladesh and calling it a better knock than his 98 against Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup.

Ian Chappell, one of the panellists, seemed quite befuddled with this argument of Manjrekar too and interjected making a valid point. The Australian said that other cricketers are considered “all-time greats” despite having average away records but that is never held against them as is with the Indian off spinner.

Ashwin and Lyon
Nathan Lyon (R) is a contemporary off spinner

“I will make a couple of points there. If you look at Joel Garner, how many five-wicket hauls did he get, given how good he was and his record. The other point I would make is, because of Ashwin’s reputation, the England players (referring to the last home Test series) probably concentrated more on keeping Ashwin out”.

Garner had 7 five-wicket hauls in his career and none in the subcontinent (played only in Pakistan). James Anderson, considered an all-time great, and widely regarded the best of this generation, has no five-wicket hauls in India and UAE (against Pakistan).

The Indian offie also averages a decent 26.46 with the bat away from home, scoring two centuries and four half centuries in the process. Two of these half centuries have come in Australia, to add to that ageless rear-guard action alongside Hanuma Vihari in Sydney.

Ashwin, Test records and Kohli’s nickname

Ashwin Kohli
Ashwin and Kohli posing with the Test Mace

If one were to solely look at statistics, like Manjrekar din, Ashwin is a stand out cricketer of the Test format. He has scored 100 runs and taken five wickets in an innings on three different occasions. That is more than Sir Garfield Sobers, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Jacques Kallis and is only behind Ian Botham. He is also the only Indian apart from Kapil Dev to amass 250 runs and take 20 wickets in the same series (vs England in 2016/17).

Ashwin is among only 13 cricketers in the history of the game to hold the record of having more than 2500 career runs and 250 career wickets in Test cricket. This list includes the illustrious names of Imran Khan, Sir Richard Hadlee, Ian Botham, Kapil Dev, Wasim Akram, Anil Kumble, Shane Warne, Chaimda Vaas, Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock, Daniel Vettori, and the only active cricketer, Stuart Broad.

His 409 wickets, 15th on the all-time list, is the most for any spinner currently active in the game. Ashwin is 13th in terms of most wickets picked in a calendar year, with 72 in 2016. He played 12 Tests that year, with four of them coming away from home. The Tamil Nadu man’s 30 five-wicket hauls and 7 ten-wicket hauls put him sixth on that all-time list.

Ashwin is the fastest bowler, in terms of matches taken, to claim 250, 300 and 350 Test wickets. He is the second fastest to 400 (behind the all-time highest wicket taker Muttiah Muralitharan) and the third fastest to 200. His 8 man of the series awards is third in the all-time list, only 3 behind the Sri Lankan off-spinner who is at the summit.

Is Ashwin then an all-time great? Perhaps it is too early to comment definitively, and he still has time left in the game to scale greater heights. But, to discard him lazily is unsound. Further, it trivializes India’s run to the top of Test cricket and their consistent perch on the zenith.

And if you are of the kind who would rather believe an expert, here is what Kohli had to say about Ashwin the last time they played together.

“We all need to stand up and be proud of what Ashwin has contributed. I told him I will call him ledge (legend) from today, he’s a modern-day legend,” said the captain.