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R Ashwin, who never gave up, scales 500 wickets peak

Feb 17, 2024 06:20 AM IST

Ravichandran Ashwin became the second fastest player to reach 500 Test wickets after Muttiah Muralitharan, solidifying his status as one of the greatest spinners in history. Ashwin's achievement is a result of his hard work, determination, and ability to overcome obstacles throughout his career. He has proven his critics wrong and continues to be a match-winner for the Indian team. However, Ashwin faces the challenge of setting new goals and maintaining his performance as he gets older.

RajkotR Ashwin has had many cynics during his international career. He has been told that he tries too many things. He has been told to work on his stock delivery. He has been told to work on his fitness. Some may have even suggested to him to work more on his batting, conveniently overlooking his five Test tons.

India's Ravichandran Ashwin celebrates after taking the wicket of England's Zak Crawley, his 500th Test wicket, during the second day of the third Test cricket match between India and England at the Niranjan Shah Stadium in Rajkot on Saturday. (AFP)
India's Ravichandran Ashwin celebrates after taking the wicket of England's Zak Crawley, his 500th Test wicket, during the second day of the third Test cricket match between India and England at the Niranjan Shah Stadium in Rajkot on Saturday. (AFP)

On Friday though, it was time for the off-spinner to tell the world many things. About the secrets of carving an illustrious career as an off-spinner in Tests. About proving a point to naysayers who pigeonholed him as a T20 bowler at the start of his career. About being left out, particularly overseas, despite a truckload of wickets.

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Ashwin is in a better position than most to enlighten the cricket world because he’s the second fastest to 500 Test wickets (98 Tests) after Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan (87). He’s also only the second Indian bowler after Anil Kumble to get to the mark, just the ninth in history, and one of the GOATs.

Among spinners, only Muralitharan, Shane Warne, Kumble and Nathan Lyon are above him in the list of most Test wickets. And aside from the greatness that binds them all together, the ability to overcome hurdles is another common factor. Muralitharan’s action came under intense scrutiny. Warne was told to monitor his eating habits. Kumble was told he can’t spin the ball. They all found a way to succeed; and so did Ashwin.

While recalling his topsy-turvy journey after achieving Mt 500 on Friday, Ashwin doffed his hat to his dad — a club cricketer in his heyday in Chennai. Somewhere during the father-son duo’s endless nights of cricket discussions, a dream was sparked. And the son has carried it forward with an obsessive zeal that very few in world cricket can match.

“People doubted whether I could be a Test bowler, and yeah, 10-13 years later — not bad,” Ashwin said of a milestone that puts him truly in the annals of the greats of the game.

Ashwin’s parents were nervously taking rounds of their drawing room when the bowler was summoned to bowl in the 12th over by India skipper Rohit Sharma. The series, with their son on the brink of a major milestone, had reduced the family to anxious wrecks.

“I thought it would come a lot earlier in the series. But when it finally happened, I was overjoyed. My daughter-in-law came to our place with the granddaughters, Akhira and Adhya, who rushed to me and said ‘Appa has got 500 wickets’,” Ashwin’s father said over the phone.

“I am a bigger fan of Anil Kumble than my son,” Ashwin’s father said. “So, I am not thinking whether he would get past him or not. He has to enjoy his cricket. If it has to happen, it will.”

Staying true to his style

Ashwin likes to bowl on his own terms. When MS Dhoni had him bowling defensively on his first tour of Australia in 2011, he didn’t like it one bit. He resolved to get better; to beat the batters in flight; to beat them with guile; to outthink them. The Zak Crawley wicket – which saw him get to 500 – was an example of that.

With the England batters on the attack, Ashwin pitched one outside Crawley’s leg-stump. In the hitting rhythm, the right-hander went for the sweep and got a top edge to short fine leg. The idea of making things difficult for the batter comes naturally to him but it often hides the amount of work he puts in to get his tactics right.

As soon as Crawley was dismissed, his team mates gathered around him, giving him bearhugs as head coach Rahul Dravid and the rest of the support staff applauded from the dressing room. One could see the relief on Ashwin’s face – “500, done and dusted,” he later said. “Now, got a game hanging in the balance.”

It was typical Ashwin. He has always been a player who connects with the history of the game but one who always puts the team before self.

However, late on Friday night, he withdrew from the Test due to a “family medical emergency”.

He touched on his trials, tribulations and grit with a philosophical lens in the presser later.

“It’s been a very long journey,” he said. “I don’t exactly know where to begin because I was an accidental spinner. I wanted to be a batter all along. Life gave me a chance, and when I walked into the CSK dressing room, Muthiah Muralidharan didn’t want to bowl with the new ball, and eventually I got tossed the new ball. I eventually got my Test debut.”

The accidental spinner is a bonafide legend now. And had Ashwin been given the chance of playing more away games, perhaps his evolution would have been even faster. In home conditions, Ashwin has been deadly – 351 wickets at an average of 21.26. Even away from home, his 149 wickets have come at a not-too-bad average of 30.40.

Kumble echoed a similar sentiment. “We talk about Ashwin in India, but don’t forget Ashwin outside India is quality. I have always said that Ashwin should have played more outside India,” the former great said during commentary.

Only a few apply an asterisk to Ashwin’s greatness, mostly citing his record outside Asia.

“If you are a spin bowler and you’re from India, you are going to be best in bowling in Indian conditions,” former England off-spinner Graeme Swann said, backing Ashwin. “You should be judged by how you get on, away. You should be judged when you are the match-winner and how often you get your team to win. Ashwin has done that time and time again. To get to 500 in less than 100 Tests is a massive thing. More than 5 wickets per Test is incredible.”

As incredible as it is, Ashwin will quickly have to identify a new goal. He isn’t getting any younger and knowing what he wants will be important. So will Kumble’s Indian record of 619 wickets now help him push forward?

“The plain answer is, no,” he said. “It’s 120 wickets away. Every day is what I want to live for. And you know I’m 37 years old. I don’t know what’s in store next or what’s in store in the next two months. I mean, I don’t want to really jump the gun. I have kept it this way for the last 4-5 years and it’s been very simple. And it’s worked for me. Why change anything that’s working for you?”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Rasesh Mandani loves a straight drive. He has been covering cricket, the governance and business side of sport for close to two decades. He writes and video blogs for HT.

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