Plotting dismissals, the Ashwin way

  • From opening the bowling in the Indian Premier League to leading the Test bowling attack at home, Ashwin the spinner has worn many hats.
R Ashwin celebrates a wicket with Virat Kohli. (Getty Images)
R Ashwin celebrates a wicket with Virat Kohli. (Getty Images)
Published on Feb 18, 2021 08:16 AM IST
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By Somshuvra Laha, New Delhi

Is Ravichandran Ashwin’s success in India taken for granted? Perhaps. It’s probably easy to gloss over the off-spinner’s achievements when he is bowling at Chepauk, conditions he knows for almost 25 years now. But with almost every overseas team scouting for training locations (like Australia training at Dubai’s ICC Academy before coming to India in 2017) apart from hiring spin consultants and data analysts, subcontinent spinners have to strive to stay a step ahead at all times. How does Ashwin do that - he leads the tally this series with 17 scalps in two Tests - year after year?

There is no exact science to this but in this day and age, it doesn’t boil down to merely knowing the soil composition of pitches, the kind of grass used to bind the top soil, types of rollers used or the frequency of watering the pitch. Add to that factors like speed on the ball, angle of release, use of crease and - at venues with large water bodies nearby like Chennai or Eden Gardens - the breeze, different loading actions and the number of revolutions (to facilitate underspin or overspin) imparted every time. As witnessed by Chennai again on Tuesday, Ashwin, who returned match figures of 8/96, is a master of all this and more.

“This wicket was very different to the one we played on in the first game,” said Ashwin after India’s second Test win against England in Chennai on Tuesday. “That was a red soil wicket and this is a clay wicket. It’s easier to say ‘go out there, bowl and get wickets’ but it’s not as easy as it looks because I’ve been playing here for years now. It takes a certain amount of pace and guile to be able to do it.”

What Ashwin straightaway did was tinker with the trajectory of the ball. “I think it was all about trying to change angles. There was a lot of deviation from the surface. Some of the balls were just dying on the batsmen going straight on so we had to be a little creative.” There are other boxes to tick as well on his checklist. “Every load-up gives a different result in terms of which way the pitch is behaving. I try and load up differently, use the breeze, use different angles to release the ball, speed of the run-up. This is working because I have created this awareness for myself.”

You are well-acquainted with this version of Ashwin that comes up with new tricks and improvisations every season. But the last one year, when cricket took a backseat to the pandemic, taught him a different life lesson. “For me, if you take the game away, I’m literally lost,” said Ashwin in a chat with India captain Virat Kohli on bcci.tv. “Suddenly, the game’s not happening and we are all sitting at home, so I was reflecting upon myself and trying to understand how I can learn from people, what people were perceiving of me.

“In the past when I toured, there was more of a desperation trying to prove others wrong. But this time when I went out there (in Australia), it was more about proving to myself what I’m capable of. One thing I have noticed from a distance, and when I see people who do well through the year is how balanced they are in terms of not wanting to be desperate."

R Ashwin continued his dominance over Ben Stokes. (HT)
R Ashwin continued his dominance over Ben Stokes. (HT)

From opening the bowling in the Indian Premier League to leading the Test bowling attack at home, Ashwin the spinner has worn many hats. There is a hesitation to call him a classical off-spinner like Harbhajan Singh because of a perceived overdependence on variations. Yet, Ashwin can spin the ball just fine. Thing with Ashwin is, he always wants to outthink the batsman. Which is why he is possibly the only international bowler to have tried innovations like the ‘carom’ ball or loading up with the ball hid behind his back (during the Tamil Nadu Premier League) before releasing it while keeping the other arm almost static. He is much more conservative in Tests but not always does Ashwin rely only on the pitch. Like the way he got the nimble-footed Dan Lawrence stumped right after a chat with wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant. Everything about that dismissal said it had been worked down to the last detail. Once he did that, England started hesitating coming down the track to him.

Picking up Ben Stokes’s wicket in both innings with a patient con game exemplifies all that Ashwin does with the ball. They share a history too. Before this Test, Ashwin had dismissed Stokes eight times in 17 innings, mostly in front-foot positions (see graphic). In his second innings in the 2nd Test, all Stokes looked to do was block, having recognised the need to stall the inevitable for as long as possible. It doesn’t come naturally to him. Still, Stokes managed to not score a run for 21 consecutive deliveries, including 16 from Ashwin. But Ashwin had used that time to set his man up. Starting with two flatter deliveries in the 38th over, Ashwin gave the ball more air and let it drift in using the breeze.

“I thought because he was defending I could use the drift. There was a bit of cross-breeze so I changed my loading up and tried to drift it back in. A non-turning ball on this pitch could be the more deadly one,” Ashwin said later. Stokes was playing for spin though. Registered in his muscle memory was the first innings dismissal where he missed a full-length delivery that had drifted in as well but turned to take the top of his off stump. Ashwin’s five deliveries to Stokes before that alternated in lengths: short, flighted, an arm ball, a tossed-up delivery and finally, a flat length ball that was defended on the back-foot. Stokes was primed to face a fuller ball but Ashwin surprised him by pitching it up further. Stokes missed it completely.

“I wanted to push the ball a little up so that I could get him to play an aggressive shot,” said Ashwin of the first innings dismissal.

In the second innings too, the ball pitched on the exact same line, but Ashwin held back the length a little. Instead of turning, the ball maintained its trajectory. Stokes played for turn and ended up inside-edging it, sending the ball ballooning to Virat Kohli’s hands at second slip. It was just a small sample of Ashwin’s vast repertoire, but one which offered an alluring glimpse at a strategic mind constantly trying to out-think the opponent.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2021