The legacy of India’s spin tradition is so rich and varied that putting Ravichandran Ashwin ahead of the past greats, despite his phenomenal wicket-taking ability, would be unfair to the bowler himself, as he would agree.
At 30, Ashwin is at the peak of his craft, especially when it comes to exploiting home conditions and suffices to say that he is inching there, creating a pedestal for himself which belongs to a few.
Despite his introduction to the cricketing world through T20 cricket, Ashwin is a traditionalist and not one who believes controlling runs is the prime job of a bowler.
When he made his Test debut against the West Indies in 2011 at Delhi, and created a web of confusion for the batsmen, a chat with his coach, former Tamil Nadu spinner Sunil Subramaniam, was educative.
Sunil explained to a bunch of journalists the art of spin, where it was not just the line and length or the amount of turn that made a bowler successful. It was more like a drawing board lesson, an explanation which a student of geometry would have understood better. It was all about the angles, use of the crease, reading the batsman’s mind and varying degrees of speed at which a ball can be released and from differing heights. The lecture was as cerebral as it could get.
A few years later, a chat with Ashwin was again revealing. He is a believer in tradition, and wants to hear stories of Prasanna, Bedi and Chandrasekhar from those who have seen them bowl and would go to any length to pick their brains and improve his skills. In the brief encounter, it was obvious that Ashwin is a thinking man, his mind obsessed with learning the tricky art of how to bowl and control the spinning ball.
Just like his coach, Ashwin has a mathematical mind and give him a surface where the ball grips, slows down on pitching or bounces unexpectedly, and he becomes a wizard. He can be literally unplayable with the variety he has at his command, as batsman after batsman is discovering.
What makes Ashwin the more complete cricketer unlike his great predecessors, is his ability to score with the bat. He is not only turning into a very useful lower-order batsman, as his average suggests, he has that silken smoothness to his strokes that add to his aura.
One criticism he will have to bear is that he is not even half as effective in overseas conditions as he is at home. In conditions where the ball does not grip the surface, hardly turns and the bounce remains even, he has not been able to put his mesmeric act together. He did put up a splendid show in the recent series in the West Indies, and given his appetite for learning and the hard work he puts in the nets, he should correct that flaw sooner than expected.
He has 12 more Tests to play, all at home at a stretch. Imagine his wickets’ tally at the end of it. When people say records are meant to be broken, what comes to mind is players like Ashwin and the peaks they can scale. In a relatively short span, Ashwin has come a long way but has a long way to go.