R. Ashwin: 'I find myself in one of the happiest phases of my life'

Ahead of the World Test Championship final, R. Ashwin reflects on his 10-year journey in Test cricket.

A season to cherish: R. Ashwin celebrates after getting to his fifth Test century, his first on his home ground, in Chennai against England in February, 2021. - SPORTZPICS/BCCI

R. Ashwin has had a memorable 2020-21 season as a Test player, contributing with both bat and ball in the recent rubbers against Australia and England. Now in his 11th year in Test cricket, Ashwin says he is in one of the happiest phases of his life. 

Ahead of the World Test Championship final, Ashwin speaks to Sportstar about his 10-year journey in Test cricket, the World Test Championship final, and more.

Q. How do you feel mentally after the tough times you had personally during the IPL ahead of a long tour?

A. It is quite difficult. It is not as easy as it looks because every time you have to go through quarantine. You have experience in your head but still nothing like going and adapting. You are all rusty with your skills with limited practice. At the same time, every time the feeling is quite fresh and that's also exciting because you feel like you are starting all over again. 

It is 10 years since your Test debut. How has been the journey? You are the fourth-highest wicket-taker for India (409) and not far off Harbhajan Singh (417) and Kapil Dev’s (434) tally.

I find myself in one of the happiest phases of my life. I'm enjoying my cricket. I am not looking too far ahead. If you want to enjoy the moment, you have to stay in the present and embrace it. The first and foremost goal is the WTC. To look beyond the next Test or tour is something I [no longer do], but to be putting myself on the list as elite is a matter of pride. I never expected to get this far in my life. I have been an optimistic person, but if you have to look back at my life, to play India U-17 and U-19 as a batsman and just starting to bowl off-spin at 19, I have come a long way. 

Most people doubted whether I was good for Test cricket when I made my debut in 2011. My only explanation was that people saw me through the IPL and thought I am a shorter-version bowler, but most of my growth came through first-class cricket. That’s how I got noticed. Even today, they can find faults technically with my bowling, but I don’t think my bowling ability has been built on a technical platform alone. The ability I possess as a bowler or cricketer is superior to the technical skills one might possess.

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Wicket-taking and match-winning abilities are beyond a skill somebody possesses. My career has been built on that. Cricketing acumen and wicket-taking ability are a skill in itself. I have kept on adding them, tactically and technically, too. It has been a journey of learning. 

Seen as a spinner with variations at the start of your career, in recent times, it feels as if you have succeeded with more subtle variations like working the angles. Can you elaborate on the evolution of your bowling? 

The way the game is explained to the public is still very basic. For a lot of cricketers, perception precedes them. When I came to play Test cricket, I was seen as someone who had a lot of variations. But in my entire career, carrom balls would have constituted only 2-3 percent of my deliveries. In 2012 against England, I picked 14 wickets but people said I was trying too much and that I needed to go back to basics. What was happening was, I was missing my length; it is a basic mistake and a crucial aspect of a spinner. In my career, I have had to leave some aspects behind to acquire something and improve my game. A change of angles, or working with seam position like cross-seam, are things I have started to do a lot more now. But I have a lot of subtle variations as well and I have been doing these things for a long time. It is just that it is being noticed now.

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Can you talk us through the impact of county cricket?

County cricket is a healthy experience. Everyone should go through it. Playing county is a huge workload, a lot of responsibility; it takes a toll on your body. The role of spinners in England is one of the hardest as the wickets can go flat. After 40-50 overs, the ball stops swinging and the spinner is given the ball; it is the best time to bat. A spinner comes into play only on the last two days when the footmarks open. You develop patience and a lot of skills like trying to change the pace and bowling to different fields. It made me a better cricketer.

What is your assessment of the World Test Championship as a concept?

I think it is always going to get better. The idea of having some context to the whole Test arena is amazing. It was long pending and I'm so pleased the ICC has done it. Some areas will be addressed, but considering the pandemic, they have done a phenomenal job. To sustain the health of Test cricket is healthy for cricket. The more Test cricket is played, the more cricketers are going to get rounded. It will help other forms of the game as well.

Your thoughts on the final against New Zealand?

We have played well to get to the World Test Championship final and we are deservedly there. They are a fantastic team and have a lot of exciting cricketers. The fact that they would have played a couple of Test matches before the final will be good preparation for them. So we have to adapt, use our experience, and be ready.

New Zealand has quite a few left-handers. What makes you so successful against them?

I would like to think that it is because I challenge both sides of the edge. I get a batsman out through the inside edge and the outside and get the slip, short leg, and silly point in play. I think that is one of the reasons the left-handers find it difficult. Also, I change the angle; I go over the wicket and to the extremes for around the stumps also. So challenging both sides of the bat gives me the edge.

Milestone man: Ashwin got to the 400-mark (400 Test wickets) in the third Test against England, in Ahmedabad. - SPORTZPICS/BCCI

 

How would you rate the current bench strength considering there is another Indian team set to tour Sri Lanka for ODIs and T20s? Is India on the cusp of becoming a cricketing superpower and dominate as Australia did from the late 1990s and through the 2000s?

It is amazing. The health of cricket in India is great. We are already a cricketing superpower; the IPL has played a very important role in helping India get there. The pressure and the platform the players get are amazing. I just hope it keeps growing. There are things we can improve on but I am sure we are on the right track.

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You have millions of followers on social media and we have seen you voice your views on a lot of things. Like the recent video on vaccinations. But is it difficult to talk about social issues aloud, because of the pressures of being who you are and the following you have?

When it comes to social issues, there are two sides to the coin. One is the responsibility that I have to [shoulder] as someone whom people know. The second is what I think about the issue. I can’t thrust these things on the people. For me, I must bring it out. 

No one has stopped me and told me to do this, but I have certain beliefs which I will bring out in a way I like. There are certain issues that I know I'm not informed about and I will never talk about that, unless and until I am well informed. People will come out with their opinion and I have to bring things that are of relevance and do it subtly. I want to contribute to society and reach more people.

Recently there have been reports about the financial issues first-class cricketers are facing without Ranji Trophy last year. You have in the past called for contracts at the first-class level. Is it time for that?

I have always believed, cricketers playing at the first-class level must have something to fall back on. Today, the pandemic has put things into perspective. You can't have cricketers struggling to make ends meet. I have always believed the State team has to hold on to its premier cricketers through contracts, look after them, manage them. They have a short lifespan. A first-class cricketer can play 10-15 years at the best. If the contracts are existing, the players have a launchpad because not everybody gets into broadcasting or coaching. Unlike in the past, there are not many government jobs or even corporate jobs. State contracts for your top 20-25 cricketers are very important and the way these contracts are deployed too must be standardised.

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