What happens once Ashwin and Jadeja retire from Test cricket?

There is a lack of quality off-spinners in Indian cricket, and it could hurt them in the near future

India have multiple answers to “what happens when Ravindra Jadeja retires from Test cricket”, but the same can’t be said if you put R Ashwin’s name in there. Let’s put it this way, it would be easier for you to name five replacements for Jadeja than name even one for Ashwin. For some reason, there is a lack of quality off-spinners in the domestic circuit, and it could hurt India in the near future.

The two aforementioned spinners have been the biggest reason why India have a scary record at home in the last 10 years. Since 2012, they have lost just five of their 52 home Tests, and only two of those have come with both Ashwin and Jadeja in the XI. However, Ashwin is now 36, and Jadeja is 34, and it’s highly unlikely that they will be around for more than one World Test Championship cycle. So, are India ready for a life without their two ace spinners?

Well, in Jadeja’s case, the answer is yes. There is Axar Patel, who is already part of the set-up and has proven his worth at the international level. There are enough of his kind at the domestic level as well: Saurabh Kumar, Shams Mulani, R Sai Kishore, Kumar Kartikeya, Shahbaz Ahmed, Abid Mushtaq, Manav Suthar… we can keep going. Wait, you want a left-arm spinner with the same surname? We have got Dharmendrasinh Jadeja.

But things get complicated once you start looking for an off-spinner. Honestly, India doesn’t have a single readymade replacement for Ashwin. Jalaj Saxena, K Gowtham, Jayant Yadav and Akshay Wakhare have consistently produced good numbers in domestic cricket, but all of them are above 33. Washington Sundar has played four Tests but has impressed more with the bat than the ball. Meanwhile, the likes of Saransh Jain, Pulkit Narang and Tanush Kotian are still raw, with none of them having played for India A yet.

Also, considering India doesn’t have too many quality fast-bowling all-rounders, the selectors and the management like spinners who can offer something with the bat. Jadeja has been one of India’s best batters in the last few years, while Ashwin has played many match-saving and match-winning knocks in the past. Axar too has already played quite a few impactful knocks in his 12-Test career, especially in the home series against Australia.

Let’s look at some of the left-arm spinners India have in their arsenal. Axar is 29 and is most likely to take that No. 6/7 spot once Jadeja hangs up his boots. Then there is Uttar Pradesh’s Saurabh, who received a call-up for a Test series against Sri Lanka last year but didn’t get to play a game. The 30-year-old has been one of the leading wicket-takers in the last two-three years in domestic cricket and also has a superb record for India A, taking 28 wickets in six games @ 21.5. 

Saurabh is no mug with the bat either, averaging 27.05 in first-class cricket, but he is not as good as Mumbai’s Shams Mulani. The 26-year-old not only averages 37.96 with the bat but has also been consistent in the last three editions of the Ranji Trophy. In this period, Mulani has claimed 117 wickets in 37 innings @ 22.7. In red-ball cricket since 2020, Ashwin is the only Indian bowler to take more wickets than Mulani.

Shahbaz Ahmed is one more option India can explore. The spin-bowling all-rounder has been the heart and soul of Bengal since his debut in 2018. With an average of 42.13, the 28-year-old is the best batter amongst the lot and has already played three ODIs. His batting has improved even more since 2022, with him averaging 50 in 15 first-class encounters. These are some of the serious contenders, but there are many more options available in the domestic circuit.

Abid Mushtaq from Jammu and Kashmir is another one to watch out for. The 26-year-old bowling all-rounder averages 19.63 in 20 first-class games and has done well against some of the heavyweights of domestic cricket. In December last year, Mushtaq took 8/18 against Vidarbha to help J&K defend 141. He also has a six-wicket haul against Karnataka and five-fers against Punjab and Jharkhand. Manav Suthar, who is part of the India A squad for the emerging Asia Cup 2023, is another name you would be hearing a lot about in the future. 

Let’s talk about the real problem: who is India’s next off-spinner? Saxena, Rasool and Gowtham have been the most successful off-spinners in first-class cricket since 2020, while Jayant and Wakhare have also produced decent numbers, but none of them are for the future. Nothing against them, but it was always going to be difficult for them to break into the Indian side, with Ashwin being their competition.

Services’ Narang and Madhya Pradesh’s Saransh are two names the selectors would be closely monitoring. The latter made his FC debut in 2014 but has only become a consistent member in the last two years. The 30-year-old has 55 wickets at an average of 24 in this period, while Narang has 61 @ 24.6. There’s not much to pick from, but the problem remains the same. If Ashwin goes on for at least two more years, both Saransh and Narang would be close to 32 and could end up being stopgaps. 

One thing that India can do is get someone like Washington or Kotian in the top seven and then play a wrist-spinner, which will give India a lot of variety, especially in home conditions. Kotian has only featured in 16 first-class games for Mumbai. The 24-year-old averages 43.33 with the bat and 32.32 with the ball but still hasn’t played enough to get into the India A set-up. The obvious pick, as of now, would be Washington. 

The 23-year-old from Tamil Nadu has already played five Tests and would have played at least a few more if not for his tryst with injuries. The left-handed batter averages 66.25 in six innings, studded with three fifties. And all of his runs have come against Australia and England. He first made an impact on the bouncy surface in Brisbane and then did well on the turning tracks in India. Washington hasn’t done much with the ball, but him and Axar down the order can give India the batting depth they always look for.

The moment you draft in Washington, you are compromising on bowling, and that’s where a wrist-spinner can come into play. Former head coach Ravi Shastri said Kuldeep Yadav would be India’s No. 1 overseas spinner after his exploits in Sydney in 2019, but the left-arm wrist spinner has featured in only two Tests since then. In fact, he has played just six red-ball matches in the last four years.

Kuldeep would still be India’s first pick if the selectors go around looking for a wrist spinner, but someone like Mayank Markande and Rahul Chahar could also come into contention. The latter played a lot of red-ball cricket in 2018 and 2019 and even played five games for India A. However, Chahar has played just four first-class games since 2020. Meanwhile, Markande had a good Ranji Trophy 2022-23, taking 22 scalps at an average of 22.95.

There’s still some time left before Ashwin and Jadeja are done with Test cricket, but the management will have to keep the replacements ready, especially for Ashwin. It’s always an advantage to have a world-class off-spinner, even more, if the opponent have a couple of left-handers in their line-up. India have a dominating record at home, but it could all change if they fail to find the right replacement for Ashwin.  

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