Ever since India took the move to empower R Ashwin, the batsman, by placing him at No. 6, he has responded very well to it. The move was a vote of confidence in Ashwin's batting after significant contributions from lower down the order. His scores ever since have been indication of the faith being repayed in kind. Just like he took to bowling, the batting too has been an immediate success.
There have been comparisons made, purely because of batting style, with VVS Laxman. Ashwin appeared embarrassed about it after the end of the second day's play in Vizag. "I just hope the comparison [with Laxman] ends there," he laughed.
But the numbers, as is always the case with Ashwin, have been compelling. The ICC rankings rate him as the No 1 all-rounder in Tests. He has scored fifties, hundreds and has been a pivotal part of important innings resurrections.
In this Test, when he came in, India were looking to extend their first innings lead. In Rajkot, he walked in when India were looking at reducing the deficit. In West Indies, on more than one occasion, he walked in in the midst of a top-order collapse. In all of it, he made sure India were in a better situation when he walked out than when he came in.
If the innings were watched without context, you would find it hard to finger any difference in Ashwin's approach. He shields tail-enders on some instances but by and large he's happy performing the way he has been doing, and at a gear that allows him to make useful contributions. In the past he has mentioned that he was targetting a certain amount of deliveries to face rather than runs to score when batting. It is something that has helped him find his own zone, like the one he struck when scoring 58 in this Test. It allowed India to get a total of 455 after losing three quick wickets, and in real danger of being bowled out for less than 400 on a good batting pitch.
"Quite enjoying my batting, (I) tried staying a little positive. Obviously, with runs behind my back wherever I have gone, I have contributed heavily in the last four-five months. And generally, I mean there are some attacks where you feel confident out there. Ever since England toured here last time, I have been batting well against them, so that's a psychological advantage you carry into a game when (playing) against them. Obviously, I worked on a few things which I indicated in the West Indies as well, opened up my stance a little bit. It is working out really well and I am enjoying my batting to be really honest," said Ashwin at the end of the day's play.
There's little indication to cite an obvious weakness in his batting, particularly in conditions such as the ones in the subcontinent. Ashwin has earlier credited Sanjay Bangar, the team's batting coach, for recommending a more open stance that allows him to play a lot straighter. While batting in cricket has undergone a massive change just in terms of power-hitting and the ability to clear the boundary, Ashwin's technique and temperament, as evident, fits Test cricket perfectly.
Allowing the ball to come to him, getting a long stride out or going right back are coaching cliches that Ashwin still follows to the T, and still able to rank higher than others around him. A sound temperament allows him to understand situations better. He shielded the last batsman in Rajkot when India were looking to get as close to England's total as possible. In Vizag, he was constantly in the ear of Jayant Yadav, the debutant, and allowed him to play with confidence.
As much as the ICC rankings say otherwise, these are still early days in Ashwin, the No 6's, career. So far, he has managed to match or exceed expectations that come towards him. It might remain the key to his success. That he has talent is unquestionable. So far, India have used him as a makeshift all-rounder. Someone whose runs aren't mandatory but a luxury. In it, Ashwin has carved a niche for himself. But with time and such performances, expectations too will increase. Oppositions will study his batting with a lot more intent to pick flaws in the game and target them, there might be occasions where he is needed to score at a certain clip etc. To tackle those, Ashwin might not yet possess the technical nous but has the temperament gained from bowling success.
"I pride myself on having high benchmarks. I am always compared against what I have performed in the past. That's a good thing. Like I have always mentioned, I compete with myself. So actually, people comparing my performance to my own is good," he said with reference to his bowling.
If he goes on to does the same with his batting as well, there may well come a time when he will be elbowing a few specialist batsmen for their slots.