Ashwin and the Kumble syndrome!

The new Ashwin is less hurried, less prone to experimentation, less gimmicky, more confident, more focused on laying traps than taking unthinking potshots.

India's Ravichandran Ashwin celebrates the dismissal of South Africa's Faf du Plessis on the first day of their second Test match in Bangalore.   -  AP

Ashwin might become India captain one day, even though the present skipper Virat Kohli is younger than him.   -  AP

Despite all his gifts, Anil Kumble wasn't Shane Warne — and that was always held against him!   -  Getty Images

During a discussion on cricket at the Tata Literature Festival in Mumbai recently, a gentleman at the back of the audience gave breath to a common Indian bias. Bishan Bedi and the quartet were the last great spinners who bowled for India, he implied; what came after was forgettable. This was a stunning charge, and I spent some time in placing the figures before him. Between them, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh claimed over 1000 Test wickets; the quartet of Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Srinivas Venkataraghavan had 853 in roughly the same number of Tests combined.

What this demonstrates is not who was superior — such things can’t be accomplished by statistics or personal biases alone — but rather what I have termed the ‘Kumble Syndrome’.

This is the refusal by sections of the Indian public to accept any spinner, whatever his record, who does not have any or all of the attributes of the Quartet: the flight and cunningness of a Prasanna, the rhythm and poetry of a Bedi, the pace and unexpectedness of a Chandra or the control and professionalism of a Venkataraghavan. All this combined with the ability to turn the ball across the width of the stumps!

Kumble had the cunningness without the flight, the rhythm without the poetry, he had the pace and the control. Yet he wasn’t Warne — and that was always held against him!

The current spearhead of India’s bowling attack also has to deal with the Kumble Syndrome. Ravichandran Ashwin is a world class off-spinner, a match-winner, the fastest Indian to a 100 Test wickets, and second only to the great Clarrie Grimmett in reaching 150 wickets in 29 Tests. Among Indian spinners with 150 Test wickets, he has the best strike rate and the best economy rate, and might finish as the most successful off-spinner India has produced. Like spinners tend to be, he is a fine analyser of his own bowling.

 

At his worst, he over-analyses to a standstill; at his best, he lets muscle memory take over, bowling with clockwork rhythm and asking questions of the batsman with a smile on his face.

It may have all come together in the Sri Lanka series, where, with 21 wickets, he led India to a series win after the loss in the first Test. It wasn’t so much what he added to his repertoire that mattered as what he jettisoned. Off-spinning is a subtle art, and modern bats and shorter boundaries mean that it takes a brave man to even attempt to bowl off-breaks today. It was even suggested not so long ago that off-spin was dead.

Ashwin, who began as an opening batsman in club cricket, did not rise through the first class system. He made his mark first as a T20 bowler in the IPL, and it took him a while to rid himself of the bad habits he picked up in that format. It took a conscious effort to bowl more slowly, set traps more elaborately and seek sustenance within when things went wrong. As it did in Johannesburg when he was given five sessions of a Test match to bowl India to victory, and finished wicketless.

 

Ashwin’s early career seemed to focus on being the jack of all trades rather than on mastering any of them. The carrom ball (now referred to as the sodukku ball to distinguish it from other similar deliveries) came early and with practice. The deliberate mis-step in the run-up to confuse batsmen always did look like a gimmick, more likely to affect the bowler’s rhythm than the batsman’s. Meanwhile the batting (sometimes compared to V. V. S. Laxman’s) evolved and two Test match centuries meant he might be referred to as an “all rounder” at least in Indian conditions.

But even after claiming 100 Test wickets, Ashwin’s place in the team was not guaranteed. In Australia last year, a greenhorn, leg-spinner Karn Sharma was preferred for the inaugural Test in Adelaide.

In a recent interview, Ashwin argued that off-spinners who fall well within the 15-degree flex set as the limit might be at a disadvantage in the game. He might even have practised ‘chucking’ (up to 15 degrees), bowling with long sleeves. Luckily it was another add-on that Ashwin quickly dispensed with. The emergence of the new Ashwin might have something to do with the patience and understanding of India’s bowling coach and fellow Tamil Nadu player, Bharati Arun. Ashwin has said “he answered all my questions”. Sometimes the asking of questions itself is a catharsis, a way of de-clogging the mind.

Against South Africa, the new Ashwin is less hurried, less prone to experimentation, less gimmicky, more confident, more focused on laying traps than taking unthinking potshots. Test cricket calls for patience and planning. Ashwin, temperamentally a patient man who likes to work things out with Plan B and C in readiness seems to have re-discovered the joy of bowling off-spin.

 



Ashwin’s record abroad, a wicket every 67 balls as compared to one every 55 in India, and an average of 36.6 per wicket (India, 27.2) suggests more work ahead for the bowler.

The tag of “home bully” followed Kumble too, till he broke out of it. He finished with 44 percent of his wickets coming on foreign soil. Just under a third of Ashwin’s wickets have been taken outside India.

The comparison with Kumble is not accidental. There is the same awareness of the craft in the two men, the same intelligence, the same manner of seeing the big picture. It is a combination that suggests Ashwin might captain India — this despite the fact that the incumbent is younger than him.

He was successful even as he was working out the kind of bowler he wanted to be. The choice has fallen on being the classical off-spinner, fooling the batsman as much by spin as by the suggestion of spin. It might be tough, but Ravichandran Ashwin might shake off the Kumble Syndrome yet.