Ashwin, Jadeja say 'hello again'

Ravindra Jadeja and Virat Kohli celebrate Angelo Mathews' wicket
India v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Nagpur, 1st day November 24, 2017

What does Lahiru Thirimanne hate more than anything else? On Friday, the answer seemed to be "getting out lbw to offspin".

He began his innings in the fifth over of the day, and stayed at the crease until the 25th. In that time he faced 21 balls from R Ashwin, all from round the wicket. Thirimanne's response to each of them seemed to be built around making sure that his front pad wasn't in the way of the ball in the event that it didn't turn, and instead went with the angle into his stumps. Each time he needed to get on the front foot, he planted it straight down the pitch, and never across towards the line of the ball.

Ashwin was clued into this, and every now and then floated one wide of off stump to invite the drive, and invite that front pad to move across a little. He had three fielders to protect the drive: cover, short-extra cover, mid-off.

Thirimanne, however, refused to move his front pad across, and he ended up having to reach for the ball. Each of his drives went to backward point: sliced, steered, never really stroked with a straight bat.

Over after over, when he was on strike to Ashwin, Thirimanne kept blocking the regular off-stump line and hitting the wider ones to backward point.

At the other end, he barely scored a run against Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma, who bowled round the wicket to him with six fielders on the off side: two slips, backward point, catching cover point, catching mid-off, and a deepish cover between the two. The two quicks landed everything on a good length, barely ever straying towards the pads of Thirimanne or Dimuth Karunaratne, the two left-handers in the middle. Dot ball followed dot ball followed dot ball.

During Thirimanne's time at the crease, Sri Lanka scored 24 runs in 20.1 overs. Thirimanne made nine of those runs, off 58 balls. When it arrived, his dismissal seemed inevitable. Ashwin moved silly point to short leg, and perhaps mindful of that fielder's threat if he kept defending with bat in front of pad, Thirimanne went for the hard, square sweep. Once again, however, Thirimanne didn't get his front pad across, and when he missed, he left an unimpeded path between Ashwin's slider and the stumps. Bowled, while looking to guard against lbw.

Bowled and lbw was the story of the day, particularly against India's spinners. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja shared seven wickets, and five were either bowled or lbw. Four of them were the result of natural variation.

Ashwin flicked the edge of Dasun Shanaka's off stump with a beauty that slipped past his outside edge, continuing on with the round-the-wicket angle. In his previous over, he had ripped one into Shanaka from virtually the same spot on the pitch, and an inside edge had flown just wide of leg gully.

Jadeja's dismissals of Angelo Mathews and Dilruwan Perera were classic Jadeja wickets: Mathews trapped half-forward, Perera trapped on the back foot, by balls pitching on the perfect length and skidding on with the angle. Both times, Jadeja's pace and trajectory gave the batsmen no chance to recover.

This, of course, is how Ashwin and Jadeja operate on the subcontinent. Threaten both edges of the bat, threaten the stumps at all times. Before their tour began, Sri Lanka will have expected this to be their biggest test.

Instead, they only faced 10 overs of Ashwin and Jadeja in the first Test, on a green Eden Gardens pitch built to India's specifications. Here, too, at the VCA Stadium, an unnatural amount of grass - imagine how the South African tourists of 2015 may have chuckled looking at this pitch - topped the surface. This was meant to be round two of India's preparation for their tour of South Africa.

Nagpur isn't Kolkata, however, particularly with regards to weather and overhead conditions, and grass can only do so much to a pitch that has turn in its DNA. It wasn't extravagant turn, and the bounce was consistent, but it was enough to make Ashwin and Jadeja smile, grab the ball from their captain, and tell him: "we'll take over from here."

To Sri Lanka, they simply said, "hello again".

The parallel narrative, however, wasn't entirely abandoned. In the 79.1 overs they took to bowl Sri Lanka out, India gleaned a little more knowledge to take to South Africa.

The two fast bowlers were perhaps auditioning for the third seamer's role, and both were impressively disciplined in the first session while bowling to Thirimanne and Karunaratne. Ishant, though, kept asking the difficult questions more frequently, and will be pleased that all three of his wickets came from the fuller side of a good length. The ball that dismissed Karunaratne was pitched full enough - according to both on-field umpire and ball-tracking - to pitch in line with leg stump and hit off stump, while not moving too much, and earned him a rare lbw of a left-hander from over the wicket.

Umesh, as he can do sometimes, bowled a few loose ones in his afternoon spells, overpitching while striving for reverse-swing and occasionally providing width. He also has a tendency to bowl less well in conditions he is theoretically better suited to. After what seemed a breakthrough series against Australia earlier this year, this issue seemed to resurface in Kolkata, where he went at more than four an over while looking far less threatening than Mohammed Shami or Bhuvneshwar Kumar on a pitch made of fast bowlers' favourite dreams.

After day one in Nagpur, it looked as if Ishant might have moved back ahead of Umesh in India's fast-bowling queue. Either way, they continued to reinforce India's depth of seam options - when all four of their main quicks are fit. Shami remains a concern on that front: he missed out with a hip niggle.

On Thursday, Virat Kohli had spoken of the difficulty of fitting both Ashwin and Jadeja into India's XI when they play overseas. He hinted that their selection could hinge on the distribution of right- and left-handers in the opposition line-up, highlighting the threat posed by the angle into their stumps and the odd ball turning away.

On Friday, Ashwin dismissed two left-handers and two right-handers (one of whom was playing a reverse-sweep) and Jadeja two right-handers and one left-hander.

Which one would you pick, if you were the captain? Someone asked Jadeja this question in his press conference at the end of the day's play.

"Yeh bhi koi poochne ki baat hai [Are you really asking me this]?" was his response. "It's a no-brainer. If I am the captain, I will not even give the ball to anyone. I will keep bowling from one end."

Then he laughed, and echoed what his captain had said.

"It depends on team's balance, what the team wants. At times on overseas tours, we assess if there are more lefties or right-handers in the opposition and accordingly the team's composition is set."

When asked if competing with Ashwin for one slot overseas put extra pressure on him, Jadeja said he could "only control the controllables."

"When I get an opportunity, I will try to do well," he said. "What is not in my control, there is no point thinking about it. When I get a chance to play in South Africa, I will try to do well. When I got a chance last time, I played the second Test after Ash played the first. That's why I said that team's combination will depend on the composition of the opposition - the number of lefties or right-handers."

Here is the top seven that could potentially face India in Cape Town: Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock. Five right-handers, two left-handers. India's decision of which spinner to pick, then, might not be too difficult, but given just how good both of them are, the decision of which one to leave out certainly will be.

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