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India vs England, 3rd Test: The constant evolution that has driven Ravichandran Ashwin to greatness

His creativity is viewed by some as a double-edged sword but he has really made it work for himself.

Many shades of R Ashwin have come to the fore in his existence as an international cricketer. There was the bowler armed with a bag of variations who made a breakthrough in India’s white-ball set-up on the back of performing for Chennai Super Kings in the IPL. There was the bowler who enjoyed a swift rise in Test cricket on home pitches aiding prodigious turn. There was the bowler who donned full sleeves briefly as if to make a point that he was at a disadvantage in comparison to spinners with dubious actions. There was the bowler who dabbled with leg-breaks. There was the bowler who gradually got better away from home even as injuries cast a shadow. And the bowler that’s now in front of us is a complete master of his craft.

India’s Ravichandran Ashwin walks back to the pavilion at the end of the second day (AP)

Through the off-spinner’s topsy-turvy journey, ability to constantly evolve has been striking. Which is why he occupies eminence today as only the second Indian bowler after Anil Kumble to get to the coveted landmark of 500 Test wickets. That he has done so in just 98 Tests — the second quickest after Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan who reached the milestone in 87 Tests — shows his proficiency, without quite illustrating the challenges that he has had to routinely overcome.

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As Sunil Subramanian, former Indian team manager and Ashwin’s childhood coach, says, “I haven’t known anyone anywhere in the world with that many wickets who has been dropped. The setbacks he has had have hardened him as a pro.”

When Ashwin made his Test debut in November 2011, his first challenge was to step into the role of India’s premier off-spinner after Harbhajan Singh had excelled for a decade. There were doubts because most observers felt Ashwin was a white-ball spinner, oblivious perhaps to the hard yards he had put in for Tamil Nadu in first-class cricket too.

He dashed to 50 wickets in just nine Tests, but the pressures and biting reality of Test cricket would soon dawn on him. Just a year on from his debut, he was subjected to stern scrutiny when he and the other Indian spinners were outperformed by Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar in England’s series triumph in India. So underwhelmed was Ashwin by his returns that when Australia came visiting a couple of months later, he was unsure of his spot at first. But India persisted and Ashwin claimed 29 wickets in eight innings at an average of 20.1.

“We had eight sessions before that Australia series. He wasn’t sure whether he would be picked for the first Test in Chennai. But I told him he will pick more than 25 wickets in the series,” recalls Subramanian, who first met the ever-inquisitive spinner at a Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) camp in 2007. “What I noticed was his delivery stride was becoming bigger and bigger. Once that happens, you aren’t sure about the point of release and your command of length goes. So we only worked on his delivery stride during those sessions.”

Even as Ashwin became an unstoppable force at home, he continued getting the rough end of the stick for his away record. The lowest point was perhaps Adelaide 2014, when uncapped leg-spinner Karn Sharma was favoured for the first Test of a marquee series. That’s when Ashwin headed to the nets at Adelaide Oval and worked extensively with bowling coach Bharat Arun. In later years, Ashwin acknowledged the benefits he derived from those sessions where their focus was on fixing his alignment at the bowling crease.

“He asks you a lot of questions and valid ones,” says Arun of his interactions with Ashwin. “It’s very right for somebody to be absolutely convinced before he does something. He knows his bowling and asks you pertinent questions. He is constantly trying to improve and improvise. That’s been the hallmark of his success. We used to ask each other questions. I learned from him as much as he perhaps learned from me. I had to dig deep to answer his questions and we had very productive discussions on bowling. All said and done, somebody needs to implement what has been discussed. He has those skills. He is always willing to come out of his comfort zone to try new things.”

Ashwin’s record away from home has improved significantly in the last six years. He has 149 wickets in 39 Tests at an average of 30.4 and a strike rate of 62.8. Kumble, the man Ashwin is chasing in the list of highest wicket-takers for India, claimed 269 wickets in 69 Tests at 35.85 and 74.5 respectively. Harbhajan had 152 wickets in 48 away Tests at 38.9 and 76.2. That Ashwin has still been dropped from the eleven for many away Tests, most glaringly in the World Test Championship (WTC) final last year, on the pretext of team balance hasn’t been fair to him.

At his core, Ashwin is a keen student of the game not afraid of exploring new facets and challenging the status quo. This trait has also led to criticism, for Ashwin has occasionally given the impression of trying too many things for his own good. But a thick skin and strong belief in his ideas mean he hasn’t wavered.

Subramanian views Ashwin’s creativity as a double-edged sword. “At times, it (his tendency to try things) can be infuriating, but it is also the reason why he gets so many wickets. It comes with the territory.”

As Ashwin sits on 500 wickets in 98 Tests with more energy in the tank, it’s apt to say he has wielded the sword to his advantage more often than bearing its consequences.


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