Being Ashwin: The captain, the all-rounder and the mentor
Let’s split R Ashwin into three categories: Captain, all-rounder and mentor.
“I lead without a title” was a statement that best described Ashwin's thoughts about captaincy in 2017.
A year later, Ashwin became the only bowler captain in IPL 2018 as he was handed the responsibility of leading Kings XI Punjab. It was a chance for Ashwin, a limited-overs discard for nearly a year now, to prove something as a leader.
Ashwin, an experimental bowler-captain, alongside a flamboyant mentor in Virender Sehwag, was always going to make some eyebrow-raising decisions.
The Chris Gayle move against Chennai Super Kings was a blockbuster, backing Barinder Sran was nothing but a skipper showcasing faith in his men, handing Mujeeb ur Rahman the final over against Shreyas Iyer was a typical, aggressive, spinner-friendly captain's move.
However, Punjab’s ride turned bumpy ever since the move to promote himself at No 3. Twitter experts taught Ashwin the nuances of captaincy.
At times, they had a case in point. Certain decisions from Ashwin on the field were questionable. But again, Ashwin is best known for his ‘unstructured’ and ‘experimenting’ character – attributes that had brought him rewards at the international arena.
One thing captain Ashwin did was underutilize bowler Ashwin at certain critical phases. Someone should have reminded the offie that he is only the spinner in the IPL, played 100 or more matches, to have an economy of less than seven runs an over (6.72 rpo). Maybe someone should have informed Ashwin about what Select Dugout experts had to say about him during strategic time out.
Almost every commentator repeated: “Why has Ashwin not bowled? He is primarily a bowler, an excellent bowler. Why is he reluctant to bring him on?”
Talk of the batting order and the unpredictability factor with Ashwin, here is a sample from the past. When Ashwin led Tamil Nadu in the 2015-2016 Vijay Hazare Trophy, he opted to send L Balaji at No. 5 in the quarterfinal against Uttar Pradesh with B Indrajith, Vijay Shankar, R Sathish and himself in the dugout. The semi-final against Gujarat saw Murali Vijay bat at No 5 and Vijay Shankar at No 8!
While fans, by and large, had felt that Ashwin should have handled Yuvraj Singh better, it's rather unfortunate that Ashwin found himself in a spot with the southpaw not even a shadow of his past.
However, his handling of bowling resources were quite impressive. Ankit Rajpoot flourished under him and the bowlers knew they had a captain who would applaud even after being whacked for a six. Captain Ashwin is certainly unstructured and what’s in store for him next year is certainly anyone’s guess.
Proving himself in overseas conditions was supposed to be Ashwin’s biggest challenge all the time. Ashwin suddenly found himself out of the limited-overs set-up post-2017 Champions Trophy (CT). Ravindra Jadeja too suffered the same as Ashwin.
From June 2015 till CT, India had played 27 ODIs and Ashwin has featured in only nine of them. There was an injury break during the South Africa series in 2015-2016 and the rest was ‘rest’.
The focus was on red-ball cricket during 2016-2017 and Ashwin was at it. What’s the problem then in white ball cricket? Ashwin burst onto the scene with his attacking bowling style in IPL.
But now he is not part of the limited-overs scheme of things. Let’s not talk numbers here. Let’s talk context and situations.
Ashwin’s experiments at crucial junctures proved to be expensive on a few occasions. Ashwin, during the latter half of Dhoni’s career as skipper, operated quite frequently from around the stumps, which is nothing but a defensive line. Was that part of a team strategy or did Ashwin choose dots over wickets?
Ashwin’s no-ball to Lendl Simmons in 2016 World T20 semi-final proved costly and it didn’t do any good for the Chennai offie. Under regular ODI skipper Kohli, Ashwin never got to play much in the limited-overs format at a stretch.
The off-field issues surrounding the team management involving coach…let’s not delve into that…
The red ball-white ball switch period arrived. The rules in ODI cricket are such that switching to white ball format isn’t that easy for a spinner because of the fielding restrictions and start-stop phase only adds more misery to the cricketer.
An injury post the marathon home Test season saw Ashwin out of the 2017 IPL season with a sports hernia and he wasn’t an obvious starter in the Champions Trophy.
The graph began to dip for both offie Ashwin and Jadeja post the Champions Trophy. Their Champions Trophy numbers weren’t great. Together they had conceded 416 runs, taken five wickets in the 83.2 overs which they had bowled.
Soon, wrist spinners – Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav - were all over the market. To be fair, they have been exceptional baffling batsmen. As Kohli said, even when they were belted around at times, they kept taking wickets.
On the other side of the world away from international cricket, leg-spinner Ashwin suddenly emerged amidst criticisms. Another experimentation.
“Nothing for me is experimentation. There is logic behind whatever I do. Before I bowled a delivery of leg-spin in IPL, I have bowled about, probably, a lakh of balls in practice. The thought process alone is experimentation,” Ashwin explained.
But the selectors chose to rest finger spinners Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja series after series.
The selectors did state that they were communicating with the two senior Test spinners. At least, Jadeja got to be a substitute fielder in the first ODI against Australia in Chennai.
And still the mystery on whether Ashwin and Jadeja have been dropped or rested persists. Communication or rather the lack of it is certainly key a talking point.
‘Test specialist’ Ashwin admitted that his future “entirely depends on what other people (team management and selectors) perceive” of his cricket.
“It's definitely not in my control. Like any other cricketer, I want to wear the blue jersey and represent India at the World Cup. That's obviously there deep with in," Ashwin said recently.
For now, Ashwin is keen on delivering it for his TNPL franchisee Dindigul Dragons.
Ashwin has done justice to his talent as a lower-order batsman in Test cricket than in ODI cricket. Maybe that comes down to the position at which he bats in Tests – No 6/No 7 and the pace at which the game’s played.
Kohli and India’s domination during the last home Test season against England and Australia had a lot of do with major contributions from Ashwin, Jadeja, Wriddhiman Saha and Jayant Yadav.
Maybe Ashwin’s struggles as a batsman in ODIs can be attributed to his lack of power-hitting like a Jadeja or Hardik Pandya, his pace between the wickets and the position at which he bats.
The one rare instance where he batted up the order, Ashwin, who takes his batting quite seriously and has been working on his ball-striking abilities, did ensure India tied the contest against New Zealand Down Under. But given the competition for slots in the limited-overs set-up, batsman Ashwin has to take the back seat.
Fielding and fitness: Ashwin diving on the field isn’t certainly the most pleasing sight on a cricket field. But he has hands that can receive the ball perfectly at catching positions. Dhoni extracted the maximum out of catcher Ashwin during the 2013 Champions Trophy.
Ashwin is not the swiftest on the park and has to improve. However, Ashwin was willing to sweat it out. When the YoYo test was made mandatory, Ashwin did train for the test prior to taking it up and has cleared it every single time since then.
Even as the likes of Washington Sundar, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Ambati Rayudu and Sanju Samson had failed the test at various junctures, Ashwin’s reaction to YoYo tests was: “I passed my engineering exams, YoYo wasn't that tough. If you ask if YoYo is needed in cricket. I have no opinion on that.”
Whenever Ashwin’s not playing for India, Tamil Nadu, IPL or his TNCA league side, one can spot 31-year-old ‘mentor’ Ashwin at the Gen-Next Cricket Academy in Chennai.
He seldom misses out on an opportunity to interact with kids, play with them. Ashwin firmly believes that’s a learning for him. For kids, it’s an unstructured method of learning which again is one thing which Ashwin firmly believes in and advocates to budding cricketers.
For fellow cricketers in the country, he is more of a ‘Big brother’. He guided Jayant Yadav in Chennai before the latter went on to become an India player. He passed on his knowledge with TN mate and off-spinner R Malolan ahead of the last Ranji season. Earlier this February, he mentored the UAE women’s cricket team in Dubai. Over the last few years, cricketer Ashwin must have certainly learned a lot from mentor Ashwin.
Being Ashwin is about being unpredictable. And being Ashwin, at this phase, is certainly tough.