Ashwin: ‘I’ve always been on knife’s edge’

The prolific off-spinner on his journey in Test matches, the need for a bowling culture, his craft of off-spin, and more, in an extensive interview with Sportstar.

Ravichandran Ashwin acknowledges he has “evolved massively” as a cricketer since his early days in Tests.   -  K. R. Deepak

Ravichandran Ashwin is on the cusp of completing a half-century in Tests; he may be offered his 50th cap in the first Test of the upcoming tour of Sri Lanka. Since his debut against West Indies at Feroz Shah Kotla in November, 2011, his ascent to the summit among off-spinners has been swift. He has taken 275 wickets in his 49 Tests, and has figured in 28 Test match wins.

On Monday, he recollected his journey with Sportstar.

Excerpts:

Q. How tough is it to be a right-hand finger spinner these days taking into factor the demands of limited-over and Twenty20 formats?

I think being a finger spinner or wrist spinner or whatever are the other different facets to the game [there are], I feel the heart to take a beating and pounding, come back strongly the next day, and the want to be the centre piece in the game of chess [are] of utmost importance as I see it. That’s what has had me in good stead. I have never been shy of being hit for few boundaries and sixes or taking a battering on a particular day. I have always had the guts to be in a "go for the wicket or six" kind of situation all the time.

Yes, over the years, the game situations, the want for the team to win, the requirements of the captain…all these things have all worked on my mind. Whenever I have done [things] against my nature, it’s always been [dictated] by the game situation or the captain’s requirement, especially in a shorter format of the game.

The left-arm spinner and the ball turning away is just a perception; unfortunately or fortunately most team captains have been batters and when it comes to leading the side and taking a decision everything is based on what he feels and thinks is easy or difficult for him and that’s always been a bane for a bowler. Most of the greatest cricketing countries have been completely dominated by the bowlers; if one sees the Australians of the successful part it has been entirely run by bowlers, a bowler-driven system starts producing champion teams. I see where the game is headed towards and the challenges a finger-spinner would face and I am making changes according to that.

How much have you evolved playing nearly six years of Test cricket?

For some reason I have never had the thought of looking at things as a right-arm off spinner. I would say I have evolved as a cricketer massively. I have never seen myself as a particular species in the context of the game; I have only seen myself as a cricketer who can get better and how much more I can get excellent in the field of play or the value I can bring.

The first person to acknowledge my limitations, shortcomings and how much I need to do to go up, is me. I would say that during the journey of cricket and Test cricket included, since 2010, I have evolved as a human being and I have learnt a lot…about people skills, the game itself, how people perceive one another, and how much I need to be able to live up to somebody’s perceiving at me to become a successful cricketer.

As far as Test cricket goes, it’s been a massive learning in terms of ups and downs. There have been points in my career when I have felt things are meted out on me in an unfair fashion and it has happened all the time. I haven’t won any games lesser, but whenever there has been a game that we have lost, or I don’t do really well, I eventually lose my place. It never happens to batsmen, one has a trust that he will win a new game. I have constantly infused that bit of confidence in everybody to say that I can win games back to back even if have a bad game. But for some reason it doesn’t stem from that bit. It’s just a psyche so deep inside everybody that it’s not going to change overall, but one reason I put my footsteps into this game as a bowler and have viewed things differently, is to make this massive change in people's perceptions and idea because any outstanding champion team will be built on very strong bowler foundations and bowler cultures.

49 Test matches - are you satisfied with what you have done so far as a serious practitioner of off-break bowler?

My satisfaction stems from the fact of how much I can torment the batsmen, how much I can hold them on a tight leash, how much control I can exercise on them in a particular game and in the context of that match. I think I have reasonable amount of wits and idea about me to say, "Ok, this is not going to work and all I need in a particular situation in a match is just bowl the stock ball, the arm ball, just vary the pace and this is enough."

There are times I know that I have to go out of the box in order to purchase wickets and try and demolish a wicket. So those are the times I have tried the extra. This trying of so many things itself stems from the fact that I do not have too much time on my hands. There have been times in my career where I have felt, if I have failed on Day One, I would be unsure if I would play on Day Two. That’s just a way a humorous way putting things. I have always been on knife’s edge. I prefer living on a knife’s edge, but it’s been too much on a knife’s edge. Would I be relevant to the next game…that urge has constantly urged me to strive harder than I would have tried on occasions. But I don’t regret one bit of it.

Have you had the full freedom from M.S. Dhoni and Virat Kohli, to bowl according to your ideas ?

With respect to both Dhoni and Virat, I would give it to them both one thing for having trusted me and given me the full freedom to do [whatever I want] when I have had the ball in my hand.

They have not controlled things; they have given me what I have needed. Both understand that I have plans, things under control and I don’t come under-prepared for a match. When I seek advice they help me to go through situations in a game. I am always over-prepared for a game and they have afforded me as much as freedom as possible.

Dhoni has been my captain for a longer period of time than Virat has been. But Virat himself, has transformed himself massively in the last year or so. It’s been a roller coaster ride for him too. It’s been a partnership of sorts where we have tried to understand and complement each other…when it comes to playing on the field and handling me and me having to put thought across to him. It’s been one heck of a journey. I have enjoyed freedom under both; and as far as I see, a confident individual having plans in place, I don’t think any leader is going to stop that.

Are you happy with the numbers - wickets, wins, five and 10-wicket hauls?

I know my numbers and that’s because I am thorough and prepared. But somewhere down the line people make the mistake of thinking that I like those numbers. But all this doesn’t mean I have a fetish for numbers. In hindsight, I can say that I have chats with people whom I like and love about the reasons why I am playing the game and I have carried their dreams which includes my family and my father. I have carried my dreams into playing for India, putting on those whites and colours… somewhere down the line I spoke this little bit about having to live on the knife’s edge, keep on going and staying relevant in the game… I have probably missed the love for the game somewhere down the line and how much owe to this game that I enjoy.

I feel have missed it somewhere. I think I can enjoy a game a whole lot better than what I have over the last few years. I took a break during the IPL because of an injury. I have come back and reflected upon it and said to myself, I am going to enjoy the rest of my career. I am not going to look at any numbers. I have no interest in it whatsoever. And if I can contribute to India to its success more and more, that’s what will keep me in a happy state of mind.

M. S. Dhoni (right) and Ravichandran Ashwin share a laugh ahead of the ICC World Twenty20 in 2014. Photo: AFP

 

You have missed eight Test matches after making your debut. India has won 28 when you played and lost one, when you did not...

We lost (Sri Lanka, Galle, August 2015, 6 for 46 and 4 for 114) when I got a ten, and I am pretty upset about it. We should have won that Test hands down. The one fact that I keep coming back to is that those eight Test matches I missed, they are a reflection (outcome) of one bad Test, one bad day and I had to sit out for eight Test matches.

The corollary to that is...should you be judged by the limited Test matches you have played overseas? You have played one in South Africa, two in England, none in New Zealand, and six in Australia ?

I don’t know on what basis people are judging me on. I keep repeating this that some people judge you for a reason they have to judge, they judge you because you have to get better. And sometimes I feel people judge you because, they just don’t like you. And sometimes people judge you because they have an agenda. These are the three ways I look at people for judging me and if people genuinely think that I need to improve somewhere, I am on.

I am my first critic. I scrutinise my game far more than actually than any [other] cricketer would ever scrutinise his game. I don’t see why people with right intentions cannot walk up to me and talk to me. Should I be judged based on these sample sizes ? I may be able to resurrect these stats and put that to rest for good or I may not be able to do that, but that does not make me any less a good a cricketer than what I am today.

In recent times people have talked about my ODI stats also. It’s just a perception and I am the second fastest to touch 150 wickets. In 10 overs, one can knock off only so many wickets. If I am allowed to bowl 25 overs, I would probably pick up five wickets in every single game. It’s just a perception that I have created, a benchmark I have made for myself. They are not comparing me to anyone else; that’s exactly what I want to do, I want to leave a legacy behind. I am not competing with myself to get better every single day.

The last two series in Sri Lanka and the West Indies, you have taken wickets in a big way...

A. I don’t think I need any reiteration that I can do it everywhere because I am an extremely self-confident person; it borders on vanity I feel some times. But I have no vanity, I am just a simple human being. I don’t need people to tell me that I can pick up wickets in England, New Zealand, South Africa because there [is a small] sample size of my performances there. My performances in Australia, from the first and second, has been remarkably different. I have very rarely made mistakes in my career, or repeated mistakes; it has been different. In terms of putting those records to rest, I think time will take care of it as long as I can keep improving every single day. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

[What is your] change of mindset, playing in India and overseas where conditions are very diverse?

In terms of making adjustments or putting the ball at the right place will not massively make a difference. What I feel is that every place you go, it’s not just the surface, there are a whole lot of other things. Like Johannesburg, which is at a high altitude, the ball does not drop that much, it travels a lot more. So it’s about understanding the situations, not so much about the conditions because it can only dictate so much. In South Africa, they know the pattern of play at Johannesburg to the `T’. They know the same for Durban, too. So it’s a matter of someone familiar with conditions and someone not as much familiar with. As far as I am concerned, if I can learn from success or failure, correct it or get it to perfect as much as I can the next time around, I would have done a fine job.

Since the time you started playing Test cricket, you have been second to none. You have been a big performer.

Despite all the flak that I receive, I think I have been pretty good over the years I have played for India. It’s been one heck of a ride, and I don’t think it’s going to be fair on anyone for me to say that I need to replicate it in the next 49 Tests matches. May be I can go and better it. One will never know because international cricket can wear you out, it leaves scars on you, it starts leaving experiences on you which alters the way you react in a particular game, in a particular situation.

As far as I am concerned, if I can infuse that joy of a young kid that I was when I started playing, I think I will react to situations exactly the way I reacted when I was 21. That’s what I want to replicate in what’s left of me in the years ahead. If I can achieve that, I may want to better what I have done so far.

The last two years have been phenomenal; 62 scalps in 2015 and 72 in 2016 and the ICC Awards?

A. One, I was far more experienced from the fourth year onwards. To a greater extent, my family life and things around me have sort of composed me, settled me down really well and let me channelise the work I have had to do. The constant things that tell I keep telling everyone is that I found something, I found the wrist position and I started understanding the game a little more. These are things that happened not because I worked on it, but because of the constant pressure or the ignition that I need to get better, excellent and to compete with people on pure skill.

I am sure it’s these factors that drove me into a new dimension and started giving me results, and new ideas on tricks up my trade. And that has not stopped. The last two years has made sure that I should still be relevant and I should be still looking for change. It has had a shelf life, but it might finish. But one will see me doing new things, one will see me experimenting. If it works, it would be great and we would probably talking all over again in two years time. If it doesn’t work, I would be actually very happy to say, I did it on my own terms, I would be happy and what’s next.

Ashwin admits he became a "far better" bowler after his second visit to Australia (in the 2014-15 season). Photo: AFP

 

You had a great home season starting with the series against New Zealand. Does a home season tell you it’s time to put up a big show?

I am very blunt, I don’t take two Test matches at a time. I take one Test match at a time and one day at a time. If you think you can go ahead and blast them in 13 matches, it’s not going to happen. It doesn’t happen with me because such thinking constantly would weigh me down, pull me down. If I live the day, I am happy. I can go brutally honest on this, once I am retired. I cannot now, I can do only so much within a thread of line.

I think every single day has been a blessing. I haven’t had the stars on my side, I haven’t had the whole lot of lucky charm that whole a lot of other cricketers have had. I have lived by the knife’s edge constantly. For me, if I don’t pick up a five wicket haul in this Test match, I could be dropped for the next Test match. That’s how I have perceived it; if it’s been true or if it’s been false, or if I have thought too much like how people brand or position me and saying that he thinks too much or goes out of the box, I don’t know about it; but that’s what has helped me and this has been the situation in my career.

Pitches in India have changed over a period of time, say from 2011; and it was one thing during the series against South Africa in 2015 and quite different the next year?

The pitches have changed immensely over a period of time, but the pitches have been very good in the home season we have played. If you look at international cricket, if you play on 10 pitches, there are chances that 11 pitches will be good for batting!

Wherever you see pitches that are not exactly conducive for batting… we recently played a match at Antigua; it was far from ideal for batting or a high scoring game, but that’s been one of the best ODI games I have seen in 24 or 36 months' time. The game was on a knife’s edge and it turned out to be a great game. We lost, but it was a wonderful game and advertisement for ODI cricket.

Sometimes I feel there must be relevance and the bowlers must be in the game, not in terms of massive speed, spin, seam…it’s just that the bowlers need to be in the game for it to be interesting. Otherwise, it becomes a boxing match; it’s only so much one can run inside a boxing ring and one will be sorted out…right.

The forthcoming Test series are to be played in Sri Lanka, South Africa and England… have you already started thinking of those challenges?

If one constantly talks about home and away games, I would say home for me is Chennai. And the pitches in Chennai are far different from elsewhere in India; the closest to Chennai is the Wankhede because of the red soil; others are all black soil. I have had to make adjustments to those pitches. I have had this problem in first-class matches. There is not much bounce in other wickets. So it has taken time for me to adapt.

I have done well in the West Indies and Sri Lanka, but after the second visit to Australia, I became a far better bowler, which I thought was the defining point of my career. I am working on sharpening my skills… trying to exercise control on the batsmen is very important to pick up wickets in South Africa and England. When you are travelling to these destinations, it’s important that your fast bowlers take wickets; when the fast bowlers start picking up wickets and winning games, it eventually produces good spinners to create chances to win games. No longer can the home team take the spinner out of the equation. Pretty much when we went on the last tour, I saw that. They knew the only chance for them is to take the spinners out of equation and so they gave you one metre of grass so much that the ball will not spin on day seven. So when the fast bowlers come into the game, your spinners also come into the game.

Do you think India must also choose a pair when it comes to spin bowling…anywhere?

Over my years of playing, not so much watching the game…one thing I have realised is, whenever we a lose a game of cricket, mostly abroad, we have always answered the wrong questions. We come back with answers for the next Test, for the wrong questions. If it’s a batting failure, we change the bowling line up; or if it’s our fast bowlers who have not won the game on a wicket that they should have, the spinner is changed. Sometimes it’s very difficult to make these decisions because you cannot drop a batsman. We need to start building that bowler-defining culture and start winning more games.

How much has it helped bowling in tandem with Ravindra Jadeja? Initially it was with Pragyan Ojha...

Both (Pragyan Ojha and Jadeja) have been very good. Pragyan was a far more experimental bowler, he used to buy a lot more wickets and go for more runs as well. Jaddu is a much more restrictive bowler who doesn’t give anything away. But these are definitions of both bowlers. It doesn’t really play on my mind when I go out there. What they have done is of massive help to the team’s cause and I have always looked at myself as a match-winner.

Before the ICC Champions Trophy, you said you are going to try out a few variations - leg spin - in the warm-up games and then take it forward?

I tried a couple of leg spinners against South Africa. I wanted to be the difference in the tournament. But all of a sudden I was not playing, because the team wanted to play a combination of four seamers and a spinner. It was hard on me because I am trying something new, trying to be actually, so to speak, a revolutionary…nobody bowls both the balls.

I want to do that, and for it to happen there needs to be a sense of continuity…in terms of positioning me and when to bowl…I need to make a few mistakes on the way. All of a sudden I played the high-pressure game, one of the most high-pressure games in my life…we lost against Sri Lanka… and I bowled a couple of those balls against Sri Lanka.

Then we played Pakistan, we were up against a wall; they were going hammer and tongs. I wanted to give 10 runs lesser on that particular day, not 10 runs more. In the West Indies, I bowled a few more of those balls. I am getting better and one will eventually see the first cricketer who have done that in a very short span of time and probably a successful cricketer doing it.

Will you try that in Sri Lanka?

Maybe not. Who knows. I am not someone who plans that well in advance. I plan to become a good cricketer. But I will have all my tools up my sleeve and try and exhibit it if the game situation demands.

Are off-spinners fading away?

I don’t think the off spinners are fading away. I think the increasing demand and ideas of a cricketer [are determined by] decision makers who don’t prefer that variety of bowling, who don’t encourage that variety of bowlers. You don’t give importance to that particular skill of the game and so tomorrow the kid picking up the ball will naturally not bowl off spin. You start seeing some person, you model yourself around that person.

Once we had a left arm culture - Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra - and Shane Warne and Anil Kumble in the leg spin department and that’s how the game has panned out. If you don’t see, you don’t develop such skills. Increasingly off-spinners are becoming a variety where you don’t see them when there are right-hand batsmen. These are all only thought processes. But if you look at some strike-rate of off spinners against these right handers, it’s unbelievable because the off-spinners end up getting these right-handers out.

As I said before, captains believe they can smash a certain variety of bowling, they find it hard and try to take a chance in a game. It’s not their fault, it’s just the way the game is panning out.

"I've always looked at myself as a match-winner." Photo: K. R. Deepak

 

A few countries are campaigning for four-day Test matches.

If you want cricket to go the hockey way - no. There is a sense of tradition, things that remain in a Test game. If these people are demanding four-day Tests, are they going to take the spinners out of the game even more. What’s the idea behind it? Are four-day Tests going to make more spectators come to the ground? I don’t agree..I don’t see a point there.

Test cricket needs to be exciting for people to come, should be marketed in a fashion for people to come. It’s already become a sparring match in ODIs. We have five fielders inside the circle, two new balls. So where are you taking the game? Basically to a place where it’s a comfort point for a certain set of people or group of people. I would say cricket needs to maintain its sanctity.

And what about Twenty20? It’s well established now...

It’s the most popular format of the game. I still believe [in] good and fair wickets, bat sizes and boundary lines at a proper distance. I think Twenty20 cricket itself will start producing more exciting games. The 2017 IPL final between Mumbai Indians and RPS was one of the best games. I would say there has to be some sort of parity between bat and ball for Twenty20 to really flourish.

Do you like the structure of the Ranji Trophy - the way it’s played, with three groups comprising 31 teams?

One thing I have to give to the BCCI is that they have never shied away from trying. They have tried different things with Ranji Trophy cricket; only if you have tried you know whether it’s a success or failure. It’s too early or frivolous to comment on that, but I would say they are trying and in the right direction. They want India to be a dominating force. They want to make sure that cricketers are exposed to a lot more things. Everything is a healthy challenge; for example last year there was no home games for a Ranji Trophy team. This year, there is talk of home and away. Why not do one year of home and away and one year of neutral venue games. There is no harm in it. It’s only going to throw cricketers in a space where they will start staying relevant in the game.

The change of head coaches, from Anil Kumble to Ravi Shastri...what do you make of the circumstances now - Shastri coming back after a year?

I will just put it like this. The existing situation is such that it is between three people; captain, coach and probably the administration. Obviously, the leadership decides who comes in and who goes out. Unless and until, as Virat said, we are asked, we don’t make a statement or comment. To me it was between the BCCI, Virat and Anilbhai and now it’s between the BCCI, Virat and Ravi. I don’t even figure anywhere in this and to be able to comment on that is definitely out of bounds. These are the three who are the driving forces of Indian cricket. To be able to get a statement or comment is just a media news. But as far as I am concerned the stakeholders of the game is: captain is appointed by the BCCI and the coach by the BCCI.

I do not have an opinion, but whatever I have worked with both Ravi and Anil - and I am not being diplomatic here, both of them have different strengths - [I feel] they are good in their own ways. Ravibhai is all the time positive; he’s exuberant and he infuses so much energy into you and Anil is very methodical, he produces a lot of different dimensions that one bowler can ask for. I love the conversations with Anil and that’s because of the fact that we share a similar kind of skill, trade and all that. It’s been very exciting and the one thing that I learned in the exciting journey of cricket is that nothing or no one is constant. Things keep changing, and if you want to stay at that level you have to put things behind and keep moving on.

(A question, quoting Anil Kumble saying "strike rate is for batsmen", has been removed. Kumble, on September 28, 2016, had stated that ""As far as I was concerned, when I was playing in Test cricket strike rate was spoken about bowlers, not batsmen." The answer to the question has also been removed.)

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