Adaptability is the watchword in moder n cricket and Ravichandran Ashwin is a great example of that. He started as an opening batsman and tried bowling pace before taking the advice that his future lay in spin bowling. His rise through Twenty20 cricket, and a World Cup debut in 2011 that ended in glory, underlined that his approach had paid rich dividends.Add to that the cricketing intelligence and understanding of his craft, and the tall bowler from Chennai should be a potent weapon in India's title defence, the go-to guy for skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni. The 28-year-old has always lookeded to add new dimensions to his bowling, and an engineer by qualification, he is articulate and the team management's fallback option every time it searches for someone to face the media.
However, it's hardly an ideal world for Ashwin when he plays abroad. Consistent and the lead spinner across formats at home, he turns a tentative and defensive version overseas on conditions that favour pace - not a frame of mind one should carry into a World Cup Down Under.
Often, one is puzzled with the man than his craft. India have played a number of highprofile overseas series in the last three years, and his relative lack of effectiveness has only left one wondering about his role. In Australia, he was only moderately effective in the Test series, which can't really help his confidence.
Always very inquisitive
But Ashwin comes as a package, and there are many who admire his skill and determination. "He puts forth a lot of questions without inhibitions, he will bombard you with ideas, vehemently disagree with you. I thought he was an upstart initially, but as he went on his intelligence struck me. He can think his way through the course of a game," says his mentor Sunil Subramaniam, the former Tamil Nadu left-arm spinner, recalling his early interaction with Ashwin.
But does he think too much, turning the game into some complex theorem? Does he get drawn into a web in his quest for knowledge and perfection? Former India off-spinner Erapalli Prasanna puts things in perspective. "He is an intelligent and sticky player. One sees his intelligence more in the way he organises his batting. But one should remember that intelligence won't come into play when you lose your confidence."
That means the bottom-line is success and failure, which is measured in terms of wickets, and breakthroughs. After India lost to England in 2012 home Test series, Ashwin was criticised for experimenting too much. And when he bounced back and took wickets against Australia a few months later, he lashed out at critics, insisting that he bowled the same way. Experts want him to focus on taking wickets rather than be restrictive. It could be seen as arrogance, but Ashwin sees the game as a science, and only takes the opinion of one or two whom he trusts.
Reluctant to accept
Prasanna, however, cautions: "Arrogance is pride that comes before the fall." Former India batsman, WV Raman, who oversaw Ashwin's entry in domestic cricket as Tamil Nadu coach, said: "He had a rousing start to his career, the kind of which dreams are made off. But things were not going to be so rosy; he had to grit his teeth and bide his time." Ashwin was the captain, and Raman the coach, when Tamil Nadu won the Vijay Hazare Trophy one-day tournament in 2009. Recently, Ashwin made a rare admission that he finally understood Raman's advice long back that a bowler should simply bowl rather than fret about unhelpful pitch conditions.
"In the Tests against Australia he failed to turn the ball after a while. He didn't play in Adelaide agreed, but in Melbourne and Sydney there was turn on offer. Traditionally, Indian spinners have done well in Australia," said Prasanna. "This could also mean he has lost his ability to be a strike bowler and can only be a stock bowler, which is unlike a spinner."
Ashwin has made no secret he wants to be an attacking option, but MS Dhoni's defensive mindset in the last couple of seasons has also curtailed him. "For me, it's very simple. I need to keep looking for wickets. There have been a couple of instances where the team's requirements have needed me to hold one end up, which is not exactly my strength. I would like to get back to my strength and start spinning the ball really hard, and get the batsman out. It's as simple as that," Ashwin had told HT ahead of the England tour last year. Prasanna agrees: "In such a situation, he has to do what the captain wants."
Subramaniam feels the spinner has got the rough end of the stick. "He was treated very poorly after the tour of South Africa (2013). It extended into New Zealand, England and the first Test in Adelaide. No player will like to sit out of any game. He should have played in Adelaide and the script would have been different. I don't think the team management gave him that kind of confidence."
Prasanna feels Ashwin will have to manage his bowling better. "If he has to be successful, he has to take wickets and bowl tight. He can flight the ball and still bowl tight. A bowler who does that will find success."
Ashwin has always looked to chart his path. At the World Cup, a course correction will be in order, one that fetches wickets, and bolsters India's shaky bowling.