R Ashwin's smile after India won a tense match at the WACA was broader than when he stepped up to receive the first Man-of-the-Match award of his ODI career a short while later. In sport, photographs freeze individuals and allow viewers to distil a sportsperson's mistakes or success into a single frame of reference. If this match ends up being a turning point for Ashwin and a struggling Indian team, we may well be able to look back at pictures of a relieved Ashwin beaming after a miscued drive landed safely between three Sri Lankan fielders and ensured India their first overseas ODI win since July 11, 2011.
Ashwin was all over this match. He stamped his presence with the ball and, heroically, with the bat. Without him, victory would have been impossible. In the first half of the day he bowled with exceptional control on guile – for the first time this tour – on a Perth wicket affording him bounce at last to take 3 for 32. In the latter half, under lights and with India's chase unravelling quick, Ashwin kept his nerve to score a cool unbeaten 30 off 38 balls. This was just the match he needed to remind his detractors of what he's capable of.
Ultimately it will be his batting that will provide Indian fans with the lasting memory of this much-needed victory, but Ashwin's bowling played a big role on the outcome. He came into this match with critics questioning his effectiveness after a disappointing Test series (nine wickets at 62.77) in which Ashwin relied too much on the carom ball and eventually becoming too predictable. In the two Twenty20s against Australia – a format in which Ashwin thrives – he bowled eight overs for one wicket while conceding 57 runs. It was a similar story of predictability.
At Melbourne, during the rain-hit first ODI, he bled 48 runs from five wicketless overs. His line was largely middle-and-leg, which allowed Matthew Wade and the Hussey brothers to freely swing Ashwin over mid-on and square leg. When he went off-side Ashwin was too short and the batsmen cut him easily. At the WACA, though, Ashwin got it all together, especially during the Powerplays.
Alongside Zaheer Khan and backed by some sharp fielding, Ashwin took the clutch of big wickets while bowling 14 of 20 Powerplay overs that resulted in four wickets for 42 runs – while between him and Jadeja, the only spinners employed, he conceded 73 runs in 20 overs. Therein lay India's success in keeping Sri Lanka to an attainable score.
With Praveen Kumar and Vinay Kumar off-colour today, India needed something special from Ashwin and they got just that. He led the way during the bowling Powerplay with three overs for seven runs, including a maiden. The success in this Powerplay went to Zaheer, who returned and extracted Kumar Sangakkara with his fourth ball, but Ashwin's three tidy overs were as crucial.
Sri Lanka took the batting Powerplay after 34 overs, at 149 for 3, and proceeded to lose their way. Ashwin was again outstanding during this period, bowling three overs for nine runs and picking up the wicket of Mahela Jayawardene. His nagging line forced the Sri Lankan captain into indiscretion; sweeping across his stumps he was well held by Rohit Sharma at deep square leg.
Across two Powerplays, Ashwin had figures of 6-1-16-2. He wasn't finished, and picked up wickets in the 40th and 44th overs. Both times the batsmen were beaten in flight, with an alert MS Dhoni completing quick stumpings. The wickets of Jayawardene, the big-hitting Thisara Perera and innings top-scorer Dinesh Chandimal were big wickets, and Ashwin's success owed to the right line and length and plenty of bounce from the WACA pitch. Like all good offspinners Ashwin thrives on assistance from the surface, and assistance was what he got today.
If he thought he was done for the day, Ashwin was wrong. After another shoddy batting display from India – loose shots consumed Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Rohit and Dhoni – it was left to Virat Kohli to take India home, but his senseless run out for 77 left the equation at 54 runs from 84 balls with four wickets remaining. With Ashwin at the crease was Ravindra Jadeja, the owner of five ODI half-centuries but none that had ever come in an Indian win. The stage was primed for another defeat.
But Ashwin, through smart judgement and risk-free batting, slowly chipped away at the required runs. He covered the stumps, displayed the footwork of a seasoned batsman and pulled out some lovely shots. His playing of Sri Lanka's chief wicket-taker Lasith Malinga was excellent and proved a decisive passage in the victory. He came well forward to Malinga, in expectancy of the full deliveries. He didn't shy away from driving and this shot yielded much-needed runs. Most impressive, however, was Ashwin's on-side play. He covered the line and played with a straight bat, keeping the ball along the ground when he clipped and drove the quick bowlers. As the target was whittled down, Ashwin punched a length delivery from Malinga into the gap between extra cover and mid-off for four, and levelled the scores with a lovely short-arm jab for four off Dhammika Prasad.
Then came that miscued shot, which three fielders failed to judge. Had the catch been taken it would not have affected the end result, but it would have denied Ashwin the chance to smile. That beaming face could prove a lasting memory of this Australian tour.