Braving the ever-caustic Chennai heat and more than a few trickles of sweat down my face, I made my way to the team hotel on the day of the IPL final. What I expected was a routine interview - the interviewer speaks, more often than not interrupts and the interviewee talks on, regardless. Frankly speaking, it was quite the opposite with Ravichandran Ashwin, as he made his way to the breakfast table for what would be a fascinating conversation about international cricket, dealing with a broken wrist, spin-bowling and well, domestic cricket. Thankfully, we managed to keep the IPL out of the way for a fair bit. It’s been that kind of a season for Ashwin, an eventful start against the West Indies with a bucketful of wickets, a Test hundred, a man of the series award and importantly, marriage. And then, a tour to Australia - an assignment which Indian cricketers say, makes men out of boys and vice-versa.
A quick review of what he learnt in his first year of international cricket resulted in this interesting narrative of survival, a candid deviation from the almost clichéd “learning experience” bit we get from our cricketers. “The fact that I’ve been around in international cricket for longer than one year has actually helped. I know what the intricacies of the team are and how the team operates, how each one likes to be in their own zone. It’s actually helped me personally, telling me the needs of international cricket, the needs of survival and all that,” says Ashwin before putting through one of his many quotable quotes, as you’d see through this piece.
“I think to be an international cricketer, especially for India, you need to be a survivor more than a performer. You need to know how exactly to survive, and how to push yourself forward,” he says before adding, “To be a successful cricketer for India over a period of time, you have to shut down every attention-grabbing detail and the non-essentials. I don’t know if people realise it, or how many do, but there will be a time when they do.”
From a cricketing perspective, Ashwin believes he's much richer for the demands of the international game. He says, “One thing I am happy with international cricket is that it hasn’t thrown me into the second season syndrome. It’s sometimes difficult to deal with the attention that has been given and you generally have no time to sleep over laurels. International cricket has definitely been kind in that aspect, in terms of keeping you on the toes all the time and I would say, rather than letting you cool your heals off and then get the battering.”
When Ashwin first burst on to the international scene, commentators and pundits were quick to attribute his imminent rise to the Indian Premier League, less mindful of his performances in domestic cricket. “I think having seen the IPL, people only look at the smaller perspective - what I have achieved in the IPL. To be very, very clear, people don’t really follow what’s happening in domestic cricket. The electronic media hasn’t really come to terms with the fact that the Ranji Trophy has brought through India players all these years. They don’t really understand what Indian domestic cricket is all about.” he says rather passionately, before adding, “definitely, to me, Indian domestic cricket teaches you a lot. You always talk about standards having to improve but you are never paying attention to what’s happening. TN-Mum, Mum-Del, TN-Delhi is a long-standing rivalry and a Bombay-Karnataka game always happens to be played on a good wicket. You don’t have to cover each and every game, but when a final occasion happens, coverage is essential. If there is a great deal of coverage for domestic cricket, people will not just follow, but you can see a lot of changes coming through.”
Ashwin toiled hard for four long years with Tamil Nadu, South Zone and several representational sides before getting his first break for the Indian national team. He credits his personal spin-bowling coach, former TN spinner Sunil Subramaniam and mentor WV Raman for guiding him through every stage.
Ashwin says, “Sunil spotted me at a very young age and Raman took me to a different level. As they say, when the disciple is ready, the guru will come along. I had someone helping me throughout and had someone I could look up to.”
On his relationship with Raman, Ashwin says, “I am very close to WV Raman, not just as a mentor. Our relationship extends beyond a coach and a player. I remember an incident from my second season in Ranji cricket, where I broke my wrist during a warm-up before a game against Karnataka and it was my first ever fracture. I made my way to the hospital and called Raman, confirming the fracture, and all he said was, ‘Take it easy, see you later’ — in other words, this is part of life, in terms of what people are going to give to you, expect more of this, and welcome to the cruel world of injuries.”
WE THEN SIT down to carefully examine and dissect his performances in the Australia tour, where Ashwin picked 10 wickets in the three Test matches he played. He says, “It was basically a fantastic tour for me, personally. I’ve had some wonderful wickets in the series, had some wonderful duels with Hussey and Ponting (had them almost, both of them being dropped), and that’s all I can look for.”
Tactically speaking, his preparation for this tour was interesting, given it was his first outing in that country, but as an astute cricket-watcher, Ashwin figured the tactical business of wicket-taking Down Under. He says, “My preparation going into this tour was beautiful because, I had my men on the fence for the against the spin shot. I thought hitting with the spin in Australia was much tougher and that was an assessment I made in the practice game and it worked beautifully. I had Ed Cowan out all the time, 3-4 times + practice game. Put long-on back, mid-off inside, chance - actually going against the spin, hitting the splice of the bat and wickets how you get there are very, very different, bat-pads or lbws are difficult to get.” Also, setting realistic goals was a clincher in many ways. “I went in with a realistic ambition of picking 15 wickets, and if things had gone my way, I would have had them,” he adds.
From an approach point of view, and considering the amount of flak he drew back home for what was termed defensive bowling - “round the wicket, middle and leg line”, a theory he doesn’t quite agree with, and busts it with well-articulated points.
“The Melbourne Test was perhaps one of the best bowling spells I’ve ever done. To bowl such a spell in the first innings and again, in the second innings (and Hussey was gone) I was still bowling well. Honestly, I think this round the wicket bit is *bollocks*. My coach and I continue to fight about this, but to me, common sense always takes over. At 300/1, if I had bowled over the stumps and attacked, they’d have probably declared by stumps, but that’s not what I am talking about. All I can do is what the team expects from me, they wanted me to shut stop the runs and there was hardly anything in the wicket, and the Kookaburra ball had gone very old,” he says.
“After Sydney, I did my own analysis on what I had done — how I was bowling, how the ball was coming out of my hand, how it’s dipping and how it’s falling. I didn’t bowl many full-tosses or short-balls, I really thought my comeback at Adelaide with the ball was good. If you’re going as a spinner, if you have runs on the board, in the fourth innings in Australia it doesn’t become easier, but you have a role to play. In Australia, Swann picked up 14 wickets in Adelaide, but with 7-8 wickets in one game. But the game was set up by his batsmen. If we had more than 300 runs to defend in the fourth innings in Australia, I’d have probably won us the Test matches. Every time Ponting and Clarke walked out to bat, they were ahead of the game. My rhythm in that tour was really good, and I picked up wickets in a practice game. We had 300 runs on the board and I’ll stop there,” says Ashwin.
His summary of the Australia tour would be something like this, “It was the toughest acid test I’ve had — 3 Tests, 10 wickets and I am glad I passed it well. I knew my role — get a few runs lower down the order, bowl the way I did — patchy, one-side of the wicket bowler, boring and try and control of the game. I could have ended with 14 wickets. I’ve been very, very lucky when it comes to drops, I always get dropped and I am used to it now. I don’t have a go at the fielder because anyone can drop catches.”
BEING A BOWLER in international cricket is akin to being an anti-hero unless, as Ashwin says, you can bowl really fast. He speaks of an interesting narrative in India, where bowlers don’t get their due and batsmen, with individual successes get plaudits over team failures. He says, “Whenever the team’s done well, people always hail the batsmen, happens more in India than anywhere else. But in reality, unless a bowler has done well, the batsmen can never be hailed. If a game is lost, a batsman’s hundred is still projected and that’s perhaps why a team’s success isn’t highly rated by every individual cricketer.” Also, he mentions a few non-negotiables in this regard. Ashwin says, “What the team requires, the bowler does. What a team requires is what a batsman will not do, but what the team requires, the bowler will do because he has no choice.”
Is Ashwin a defensive bowler? I ask him this question, almost instantly, I await a brilliant rebuttal. “For me, wickets are non-negotiable. I don’t think I am a defensive bowler. For a bowler, and I have been told this by many coaches, you’re only as good as what your batsmen let you become. For a bowler, the other non-negotiable is that what you deliver is only what a batsman can play. That’s been a myth and I think it’s still a myth. It’s no longer the same and I don’t know if it was the same. If I bowl a short ball, it is being hit over a larger area than what it used to be,” he says
One of the more interesting takeaways from this hour-long conversation with Ashwin was the whole business of cricketers watching cricket and picking up trends that assisted their preparations. Ashwin says, “When I was playing my age-group cricket, even as a batsman, I was excited by this wickets package (Hitz on ESPN). At least I had the inclination for seeing wickets, how bowlers were picking wickets. I still remember the great duels between Michael Atherton and Allan Donald or Shane Warne against the South Africans, and it’s sad that barring a few (Harbhajan vs Ponting), people in India haven’t quite witnessed duels of the highest calibre. I think watching wickets fall is more exciting than watching a boundary or a six being hit.”
Watching cricket, Ashwin says, could be critical to match preparation, on a more individual basis. An analyst, he reckons can only provide inputs, but a smart bowler will pick up the emerging trends himself. He says, “I know how exactly the best players of spin play, because I watch a lot of cricket. At Perth (during the CB series), I had the fine-leg so fine that Mahela got caught there. He didn’t expect I was coming.” Ashwin says that he’s both surprised and disappointed that not many Indian bowlers watch enough cricket.
AS OUR CONVERSATION came to a close, I asked Ashwin about what he was specifically looking forward to come the new season. “I haven’t set any goals as such. I think over this IPL, my repertoire as a spinner has grown. I have many more wicket-taking deliveries than before and most of my wickets this time have fallen to this repertoire. In one of the matches, my favourite cricketer, Mahela Jayawardene didn’t pick my off-spinner and I had him bowled,” he says. Ashwin’s cricketing mantra, however clichéd it may sound has been about systematic preparation, adherence to the processes that might or might not bring results and sticking to the monotony of doing just that.
He says, “I just want to keep excelling. If I don’t live up to my standards, I will be disappointed the most, forget others. I’ve been working systematically on my batting, and hopefully, I can take it to the next level. I keep talking a lot about my batting to Duncan Fletcher. In one word, he’s awesome. If you actually want to learn, you can learn a lot from him.”
As Ashwin signed off, he came up with a quote, that I thought was both articulate and important -- “In India, cricketers don’t improve. I mean they do, but in India...improvements become cricketers. Cricketers don’t actually look for improvement, but once they have been shunted out or thrown out, improvement then starts making them cricketers,” a fine tribute to the very system that made Ravichandran Ashwin the man he is today.