Ravichandran Ashwin: 400, and firing on all cylinders
- This is a man who has been the fastest in the world to reach 200, 250 and 350 Test wickets, and yet derided for being someone who thrives only on home conditions.
“I want to be the sort of fiery example that you can set for other people also.”
Sitting in one of the player dugouts at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad, Ravichandran Ashwin kept gazing at his Kings XI Punjab teammates, wrapping up their practice session on a hot May evening, as he spoke at length with this paper on dealing with disappointments.
His then IPL team needed to win the next three games to make it to the 2019 playoffs. They lost all of them. Like Ashwin the KXIP captain, Ashwin the spinner was going through a lean phase too. A good show in the IPL notwithstanding, Ashwin hadn’t taken a five-wicket haul in Tests for close to two years.
He had lost his place in the Indian limited-overs team and would not be considered for the lone spinner’s spot in the Test series in West Indies in August later that year. Yet, he had not given up hope. The fire still burnt inside him. Battling perceptions and competition from the younger lot, he got a look-in for the first Test against South Africa in Visakhapatnam in October.
Ashwin responded with a match haul of eight wickets (7/145 in the first innings) and equalled the great Muttiah Muralitharan in becoming the joint-fastest (66 matches) to 350 Test wickets. It took him 11 more games to add 50 more victims to that list and become the fourth Indian (and 16th overall) bowler to join the 400-Test wicket club on Thursday.
And what a crazy day on the field it was for Ashwin to reach the mark. His three-wicket haul in the first innings against England here was crucial in restricting them to 112, but rival captain Joe Root conjured up a special spell to pick his maiden fifer in 102 Tests to bundle the hosts out for 145.
With a lead of 33, it was up to the Indian spinners now. Axar Patel began with a bang with three quick wickets. Ashwin, starting the day on 397 wickets, joined the proceedings by removing the dangerous Ben Stokes–a faster one that skidded and hit the front pad. There was no escaping it.
He spun another one sharply to break Ollie Pope’s defence and rattle the stumps to reach 399. And then the momentous occasion came–a straighter one barely gave Jofra Archer space to move and left him trapped in front of the wicket.
Ashwin thus became the second fastest to reach 400 Test wickets, in 77 Tests, after Muralitharan (72 Tests).
If you thought that Ashwin's journey through these last 50 wickets to 400 was a smooth one, think again. This is a man who has been the fastest in the world to reach 200, 250 and 350 Test wickets, and yet derided for being someone who thrives only on home conditions.
This perception meant that he still had to rely on Ravindra Jadeja’s injury to make the team in Australia earlier this year. Yet again he did what he had done in Visakhapatnam–he brought the fire. He took the onus of negating the threat posed by Australia's two greatest batsmen right now, Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne. He then used his resilience with the bat despite a sore back in Sydney to force a gruelling draw. Against England at home, he has simply continued to light everything on fire.
“Sometimes it’s the fear of losing what you have that does not allow you to reinvent your game,” he had said in the course of that interview in 2019.
Having started as a precocious spin talent who first came to the limelight in the yellow jersey of the Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League (IPL), Ashwin rose to become the top Test wicket-taker in three successive years–2015 (62), 2016 (72) and 2017 (56). Yet, from 2017, Ashwin’s stock started falling in the team management’s plans. After the 2017 Champions Trophy he lost his place in the ODI team and more often than not was played only in home Tests.
Ashwin bided his time, focused on rebuilding his game. Criticized for relying more on variations than stock balls, he got better and better at controlling the ball. If in Australia he used his variations to leave Smith and Labuschagne confused, in Chennai he left Stokes bamboozled with his drift and dip, rattling his stumps with a ball that scooted past the outside edge.
“One thing I have learned and got better at is varying the seam position, the point where I use the crease, going wide on the box or as close as possible. Also change over the stumps. That is one angle I have used effectively recently,” Ashwin said about the dismissal during the second Test in Chennai.
Combine an obsessive cricketing brain bubbling with ideas, an ability to learn constantly and great resilience, and you have Ashwin.