"When adversities grow, the team comes together," Ravichandran Ashwin said at the end of day 4 of the Sydney Test.
When he marked his guard on the final day of the third Test match, the adversities couldn't have been greater.
After having conceded a first innings lead of 94 on a deteriorating pitch which was expected to turn almost unplayable come the last day of the Test, India were faced with an improbable target of 407.
To put things in perspective, the highest successful run chase in the history of Test cricket was achieved by West Indies against Australia when they scored 418/7 in their final innings in 2003.
On Australian soil, South Africa hold the record of the highest successful run chase in the final innings, overhauling 414 in 2008.
The next best successful chase in Tests on Australian soil is 369. In effect, India had to chase down the second highest total in the history of Test cricket on Australian soil to win the match. Dead batting for 97 overs seemed an even more daunting task.
To add to India's woes, the team was jolted after ugly injuries to Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja. India had lost both their openers overnight and stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane was dismissed on the 10th ball of the day off a Nathan Lyon delivery that spat off the surface.
Ashwin had just seen 'The New Wall' being knocked over by a Josh Hazlewood snorter which swung away in the air and seamed in off the surface to rattle Cheteshwar Pujara's stumps. His batting partner Hanuma Vihari had torn his hamstring and was almost immobile.
If that was not enough, Ashwin had tweaked his back on the eve of the final day and was not even able to tie his shoelaces. If there is a textbook definition of having your backs against the wall in alien conditions, against arguably the best bowling attack in the world and with several players down, it was it.
Ashwin, The Batsman
Right after tea on day 5, Ashwin was peppered with short deliveries, and short deliveries that would test the defences of even the best of batsmen.
He did try his best but appeared like a cat on a hot tin roof as he took one body blow after another. To be fair, he could have been dismissed five to six times during that 20-30 ball burst as Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood went all-out at him. Wincing in pain after blows to the ribs and the fingers, Ashwin did not budge. He was on a mission.
Ashwin, the batsman is a bit of an enigma. He, in fact, used to open for India under 17’s at one point which shows in his technique.
When on song, the 34-year-old is extremely pleasing on the eye. But, the last few years have been terrible for Ashwin, the batsman.
Despite having four Test centuries and 11 half-centuries to his name, Ashwin has averaged 17.07 in 2017, 20.40 in 2018, 12.00 in 2019 and 6.60 in 2020. It has been a good four years now that his batting has tapered off. The contrast gets even starker when you glance at his batting average of 43.71 in 2016.
However, when he was thrust in the occasion with added responsibility, Ashwin drew on his batting talent and fuelled it with application to give a glimpse of the pre-2017 Ashwin.
In fact, his front foot defence with an outstretched stride, the bat pointing downwards, the softness of the grip and the impeccable judgement of line and length was a master class for even the top order batsmen on handling spin on a day 5 pitch.
The extra pace of the Australian quicks did trouble him but Ashwin eventually negotiated it well enough to last 128 deliveries and see India home in what was an escape for the ages.
Ashwin, The Bowler
When Ashwin arrived on Australian shores for this Test series, he had 365 wickets from 71 matches. Despite these glowing numbers, it was ridiculous that his place in the starting XI was being questioned. But you could see the logic behind the argument after his bowling average of 42.19 in Australia was thrown at you - his second-worst, behind South Africa.
However, this time - on his fourth tour to Australia - Ashwin fine tuned his game. He flew into the country with set plans (read leg trap) that had even Steve Smith at sea for the first two matches. His control has improved beyond sight and his wizardry over variations in pace has stood out.
As a result, with 75% of the series done, Ashwin is the second-highest wicket-taker with 12 scalps at 28.83. Surely, he has done enough to establish himself as India’s premier spinner, both at home and away.
Ashwin, The Leader
Now, to the most interesting bit - Ashwin, the leader. The more you listen to Ashwin talk tactics in post-match presentations, press conferences and interviews, you realise, one, how tactically sharp the offie is, and two, how much thought he puts behind everything he does on the field.
It is common for the tinkerman to set his own fields and display leadership qualities in crunch situations, but in the absence of India's full-time captain, these qualities have been further highlighted.
After India's 36-run capitulation at Adelaide, the way Ashwin, Cheteshwar Pujara and Jasprit Bumrah formed a leadership group along with Ajinkya Rahane, with Ashwin even leading the conversation in the huddle at times, was refreshing to see. The way he spoke his mind about racial abuse in Sydney and stood by Mohammed Siraj was also admirable.
When India were challenged with serious adversity, with them fighting to save the Test match after being battered and bruised, Ashwin took on the added responsibility and played the most gritty knock of his Test career.
Last but not the least, when faced with banter/sledging/mental disintegration tactics from Tim Paine, Ashwin's repartee was straight from a Tollywood flick - "tell me when you are done".
Having aced the challenge on each of the batting, bowling and leadership front, perhaps the words fit the bill for his critics as well.