Our annual Lord Megachief of Gold award is the highest honour in cricket. The title is recognition of performance over the previous calendar year. Here are all the winners.
A nod for Ben Stokes’ relentless Test excellence (904 runs at 45.2 and 33 wickets at 25.81); a second nod for Virat Kohli’s performance across all formats, which included 1,215 Test runs at 75.93; and a third nod for the homicidal capybara Rangana Herath, who took 57 wickets at 18.92.
However, this year’s Lord Megachief of Gold is R Ashwin, a man who can’t so much as look at a cricket ball without winning a Test match for India.
R Ashwin took 72 Test wickets at 23.9 in 2016 and also scored 612 runs at 43.71 during his downtime, which he mostly likes to spend with a bat in his hand. He is a strike bowler who does the donkey work who also bats well enough that his side can field an extra bowler. If his captain is higher profile, it is Ashwin who India would miss most.
To repeat a point we made a few weeks ago, pit a team of 11 Ashwins against one comprising 11 of any other individual player and the Ashwin XI would surely come out on top after the two teams had come up against each other home and away.
We’ll come to the bowling in a second, because that’s the heart of the matter, but before we do that it’s worth closing this section by pointing out that only three Indian batsmen scored more runs than him in 2016.
R Ashwin is not a mystery spinner. Mystery spin – in the form of the carrom ball – is just something he resorts to when necessary, or when he thinks the pitch suits that particular delivery. Once upon a time, mystery spin was something to aspire to, but Ashwin has transcended it. It is something he is occasionally reduced to.
Mystery spin is Plan B because Plan A generally works pretty well. Against England, Ashwin took 28 wickets, including three five-fors and that was far and away his least successful series of the year. In the West Indies, he took 17 wickets at 23.17 (while averaging 58.75 with the bat) and against New Zealand, he took 27 wickets in three Tests at an average of 17.77.
In all honesty, 2015 was probably more impressive in terms of his returns with the ball, but that is arguably what’s so admirable. This has been a continuation; a meeting of already lofty expectations.
Ashwin took no wickets in the first 2016 Test innings in which he bowled (against the West Indies). In the second innings, he took 7-83 and India won the match. Even when he seemingly lets India down – such as when they drew the next Test – you see that he still took 5-52 in the first innings.
Like a badly-trained dog, he has never been down for long. A slow start in the first Test against England was followed by 5-67 in the first innings of the second. As a UK website, we focused on the England batsmen’s response to pressure, but that pressure didn’t come out of thin air. It fizzed down, out of R Ashwin’s right hand.
The series against New Zealand was pretty much relentless wicket-taking.
As he skips around the outfield like a primitive robot inexplicably constructed out of wet concrete, you remember that R Ashwin isn’t actually flawless. Far from it. He is a trier. He is a ponderous and pondering man who has methodically hewn himself into the most influential cricketer around.
He is the nerdiest nerd who delivers the least fashionable style of bowling. He approaches the crease as if both his arms have been stuck on inside-out, indulges in a brief prance and then delivers the ball without the least bit of ceremony.
And it works.
Thanks to India’s flat, lifeless pitches, R Ashwin averages 33.55 with the bat. Because of India’s rank turners, he averages 24.29 with the ball.
Or could it be that R Ashwin is India’s best cricketer?
We’ve covered this kind of thing before, but you reach our age and you no longer live in fear of repeating yourself. If we didn’t say things we’d already said, we’d hardly say anything at all.
Our recurring utterances don’t even have to be in the least bit insightful. The phrase we currently use most frequently is: “You’re a cat” – a statement which we (accurately) address to Monty. It’s not entirely clear for whose benefit we voice this reminder. Probably our own in a forlorn and paradoxical bid to slow our decline into fully unhinged Doctor Doolittledom.
Now for the repetition. As we’ve said before, we always find ourself disproportionately annoyed when some commentator or other (probably Michael Vaughan) refers to a batsman as being that team’s “best player”.
Best batsman, yes. Best player, no – never. Test cricket is not a game of run accumulation. It is a game of wicket-taking-while-limiting-the-opposition’s-run-scoring.
To win Tests, you need good bowlers. Ashwin is undeniably that. Bowlers are also obliged to bat and Ashwin is perfectly competent in that discipline too.
But more than anything, the best players elevate themselves by meeting high expectations. It is one thing to take five wickets in an innings. It is another to do it when people expect you to.
After ten wickets in the first Test, four in the second and six in the first innings of the third Test, R Ashwin was widely expected to take a few more. The fact that it was a wearing pitch and New Zealand were batting last certainly didn’t negate this. He took 7-59.
Surely by now India must realise there is no excuse for dropping this man for away Tests. It doesn’t matter what the conditions, this is a cricketer whose results brook no argument.
Sort it out, India. Don’t make us repeat ourself.
Probably. We wouldn’t blame them one bit.
Imagine being down the pub with your mates, talking about cricket. The company’s good, the beverages are exquisite: you’re in your element. The next day, you find yourself in an overpriced city centre drink hole along with some colleagues. They’re talking about potential comings and goings during football’s winter transfer window. You stand awkwardly, sipping some sort of acrid liquid which you’d assumed was the best option available to you. You’re not in your element.
In his last international match – a Test match against South Africa in Delhi – R Ashwin bowled 49.1 overs in the second innings, taking 5-61. He took 31 wickets in the series at an average of 11.12, conceding 2.09 runs an over. For his part, Ravindra Jadeja took 23 wickets at 10.82 and conceded 1.76 runs an over.
The pair were strike bowlers, holding bowlers and they barely took a break. They did everything.
But cricket encompasses a lot. Today, in a one-day international against Australia, Ashwin took 2-68 off nine and Jadeja 0-61 off nine. They were bit-part players and, but for Ashwin’s wickets, it could even be argued that they were liabilities.
So it goes. Sometimes all you can do is sip your Amstel and try and make the best of things.
He says he doesn’t. He says the fact that he asks questions indicates only that he’s ‘a learner’.
It’s hard to disagree with this assessment, but then you read his recent interview with Sidharth Monga for Cricinfo and you start to wonder. He has a way of talking about bowling that makes you want to slope off and talk to someone else for a bit.
“I was pretty interested in the kind of balance I was managing at the crease. I felt I was not in the best balanced position to deliver the entire momentum towards the batsman.
“Whatever I gather as momentum of my run-up and my loading is all destined to put the ball into the batsman’s half. So I will have to translate each bit of it into the ball before I deliver it. And if I dissipate any of my energy before I deliver it, I am losing out on my maximum force or maximum penetration.
“To be in the best balanced position is the best possible way to put the ball at the maximum penetration. I felt I was being a little imbalanced.”
Then, perhaps aware how this might come across, he translates all of that for us: “I felt like I was falling over.”
He also said that like an old ZX Spectrum, he had ‘a loading issue’. “Whatever happens in the lower body is in direct relation to what is happening in the upper body, as far as bowling is concerned,” he sort-of-explains.
“In Adelaide I was playing around with my loading positions with my right hand. When that was happening I suddenly discovered something.
“I felt like there was more cocking to the wrist. There were revolutions on the ball. The amount of finger-split I use on the ball was completely coming into use. There was more uncoiling and coiling.”
We can feel you pondering the finger-split coming into use and the additional uncoiling and coiling. We can see you pondering it and pondering and ultimately drifting into a stupor.
It’s all rather baffling. In fact some of it’s so baffling it sounds like it’s comes out of the mouth of Mark E Smith. Trust us, even in context the following makes no sense.
“One times two is two. Two times two is four. If you teach a first-standard kid today, tomorrow he is bound to forget the multiplication table.
“It happens with a cricketer also. It is a completely new skill. It is an education in itself. Patience – I find it extremely clichéd. It is not pertinent to only the game.”
We do however like the poetry of this comment about his lifestyle when he was younger.
“When I was playing first-class cricket, sometimes I used to go to sleep at 11.30 in the night. And wake up at 6.30. Not exactly have my box of nuts. Not exactly drink my water.”
But if the rhythm of that’s nice, it’s still not clear. It’s almost as if he feels there’s some sort of risk in being straightforward.
“So what is the risk I am taking by being straightforward? By being straightforward I am being mistaken for being a person that I am not. On the other hand, if I am not straightforward, I lose happiness.”
Presumably he’s not exactly on top of the world right now.
R Ashwin is a good batsman, but no-one considers him to be one of the best six batsman in India. In that case, why is it that he seems to be thriving with the bat while the specialists are batting like a big bag of grundle?
There’s no simple answer. We’re talking about a whole bunch of players and a range of different dismissals. They’re also up against a fast bowler, a swing bowler, an off-spinner and a slow left-armer in this Test – England are ticking many boxes (metaphorical ones, not the nad protectors).
But still, Ashwin’s managed to do okay. It’s a shame he isn’t bowling as well as he’s batting really and it does beg the question as to what that batting grit is worth. When judging him as an international cricketer, his batting skill’s almost irrelevant at this point, but does his resilience and fight mean anything for his future, which presumably hinges on the quality of his bowling?
Bowlers who can bat are great, but the bowling has to come first. It is non-negotiable. It is a necessary qualification for inclusion in a team. If there’s admirable competitiveness latent in Ashwin, he doesn’t currently seem to be able to make use of it with the ball, which is where it’s really needed.
It’s kind of like us. If we could employ the same diplomacy with our colleagues and managers as we use with the toaster, we’d be onto a winner. We have never once told the toaster that it has had a really, really, monumentally stupid idea that betrays a total lack of understanding of what we are trying to achieve. We need to translate that kind of interaction into our professional life.
We like R Ashwin. He seems… keen.
He’s talented too, but talented players are ten-a-penny. Who cares about them? No, what we like is a stony face when someone runs in to bowl; a face that says: ‘Shut up, I’m working. No, seriously, stop it. I’m trying to concentrate. I’ve got to get this finished otherwise I won’t be able to leave on time and I hate – absolutely HATE – staying late’ – that kind of face.
R Ashwin has replaced Harbhajan Singh in the side. We wouldn’t say Harbhajan became complacent exactly, but he did start to cling to his own record and past reputation a little too tightly.
Speaking to us in a fictional interview, Harbhajan reacted to Ashwin’s hundred and five-for against the Windies in Mumbai by saying:
“Obviously, as a senior player, I’m delighted for him. It’s great to see that I’ve mentored these youngsters so well and if they ever want more advice, they know they can count on me as a senior player.
“His performance in this match brings to mind my own in Cape Town earlier in the year. As a senior player, I made a whirlwind 40 and took 7-195 on a pitch that was tougher for both batting and bowling than this one.
“Hopefully, one day, Ashwin will become a senior player and will replicate such astonishing feats. Also, while we’re on this subject, I think it’s important to emphasise that I’m a senior player.”