R. Ashwin - letting the ball do all the talking
He is not a Test match material bowler. He cannot stick to the basics of Test cricket. His variations are flashy and lack the ability to withstand Test cricket – that was the general opinion on Ravichandran Ashwin.
Ashwin’s Test debut was not a matter of choice; rather it was based on lack of credible options in Indian domestic cricket. Harbhajan was considered a spent force and the alternative options were not making much of an impact. The shortcut to destiny is what Ashwin inherited through the cash-rich Indian Premier League. He was by no means in the reckoning for the Indian berth and was relatively unheard of prior to his exploits in the IPL.
He should consider himself lucky to be picked in the playing eleven in the IPL. The bizarre nature of the tournament, which permits only four foreign players, was a boon in disguise for the Chennai lad as he was handed an opportunity to prove his mettle.
It was the 13th of April 2010. The match between Chennai Super Kings and the Kolkata Knight Riders had gained much prominence due to the presence of Chris Gayle and Brendon McCullum in the playing eleven. The batting looked formidable with the battle touted to be a contest between the reigning and former Indian skippers. The tournament was at its fag end with the Super Kings on the mat for a spot in the play-offs.
Kolkata opted to bat first and a huge score was on the cards as Sourav Ganguly and Chris Gayle walked out to open the innings. It is a daunting task for any rookie bowler to open the bowling in such a scenario. Ashwin was asked to bowl the first over. Even as the people were expecting the fireworks, Ashwin bowled a tidy line to restrict the score to three runs. His first over was quite economical. But what followed in his subsequent over was a career-defining moment for him.
Bowling to Chris Gayle, Ashwin was “cool as a cucumber” and seldom let his emotions betray him. The first ball was hoicked for a mammoth six by Gayle – an indication to the treatment in reserve for Ashwin. There are only a few bowlers in this world that can flight the ball without fear to a batsman of Gayle’s calibre in a T20 match even after being hit for a six. Ashwin was relentless as he bowled a similar kind of delivery, albeit a bit slower. He foxed Gayle, who stepped out of his crease and missed the ball. The whole stadium went numb with the kind of audacity that Ashwin displayed. Dhoni collected the ball behind the stumps and effected the stumping.
If people thought that this was the turning point of the match, Ashwin had a treat for the Chennai fans as he snapped up the wicket of the dangerous Brendon McCullum four balls later. The audience were awestruck to witness a rookie from the backyards of Chennai breathing fire in a high pressure match. It was all the more gratifying, especially when Muralitharan was taken to the cleaners.
“I’m always prepared to be hit for a few sixes” – revealed a formidable Ashwin, when asked about the secret of his success as he burst on to the screen with that magnanimous performance. He was oozing in confidence as he repaid the faith of his skipper.
Ultimately, Ashwin was the go-to guy for his skipper. In any demanding situation, Dhoni would simply throw the ball to Ashwin and ask him to deliver the goods. It had similar bearings to the situations when Ricky Ponting had the backing of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne – bowlers who would be willing to bowl their heart out in any situation. Ashwin was similar, as he was seldom apprehensive in his approach.
An interesting attribute of Ashwin is the amount of pressure he absorbs as a bowler. He bowls during the power-plays and yet is unfazed of the slog hitters. He expresses himself in his own inimitable style by adapting to the situation and trying to restrict the batsmen. It is a crucial aspect to any aspiring spinner, as spinners tends to take a hit in this age of slam-bang cricket. It has provided Dhoni with a new dimension to his bowling attack as he can rely on Ashwin during the power plays.
Ashwin had his target set as he was vying for a Test spot, sooner rather than later. Dhoni was accompanied by his able lieutenant Ashwin thereafter in the shorter forms of the game. He was provided with the necessary backing by the skipper as he had a good run of form. His credible performances and the lack of options meant that he was delegated to make his debut against West Indies.
“What I like about Ashwin is that he is not scared of flighting the ball, not just in Tests, but in T20s and ODI cricket too. He has got the variety, he has the carom ball, the quicker one and an easy action,” opined Wasim Akram.
After a blitzkrieg with both ball and bat in his debut series, he was labelled as an able replacement for Harbhajan Singh. His exploits ignited his fellow slow-bowler as the performance of Pragyan Ojha was stepped up by a few notches.
“The essence of a true warrior does not lie in the fight alone, but the way in which he leads his companions.”
Pragyan Ojha was visibly pumped up and was raring to bowl in tandem with Ashwin. The absorbing aspect of Ashwin’s bowling is the amount of flight he renders the ball. It is tough in this T20 era, but Ashwin is unwavering in his line and length. He has been an important part of the Indian line-up since his debut. He was absolutely magnificent in the Tests against New Zealand, where he picked up 18 wickets. A dream run is what it could be compiled as in a nutshell.
“Remember the good times, live through the bad ones.”
Then came the England series, and Ashwin was touted to be the highest wicket-taker in this series, as his subtle variations were expected to deceive the clueless English batsman. The series was a disaster as Ashwin was negotiated with ease and comfort. The English had a game plan for Ashwin as they swept him off the pads time and again.
Though I have mentioned that the series was a disaster for Ashwin, one should remember that he picked up fourteen wickets and scored few crucial runs off his bat in that series. Even purely as a bowler, for a person who had a mediocre series, fourteen wickets are never few. Imagine if a bowler could pick that many wickets in his bad times, how many could he pick in his good ones?
Ashwin was classified as a failure even before the conclusion of that series. It was shame that Ashwin did not bag more wickets against England, but he was going through a learning curve in his career as he was contemplating unorthodox ways to get the better of the English batsmen.
The exclusion was Ashwin looked imminent but they had to persist with him since India did not have any suitable options left. Ashwin bowled partially well in the one day series against England and Pakistan, but was nowhere near his best. He was confused on how to employ his variations; as a result, his line and length ran haywire.
But he was a fighter and refused to give up irrespective of the tough the situation was. They fight till their last breath. Ashwin was a fighter to the core as he went back to covering his basics. He shaped his comeback in an enthralling fashion as he picked up twelve wickets in the first Test against Australia.
This new version of Ashwin was pretty improved and relaxed. He had unhinged the monkey off his back and bowled without any sort of pressure. The flight was back in his armoury and so was his hunger to pick wickets. He is crucial to the team’s chances and it would pretty awesome to watch him back in action with the old charm, flight, loop and the contrasting shades which is quite the style icon and a funny addition to his identity.