When Ajinkya Rahane holed out to mid-wicket on Day one of the first Test against the West Indies, Wriddhiman Saha was expected to walk in to join Virat Kohli. After all, the wicketkeeper batsman was supposed to be at No.6 with India fielding five specialist bowlers.
Instead, Ravichandran Ashwin strode out and answered the call with a century. While Ashwin was always known for his stable batting, it was the first time the off-spinner had batted at a position greater than No. 7 in Test cricket. What does this move entail for India in the near future?
Let us first have a look at what the No. 6 spot has meant for India over the last few years. During the early and mid-2000s, India had enough stability at that spot given the presence of Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman. However post Ganguly’s retirement, India haven’t had a stable No. 6 and at times, it has become a factory for young talent.
Here are the statistics of India’s No. 6 batsmen after Ganguly’s retirement in November 2008:
*Since December 2008. List does not include night-watchmen.
MS Dhoni has been India’s most successful batsman at No. 6 after the Ganguly-era. Dhoni batted at that spot mostly when India has had Ravindra Jadeja as the all-rounder. His best Test score also came there and he had a decent run whenever he moved from his usual No. 7. Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina were rather long-term options at No. 6 but their form fell away and they were ultimately left out of the Test squad. Cheteshwar Pujara started his career there before Rahul Dravid’s retirement left a vacancy at No. 3. Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane did well in their initial days at No. 6 before being promoted in the batting order. Rohit Sharma has blown hot and cold, without cementing his place in the side. Even the young KL Rahul essayed his first Test innings at No. 6.
Ashwin is the latest entrant in the club. Success in the first outing may allow him a longer run given India’s strategy of playing five frontline bowlers. Kohli has backed Ashwin’s batting ability and pointed out after the game that this strategy allows India a longer batting line-up as the wicketkeeper-batsman drops down to No. 7. But, how feasible is this in the long run?
Perhaps, in more testing conditions, India would do well to play a specialist batsman at No. 6. In conditions that may favour the bowlers, beefing up the batting may make more sense.
For example, in Delhi last year, India played six batsmen and the wicketkeeper against South Africa. The pitch in Delhi was better for batting when compared to the other tracks in that series, but having a strong batting line-up for that game was plausible. Likewise, in seaming conditions, you may need the extra batsman. That is not to say that Ashwin doesn’t have the ability to play in such conditions. There have been times in overseas games where he has looked assured in tough situations.
Ashwin is the No. 1 ranked Test all-rounder at the time of writing. If one is to classify him after his latest performance, one would still put him to be a bowling all-rounder. He may have ambitions of becoming a full-fledged all-rounder, which may well be possible. There have been players in the past who have moved up the batting order and became reliable batsmen to back their bowling. If Ashwin is to make the transition, it may take some time. The West Indies series may well be the start and for now, his batting at No. 6 is backing Kohli’s aggressive five-bowler strategy.
By Nishad Vaidya
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Mumbai-based sports media professional, journalist and anchor)