Accuracy added to variation, Ashwin's magic potion
It was the first morning of the 2012 India tour of England. India had won the toss and opted to bat at the Gujarat Cricket Association’s Motera stadium. Players were leaving for the dressing room for the start, but at the practice nets next to the club house, R Ashwin was bowling. Surprisingly, he was trying his hand at leg-spin. He was a player constantly experimenting, adding to his box of variations.
It would come with a price though—inconsistency and a tendency to over-experiment. India lost that series to England 2-1, and it remains their last series defeat at home. In four Tests, Ashwin took 14 wickets at an average of 52.64, the fourth highest after Graeme Swann (20 wkts at 24.75), Pragyan Ojha (20) and Monty Panesar (17 at 26.82). It was also a rare occasion when Indian spinners were outperformed by their visiting counterparts.
Nine years on, at the same location at Motera where the newly built world's largest cricket stadium stands, India have taken an unassailable 2-1 lead against England in the four-Test series; Ashwin leads the list of wicket-takers with 24 scalps in three Tests at 15.7 and has entered the elite club of bowlers with 400 Test wickets.
What differentiates great bowlers from the pack is consistency. The likes of Kapil Dev, Wasim Akram and Richard Hadlee were relentless. Variations were there but never at the cost of accuracy. They developed a fine understanding of their game and strengths. As Ashwin joined these greats, it was this aspect of bowling which he became better at, said his early coach Sunil Subramaniam.
Ashwin always had the skill and variations. He has added consistency to it, through which he is now building relentless pressure. “I will call it sensible bowling and he has used the angles beautifully. The odd boundary ball he bowls where batsmen can go for the cut, even that was not there, and you could see the angles, the full repertoire was there (in this series),” said the former Tamil Nadu spinner Subramaniam, who has mentored Ashwin from his U17 days and even helped him through his rough patches.
There was no surprise in the manner in which Ashwin dominated the England batsmen. His record at home is awe-inspiring (278 wickets out of 401). For him the most satisfying performance was his bowling in the last series in Australia when he gave a fine exhibition of his craft. For the connoisseurs of spin bowling, it was a delight to see in the way he put pressure on the likes of Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne and plotted their dismissals.
What also stood out was the maturity with which Ashwin bowled during the crucial passage of play on the fourth morning of the second Test at Melbourne in tandem with Jasprit Bumrah. The game was delicately poised with 14 overs to go for the new ball, a good time to cash in on some quick runs. Australia were banking on their seventh-wicket pair of Cameron Green, batting 17, and Pat Cummins, batting 17 to counterattack.
How many times Indian supporters have seen their team lose the plot from that stage? Ashwin had other ideas. He was clear in his game plan. It was about building pressure with a relentless line and length. For those crucial 14 overs, he bowled unchanged till the 80th over, conceding just 11 runs in those seven overs. Bowlers were rotated from the other end, but he bowled non-stop till the 88th over. That spell was about his control, not about wickets. Starting at 166/6, Australia were never allowed to get away and were bowled out for 200.
It is said that finger spinners have limitations compared to wrist spinners, but Ashwin’s strike rate is exemplary. He is the second-fastest to reach 400 Test wickets. “I have always maintained he is not a conventional spinner. He is more a hand bowler. His fingers are so long but his wrists are very supple; he can play around with the ball as much as he wants. With his height, the fingers and the right amount of body weight transferred, he has shown he can be a great bowler. His understanding of spin bowling, his reading of the batsman’s mind is top class,” said Subramaniam, who was the India team manager on the 2018-19 Australia tour.
Another change Subramaniam noticed was how the lanky spinner was setting up the batsmen. The carom ball is no more his go-to ball. It is a set-up delivery now. “He is not using the carom ball as often. He is not showing it, otherwise when the wickets were not falling, the go-to ball used to be the carom ball. Now, he is setting the batsman up with the carom ball and then getting him out with the ball that goes straight. The way of using that is supremely intelligent.”
To Subramaniam, at 34 Ashwin is at the peak of his career like most spinners at this age. “His understanding of spin bowling is amazing. I have always said he is the most nuanced spinner of the modern era. His craft was never an issue. All good spinners peak between 30 and 35, Ashwin too is kind of peaking.”