R Ashwin has never been one to hide his ambition. When his international career was still young, Ashwin said in an interview that he wanted to dominate the game. There was no hint of braggadocio, just an unnerving earnestness. On Thursday, the realisation of this dream was formally recognised. Ashwin became the first spinner to win cricket’s biggest individual prize, the Sir Garfield Sobers Trophy, since the award was instituted 12 years ago. He is just the third bowler, after Dale Steyn and Mitchell Johnson, to be named ICC Cricketer of the Year.
He was also adjudged Test Cricketer of the Year, only the second Indian after Rahul Dravid to sweep both awards. Indeed, the voting period — September 14, 2015 to September 20, 2016 — does not fully describe his phenomenal ascent to the top. In that time, he took 48 wickets at 15.39 and made 336 runs at 42 from eight Tests. He has added another 55 wickets (24.12) and 377 runs (37.70) in the eight Tests since. His influence was not limited to one format; in the voting period, Ashwin had 27 T20I wickets in 19 games. By any measure, Ashwin stands alone, an extraordinary comeback after being dropped for the Adelaide Test in early 2015.
Ashwin’s success has been instrumental in India becoming the premier Test side this year. There has been a perceptible change in culture and intent. Virat Kohli announced it when he acknowledged that bowlers were “the bosses” in Test cricket. He has backed it up, leading the batting group in shaping contests and empowering his bowlers to win them. There was a minor storm on social media when Kohli did not make the ICC’s Test Team of the Year. But his exclusion was easily explained: his magnificent run with the bat did not coincide completely with the voting period. He certainly stepped up a level against England, lifting his career average from the mid-40s to the high-water mark of 50.
The context in which the runs came was more impressive than the volume: every time a game needed seizing or settling, Kohli attended to it. Teams tend to form themselves in the image of their captains — so, perhaps, it was not entirely surprising that India found a hero equal to nearly any task. The experienced cricketers pulled their weight. Those of more recent vintage — K.L. Rahul, Jayant Yadav and Karun Nair — appeared to make the transition without missing a beat. The side had to deal with injuries, which did not permit a settled playing eleven. But the momentum was unaffected. India will face stiffer challenges, especially overseas, as it seeks to build a legacy as a world-beater. For now, 2016 has been a good launch pad.