India’s charismatic off-spinning allrounder tells Dileep Premachandran how he’s become so damn good.
On the eve of India’s recent Test series against New Zealand, and in between matches for Dindigul Dragons in the Tamil Nadu Premier League, I caught up with R Ashwin at a school ground where wards from the GenNext Cricket Academy that he runs were practising. As we watched them strive for pace, sharp turn and the perfect straight drive, I asked him why it was that so many with great natural ability never make it to the top.
“I would say attitude is about 90 per cent,” he says. “Talent is probably two per cent. And method is the rest. I was a talented cricketer coming through the ranks, but since getting into club cricket and then first-class cricket, only method started fetching me results. I think method, and more importantly attitude, is everything.”
By attitude, he isn’t talking about strutting around the field with his collar up, mouthing off to all and sundry. Instead, he speaks of what he has learned from closer to home. “I think my attitude comes a lot from my mother, in terms of fighting and trying to be excellent,” he says. “Trying to explore different things… that comes from my mother. Right from childhood, she’s been a pillar of support. My dad’s been the one who came along with me to cricket grounds and watched all my games. But the attitude comes from my mother telling me a lot of her own stories and experiences from corporate life.
“I’ve probably taken it to another level. I know in certain instances, I am mad. It could sound atrocious to a lot of people when they first listen to me. But my experiences as an international cricket and IPL player, from about 2008, have taught me a completely new dimension. I’ve got nothing easy. I had to wait in the wings to get a chance. When you get a couple of games a year in your first two years in international cricket, that can be incredibly hard. But I’ve come through that grind.”
If you spend even 10 minutes in Ashwin’s company, the first thing that will strike you is his near-unshakeable self-belief. That was given its sternest test in South Africa in the winter of 2013. India had dominated the first four days at the Wanderers, setting South Africa 458 to win. But with Faf du Plessis batting nearly seven hours for 134, and AB de Villiers stroking a delightful 103, they almost pulled it off. By the end, it was India hanging on for the draw.
Ashwin bowled 26 overs on the final day, 36 in all for the innings, and didn’t pick up a wicket. It had hardly been an apple-crumble fifth-day pitch, but Ashwin, who had been seen as India’s premier spinner for a couple of years, was inevitably the scapegoat for the lost opportunity.
He didn’t play another Test until Old Trafford in the summer of 2014. Six matches were spent on the bench, watching the likes of Ravindra Jadeja in the role that many had thought would be his for the foreseeable future. Looking back, Ashwin sometimes winces. But he also acknowledges that the snub was the spur for him to take his skills to another level.
“I was never one of those loose characters who didn’t prepare well for a game,” he says. “I had my own routines and I wouldn’t act irresponsibly before a Test match. But I plan for a game much better now, in terms of what time I have my dinner, what time I’m in bed. If I want to watch a movie or a show before a game, it will be at 8.30 so that I can try to sleep by 9.30. Those are the disciplines I’ve inculcated. I’ve always been a big watcher of opposition videos, but the mental preparation has become a lot more disciplined.
“In terms of skills, I just tried everything. Leg-spin, top-spin, off-spin – a bit of a jack of all trades, to try and understand what goes into being a good, solid off-break bowler all around the world. The answer I got was very clear: I needed to do something in the air. It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything in the air. I used to get drift or dip, but how do you get it consistently, and vary your pace as well? The first thing I did was get extremely fit, as fit as I could be as an individual. That helped me to get my body behind the ball, to mask the speed variations I had at the crease.
“Before, if I had to slow the ball down, it was much more visible to the batsman. Now, when I’m fitter and putting more body into the ball, the difference in speed variation is that much more subtle. When you can do that with a lot of control, you can also play around with your lengths. It’s a different ball game. You start enjoying your skills much more than before. Before, it was about getting the batsman out. Now, there’s more joy in the way I bowl.”
The one thing he didn’t do was become bitter and disillusioned. “My motto in life is that you either succeed at your own pace or you fail on your own terms,” he says. “When I finish my career, I should feel that I have done whatever I had to do. I’ve seen people from many walks of life who just sit back and blame somebody else for what they didn’t do. But that’s unfortunate because you’re not able to make choices for yourself. That only leads to regrets later on in life. I did go through this disappointment, and I was quite vocal about it. It could have been unfair to me.
“When I look back, that’s probably how I will see it. But the fact remains that it spurred me on in terms of telling me: listen, some people could be lucky in terms of getting three chances or five or six. Mine is just one. Even today, when I could rest on my laurels, I firmly believe that the chance I have is one single Test. That doesn’t mean somebody is favouring someone else, it just means that’s the requirement of the team. He is needed more than I am at a particular time. I don’t have the choice of going back and complaining, so I’d better give it my all on the field.”
What he has given on the field since has made him the first name on the teamsheet, even more integral to India’s chances of success than a hugely talented middle order led by Virat Kohli. At the end of the Wanderers Test in 2013, Ashwin had 104 wickets at 28.5. The strike-rate was 58.8, excellent for a spinner. Since his return to the XI, he has played 20 Tests. In those, he has taken 116 wickets at 20.50, with a mindboggling strike-rate of 41.1. There have been 12 five-wicket hauls, and he has taken 10 in the match on four occasions. In each of India’s last four Test engagements – away to Sri Lanka, home to South Africa, away to West Indies and home to New Zealand – he has been the Man of the Series.
A few days before the New Zealand series began, he celebrated his 30th birthday. His daughter is now a year old. He has a captain – Virat Kohli – and a coach – Anil Kumble – who recognise that he brings far more to the mix than high-calibre off-spin. But in a country that reveres its prodigies, Ashwin, who waited so long for his chance, is not about to take anything for granted.
“My childhood in Chennai was pretty solidly based on cricket,” he says. “Right from eight or nine, I’ve been noticed for my cricket. When I was going through that path, it wasn’t easy getting into state teams. I come from an ordinary middle-class family in Chennai, and my father knew no one. If you don’t know a lot of people and you don’t know the selectors, it’s not very easy to get into the teams. Some people get five or six games, some even get 10, but my destiny was always one.
“That’s been the case even from under-14 days. Somebody got to play against Goa, which was the easiest team to play. I always got to play against Karnataka. That’s just the way it is. If I had looked back and complained about those things, I could never have moved ahead. Yes, I did complain as a 14-year-old, but as I got older I realised I didn’t have the time for it. If I wanted to be a player of substance, I had to get over those things.”
When Ashwin made his first-class debut in December 2006, Kumble was India’s frontline spinner. After Greg Chappell’s departure from the coaching role a few months later, Harbhajan Singh returned to the fray. Kumble’s retirement in 2008 didn’t change much, either. Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha got their chances, long before Ashwin’s name had even come up for discussion.
In some ways, Ashwin was the first Indian cricketer to use the IPL as a vehicle into the Test side. His performances for Chennai Super Kings elevated him to India’s limited-overs teams, and when Harbhajan’s form began to fade, he was the next in line. He was 25, and had already taken 134 first-class wickets at 28, by the time he played his first Test, against West Indies in Delhi.
Since then he has been India’s most effective bowler by a distance with 211 wickets. Jadeja is second with 85, while Ishant Sharma, the scourge of England at Lord’s in 2014, is next on the wicket-taking list with 84 over the past five years. Mention these numbers to Ashwin, and he flashes you a knowing smile. This is a self-confessed cricket geek. There’s no need to tell him the numbers, or what the pundits think of his evolution. He knows.
But he’s no narcissist. His obsession with footage extends only to those that he’s going to play. Very rarely does he watch himself in action. “I know a lot of cricketers who watch their own videos,” he said. “I don’t watch my videos at all. It’s very often videos of Michael Clarke, or videos of AB de Villiers, or Faf du Plessis. I’m bowling to them. Why should I be watching myself? Unless I feel my rhythm is not right. Then, it’s only a matter of time before I realise what’s wrong. Even when I’m bowling and it’s not coming out right, I know the four or five factors that might be responsible. I’ll address one at a time and try and rectify it. Till today, I haven’t watched one of my [four Test] hundreds on TV either.”
The last time England were in India, in 2012, much was expected from Ashwin, Ojha and the new generation. But once Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen turned the tide with two innings for the ages in Mumbai, India were always second best. Ashwin finished the four-Test series with 14 wickets at 52.64. He did better with the bat, averaging 60.75, with an unbeaten 91 studding his aggregate of 243.
He’s clear on what to expect this time round. “England are a very good Test side,” he says, having watched as much as he could of the riveting series against Pakistan. “You want good Test cricket to happen. I’m sure it’s going to be an intense five-Test series. We did reasonably well in a couple of Tests in England [in 2014] and then petered out. As far as I’m concerned, 2012 was a learning experience. I’ve been able to rectify a lot of the mistakes I made then, and I don’t think I’ll be under any additional pressure because of what happened then.
“They have some quality cricketers. We are a young side and will need to punch well above our weight. This time, though, England will be up against a much better, rounded Indian side. There was a lot of transition happening then. Maybe the abilities are not the same – that dressing room had a lot of serious ability. But this one has a lot of characters, and it’s going to take a lot to beat us.”
Kohli hasn’t picked the same XI in consecutive games since he became Test captain. A firm believer in horses for courses, the one thoroughbred he backs without hesitation is Ashwin. And the Chennai boy who started off as a top- order bat isn’t going to be spending much time in the build- up to the series focusing on what happened in 2012.
“As far as I’m concerned, my batting was my best memory from that series!” he says. “I did have a couple of good spells. I bowled one in Ahmedabad in the first innings (3-80) and then one in the second innings in Kolkata (2-31). There’s no point looking back at what Pietersen did or what Cook did. Before I realised what I needed to do with Cook in that series, he’d got a couple of hundreds. He’s a little different from other left-handers, so I had to shift lines. Shifting lines… someone coming and telling me about it took some time. Usually, I’m on the button when it comes to judging where I need to be bowling for a particular batsman, but it took time then because he was very unconventional. He was sweeping well, getting good strides forward. I needed to correct a lot of things, and I had technical glitches in my own bowling. I’m in a far better state to understand my bowling now.”
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that particular contest – Cook against Ashwin – could hold the key to the series. In the two-and-a-bit years since their paths last crossed, Ashwin – the second-fastest to 200 Test wickets after Clarrie Grimmett – has become the consummate locksmith.