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.”