India vs South Africa: R Ashwin hurtles on, speed bumps no bar | cricket

Muttiah Muralitharan scalped his 350th Test wicket in the second innings of the first Test of a home series against Bangladesh. This was in 2001, and Muralitharan was the fastest to the landmark, in 66 Tests. Eighteen years later, Ravichandran Ashwin too scalped his 350th Test wicket in the second innings of the first Test of a home series, this one against South Africa. And Ashwin’s feat was also achieved in his 66th Test. But that’s where the similarity ends.

The Sri Lankan off-spinner’s 350th wicket came in the middle of an 80-wicket year, then the Test record for a spinner—any spinner—in a single calendar year, breaking his own mark of 75 wickets that was set in the previous year, 2000. It only goes to show that by the time Muralitharan was nearing his 250-wicket mark, the Sri Lankan team management had seen enough promise and potential to give him a consistent run from the turn of the millennium and Muralitharan responded with 155 wickets over two years—2000 and 2001—and then a ridiculous 450 more over his career.

Finally back

Ashwin, on the other hand, got to his 350th wicket in his maiden Test appearance of the year, during a match-haul of eight wickets. He was left out of India’s playing eleven for each of the three Tests they played in 2019, including in the two-match series in the West Indies in August and September. This made it a total of seven Tests not played for Ashwin over the last two years, three of them due to injury. Yet, Ashwin matched Muralitharan in his speed to the haul, 66 Tests, and was even faster than him on other crucial parameters such as overs bowled (nearly 500 fewer than the Sri Lankan) and a whole year and a month earlier from the start of their respective careers. This, despite his lack of momentum and the team management’s seeming lack of trust in his abilities in Test matches outside the subcontinent.

That lack of trust was evident right from his first assignment overseas, in Australia in 2011-12, soon after he burst on to the Test scene. Ashwin made his long-format debut at home in 2011, bang in the middle of India’s worst away season, where they were beaten in eight consecutive Tests in England and Australia.


Australia challenge

Immediately after the 4-0 loss in England (which, incidentally, witnessed the last of Harbhajan Singh’s Tests away from the subcontinent), Ashwin made his first appearance in a three-match series against West Indies, where his 22 wickets put him on the flight to Australia. In the second Test in Sydney, famous for assisting spin, he went wicketless and was dropped for the following game in Perth, where India fielded four pacers. And that, as they say, was that.

With the senior members of the side shying away from the press during that series, a young Ashwin found himself facing the media far more often than he would’ve liked. In one of those pressers, he was quoted as saying that his job on the tour was to restrict the flow of runs. Think about that: a bowler with keen attacking instincts had his focus shifted away from picking wickets in his first Test series in trying conditions.

“That can break anyone’s confidence,” says India’s former left-arm spinner, Maninder Singh, who has been very open about how growing frustrations with his belief in his bowling action snuffed out what started off as a promising career. Maninder calls that belief, that self-confidence, as ‘feeling’. “I wonder who gave Ashwin that feeling? He should have been given another feeling right from the start—that he can take wickets on any kind of surface, which is what I think he can. But what they are telling him is that he is going to stop the runs, while the fast bowlers will take wickets.”

However, the 8-0 drubbing in away Tests ensured that there was a great push (and some believe it was from the MS Dhoni-led team management) for India to play to its strengths in home games; so much so that the wickets in India saw the ball turning square, often from the first day. This ensured that Ashwin, and his new bowling partner in Ravindra Jadeja, began taking wickets in heaps. But Ashwin’s critics, of whom there are many, believed that the overtly conducive conditions at home ensured that his performances while bowling away from home suffered even more.

Ashwin’s incredible haul of 248 Test wickets at home (at an average of just 22.62) has been attributed to two factors: the nature of the surfaces in India and the advent of the DRS, which has forced the under-pressure umpires to uphold more LBW appeals than they ever did in the past. But there is a third and more important factor: his talent, which allows him to, among other things, out think the man holding the bat.

“He must be doing something really well if he has taken so many wickets so quickly,” says Harbhajan Singh, who still holds the record for the most wickets by an Indian off-spinner—417 dismissals. “I mean, whatever the conditions, it still requires the bowler to have the skill to get to 350 wickets. That is no small achievement and full credit to him.”

Few variations

There’s also the widespread misconception that Ashwin has employed countless bowling variations to get to that tally—a misconception often fuelled by Ashwin himself by routinely remodelling his bowling action and even delivering the odd leg-break during bygone IPLs. But the fact remains that in his march to 350 wickets, Ashwin has stuck to the three or four types of deliveries he knows best.

“Variations are the same for every off-spinner. Just that some bowl it a bit differently from the others,” says Harbhajan. And Maninder echoes that sentiment when he says: “He knows that in India he doesn’t have to do anything extraordinary. But it is with his brains, and his intelligence, that Ashwin holds a line and length and gets to a five-for in 30 overs.”

But it is safe to assume that Ashwin’s implementation of the wrong ‘un—the ball that turns away from the right-handed batsman—is one of the best the world has ever seen.

Bhajji bowled the doosra, while Ashwin bowls the sodukku, commonly known as the carrom ball.

The word sodukku is a Tamil onomatopoeia—derived from the sound when one cracks their knuckles or snaps their fingers. Today, it is a sound closely associated with the nick of a bat or the gentle dislodging of the bails. The ball was first unleashed, in international cricket at least, by Sri Lanka’s Ajantha Mendis in 2008. But Mendis was a freak bowler and freak bowlers tend to get found out.

Ashwin is no freak, so he ended up perfecting an art so fragile that one has to hold the ball with a loose grip of thumb and index finger, just so that the middle finger has enough space to manoeuvre and flick the sphere towards the batsman. It was an art Ashwin noticed during his days of tennis-ball cricket in the gullies of Chennai.

The tennis ball, however, is easy to coax into a contrived grip because it is soft and malleable whereas the cricket ball isn’t. But Ashwin has long fingers, which is key to the grip and the flick, and he worked those digits for close to two years in the Tamil Nadu nets before the ball rose from the dead in the international arena.

The carrom ball, coupled the arm ball (which is loaded with backspin to drift towards the slip cordon) and his stock, off-breaking ball, have been more than adequate to make Ashwin an enigma; a real puzzle to visiting batsmen. “But I feel he can be more than that. Today he is seen as the expert in taking wickets on helpful tracks,” says Maninder. “The fact is that he is brilliant enough to take wickets on any surface. All he needs is the right backing; all he needs is for someone from the team management to tell him that he is good enough to be a wicket-taker on any kind of pitch, and just see how he shines.”

First Published:
Oct 17, 2019 09:29 IST

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