"Within my mind, this was probably one of the relaxed days of my cricket career," says Ashwin. © BCCI

“Within my mind, this was probably one of the relaxed days of my cricket career,” says Ashwin. © BCCI

R Ashwin said that the last session of Saturday’s (January 13) play in the second Test against South Africa was crucial for the Indian team, and would make things much easier on the second morning. South Africa lost four wickets in the session, including three in 14 balls, to end the day on 269 for 6, with Faf du Plessis (24*) and Keshav Maharaj (10*) at the crease.

Ashwin, who was India’s best bowler on the day and took 3 for 90 in 31 overs, said the final session would gee the team up. “I feel those wickets in the last session are a very valid incentive for the team going into day two,” felt Ashwin. “If they had not lost so many wickets in the last session, two run-outs which were extraordinary work by Hardik and a bit of luck for us, without that I think they would have had batsmen walking in tomorrow morning and making it harder work for us. The new ball isn’t doing a lot actually. The pitch is actually flattening out and spin is going out of the surface a lot more. I think Days 2 and 3 will be very good batting days.”

India went wicketless in the opening session, but Ashwin got both openers – Aiden Markram and Dean Elgar – in the post-lunch session to keep India from being completely batted out of the contest.

“Actually I wanted to try and change angles a lot more and the fast bowlers weren’t getting enough, I mean there was hardly anything for the fast bowlers at all,” he said about his bowling plan while the South African top order was going smoothly. “If at all there was something we were trying to get some reverse swing going and try and probably get a few catches in front of the wicket. Those are the kind of plans we were thinking, but as a spinner I had very little opportunities to try, very little pockets to try (something different). If you got a wicket then for the next two-three overs you could try a little bit and put attacking fields and change up, but when (Hashim) Amla and Markram, those kind of partnerships were going, I was a little reluctant to go from over and round the stumps and change angles. Because at the end of the day, I think I had a bit of cushion there to try all those things. Within my mind, this was probably one of the relaxed days of my cricket career, I wasn’t really thinking too much and delivering the ball. My only intent was to try and keep it in a particular spot. Try and deliver from different positions in the crease, I was really enjoying it.”

Ashwin had run rings around the South African batsmen when they visited India in 2015-16, but he said that would have played a peripheral role in how the they deal with him now, on their home pitches. “I would actually like to believe, I have gathered a lot more respect, at least I would like to believe so,” he offered. “The thing is, as far as cricket is concerned, most cricketers just react to what happens. If you are bowling well obviously, the batsmen play you in a certain fashion. If it’s not coming out (well), they obviously go after you. It was one of those days where the ball came out really well. Yeah, I think, it does make a mark that you have got wickets against certain team and dismissed certain amount of batsmen in certain fashion. It plays on their minds and I am happy I have put that sort of scar in their minds and that is probably helping me out.”

The offspinner didn’t want to pin a number down as the target first-innings score that India would aim to keep South Africa to, preferring instead to dwell on the processes they must adopt. “It can get very difficult to make a prediction on such wickets but I would say, just come out tomorrow and do what we did in the last session and today probably in our second session,” he said. “Be as miserly as possible with the ball and try and dismiss them. You can’t really bowl them out on this wicket, you really have to dig in deep and purchase those wickets. It depends upon how well you do it, how well we recover overnight for the bowlers to be able to (do it). Thankfully we are playing with five bowlers.”

On the pitch itself, which has defied several pre-match predictions, Ashwin said it was always easier to judge in hindsight. “There was a bit of spin in the morning, it was a bit damp. I was told by the analyst that it is generally a bit damp in the first session of Test in Centurion,” he said. “Hindsight is a very easy teacher. I feel the wicket did spin a bit but it was not outrageous. It was very slow and there was bounce. Sometimes people watching the game mistake bounce for big spin.”