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‘We’ll probably realise Ashwin’s quality when he retires’: Anil Kumble’s tribute to India spinner ahead of 100th Test

From one champion to another, Anil Kumble pays tribute to India’s spin wizard Ravichandran Ashwin as he gears up to play his 100th Test

It’s not hard to see why Anil Kumble and R Ashwin have formed a mutual admiration society. There is much in common between the former India skipper, arguably the greatest match-winner in Indian cricket, and the modern-day giant who joined the illustrious leg-spinner in the 500-wicket club in Tests last month. On Thursday in Dharamsala, Ashwin will link up with Kumble in the 100-Test club too, though this grouping isn’t as exclusive as the wicket-takers’ bunch.

Congratulations… and go well in your 100th, Ash (ANI )

Hailing from similar family backgrounds, armed with engineering degrees and neither starting out to be a spinner – Kumble aspired to a pace bowler, Ashwin was desirous of being a top-order batter – the two stand out as shining beacons in the practice of their crafts. Until Ashwin, Kumble was the second-fastest to 500 Test wickets, behind only the peerless Muttiah Muralitharan. A little over a week back in Ranchi, Ashwin drew abreast of Kumble’s tally of most five-wicket hauls in a Test innings (35), with only Murali (an incredible 67 times), Shane Warne (37) and Sir Richard Hadlee (36) ahead of them.

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Especially in the last half-dozen years or so, however, Ashwin hasn’t been India’s first-choice spinner outside the subcontinent, the all-round package that the left-handed Ravindra Jadeja provides a more attractive package to successive team managements. So it is no surprise to hear Kumble say that he believes the 37-year-old ought to have played his 100th Test a lot earlier, nor when he agrees that Ashwin reminds him of himself.

“A lot of times,” he tells Hindustan Times when you ask him if he sees shades of himself in the off-spinner from Chennai. “I guess even his career has been similar; he probably started later, I started a bit early. But otherwise, it pretty much mirrors some of the things I went through. In my view, he should have played his 100th much earlier. But for some reason, he hasn’t. No one is sure why he doesn’t get picked when India travel outside of the subcontinent. That’s a bit strange, something I always have been perplexed by. It did happen to me too, but his is very different. We tend to look at a fourth fast bowler (now) than somebody who is a match-winner, which is really strange. In my case at least, we were always playing four bowlers. But when you are playing five bowlers, then to not play your two best spinners is a bit, I don’t know, strange…”

Welcoming Ashwin to the 500-wicket club, the hitherto only Indian in that elite list adds, “It’s nice that someone else has been able to get to that. Ash is still going strong, obviously he has all the ability to surpass (Kumble’s Indian record of 619 Test wickets). His ability to do exceptionally well as a match-winner, the consistency he has shown all these years, that’s a great hallmark. It’s not easy to do that. Especially in India, once you have raised the bar, to keep performing at that level isn’t easy.”

For nearly a year from the middle of 2016 to the middle of 2017, Kumble watched Ashwin go about his business from close quarters when he was the head coach of the national side. During that period, India played Tests in the Caribbean, and at home against New Zealand, England, Bangladesh and Australia, losing just one and winning 12 of 17 games with Ashwin as the principal enforcer (99 wickets and 699 runs with two centuries in those 17 matches).

“The consistency he showed was standout,” Kumble offers. “He is very thorough in how he prepares. He goes into in-depth understanding of the players, the conditions and then tries to come up with a solution to win the battle. That is something that stood out; that, and his ability to work on a player in those spells. It was very evident where he was looking to set batsmen up. You know that when he bowls a spell, no matter who the two batters are, they are fallible because he is always thinking and plotting and working. That’s something he has done exceptionally well over the years and even that year when I was with the team, he did that. Against all those five different teams, you could see him work on how to set up a player, what speeds to bowl and what angles to bowl from. You want to see that. You know when someone is doing that that the results are just round the corner, it’s a formality.”

Kumble marvels at Ashwin’s ability to adapt

Throughout his long career, Kumble kept adding to his repertoire, and post shoulder surgery in 2001 to correct a rotator cuff problem, he developed two googlies, among other variations. Ashwin too hasn’t been content to rest on his laurels. “One thing is that you are never satisfied with what is happening,” Kumble throws light on the process of constant evolution of a cricketer. “You want to improve, you want to get the better of the batter. You also look at opportunities to read other bowlers bowing at batters who might have done well against you in the past and understand what lengths and lines they are bowling and how you can incorporate that within your own skill-sets. Constant improvement, trying to evolve, says quite a lot about a bowler and that’s something Ash has done over the years. You can still see him continue to learn, continue to go and play domestic cricket so that you can test all of that because that’s where you trial all these things.

“That’s the reason I used to go back and play Ranji Trophy or a club match or a domestic game. One is, of course, your domestic team will do well because you have a quality player coming back into the set-up. It not only lifts the team’s performance but also individually, everyone raises their game because you have an international player in your midst. But also, it gives one the opportunities to try out new things as a bowler, as a player and that’s something you have seen Ash do. He turns up in the TNPL, turns up for Tamil Nadu, he turns up and plays club cricket. That’s what you want to see. It is not just about going to that team and showing solidarity but it’s also learning about his own bowling, about evolving. That goes to show that if you are passionate about your skill and what you do, trying to maximise that till you can actually do that because you have to stop at some stage, right…? But till such time, as long as you can go there and do it, why not? The more you do it, the better you will get. That’s something he does.”

Kumble comes up with a cryptic chuckle when asked if Ashwin hasn’t quite got his due as a champion performer, not unlike Kumble himself in his prime. “With some players, people miss what they brought to the table after they have retired, right?” he says, matter-of-factly’. “Some players are like that. Maybe people will realise the quality of Ash…. I know people are talking about him and what he has achieved already but especially in a country like India, bowlers don’t get the same kind of adulation that batters do. That’s the nature of how we look at cricket in our country. We will probably realise his quality when retires and moves on. But in my book, Ash is in the top tier of players who have played for the country.

“I love his passion and hunger for the game. Apart from his bowling, he adds a lot more value both with his batting and his inputs on the field. Although he has not ever been given the position of a captain officially, he has always been a leader within the group and that’s something he can be proud of.”


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