Ashwin: Getting big breaks with the off-break!

Ravichandran Ashwin’s career is 38 Tests old, and despite a later start than most spinners (who tend to begin in their teens, Ashwin played his first Test at 25), is still closer to the start of his career than perhaps even the midpoint. Any assessment of his qualifications to be included in that exclusive class known as the "greats," must acknowledge this.

Ravichandran Ashwin... with a strike rate of 55, he is the best among Indian bowlers.   -  PTI

Off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin is 30, the quickest bowler to 200 Test wickets in 80 years, and has kept the craft alive despite regular obituaries written about it in recent years, most involving the quality of bats and T20 cricket.

There is nothing like success to focus attention on the possibilities, many of them unexplored, in spin bowling. Despite the impact of Harbhajan Singh, India has not had an off-spinner to spearhead its attack since Erapalli Prasanna, who played his last Test towards the end of the 1970s. Ashwin has not only played the role, he has looked the part, bringing to his work a rare intelligence, a capacity to stash away memories of success and failure for future use, and the willingness to both try and discard new things.

 

Ashwin’s career is 38 Tests old, and despite a later start than most spinners (who tend to begin in their teens, Ashwin played his first Test at 25), is still closer to the start of his career than perhaps even the midpoint. Any assessment of his qualifications to be included in that exclusive class known as the “greats”, must acknowledge this.

In general, batsmen are bestowed the mantle of greatness far more readily than bowlers — another example of the asymmetry of perceptions in the sport. Often the debut series alone is enough, as in the case of Sunil Gavaskar or Rahul Dravid, even Sachin Tendulkar (although he didn’t have a particularly distinguished debut). Among Indian bowlers, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar inspired that reaction at the start. Kapil Dev too. Or maybe we see it as obvious now, long after their careers are over. Perhaps greatness is clear only in retrospect, or at least late in careers.

For such an assessment has to necessarily consider two important elements (among others): record, and longevity. One reason the South African Barry Richards cannot be considered a Test great is that he played only four matches.

All that can be said in the early stages of a career is that the player is a potential great. Despite their traditional early start, spinners tend to mature late. Richie Benaud is the classic example of a leg-spinner whose first 27 Tests over six years or so was adequate at best.

He had 73 wickets in that time but the selectors persisted with him. Following a tour of South Africa, and then England, he dramatically rose to become the finest of his type till the arrival of Shane Warne. In that period he had 175 wickets from 36 Tests. It was the potential for greatness that kept him in the game.

Leg-spin is sexy in a manner off-spin is not. It is difficult, those who succeed at it are always seen as special. Left-arm spin is somehow associated with grace, perhaps because of the manner in which Bishan Bedi operated. But off-spin is seen as the journeyman’s specialty; throw a ball to a non-bowler, ask him to bowl, and chances are that he will send down an off-break. Yet, in its very commonness lies the clue to its challenges. Batsmen are more likely to swing to leg which means the offie’s stock ball is in constant danger of landing up among the crowd at midwicket or long on.

There is an argument, therefore, for elevating off-spin to higher reaches of the degree-of-difficulty chart. If it is easy to bowl and easy to hit, then the bowler who is successful at it must be extra special.

 

And Ashwin is exactly that. There comes a time in a bowler’s career when it all comes together as he stands on the verge of greatness. In Anil Kumble’s case, it happened six or seven years into his career, and after the retirement of Kapil Dev made him the bowling spearhead. The responsibility inspired him. He was never forgiven initially for not being Shane Warne and spinning the ball extravagantly, but soon that gave way to genuine respect and even awe as his record abroad kept pace with his home record.Ashwin is at that stage now. On the verge, at the threshold. There is some excitement that he might be the all-rounder in the lower order that gives the team balance and the selectors more options. But more importantly, the early doubts have been cleared, both in the bowler’s mind and among followers of the game, the strike rate, 55, is the best for an Indian bowler (both Chandra and Kumble had 66), and Ashwin is in the middle phase of a career that involves consolidation.

In some ways this is the most interesting. Batsmen around the world know what to expect and the challenge is to defeat them despite that. The temptation towards flamboyance and gimmickry has given way to keeping it simple and focused. The manner of dealing with bad days in the office is established. The trick is to recall what made you successful and how to replicate that. It is psychological as well as physical. But the latter is important too. A long career calls for a high degree of fitness. There will be the temptation to focus on the more rewarding returns from batting (Ashwin is already four centuries old) to the detriment of the thankless and demanding job of bowling.

Less than a quarter of Ashwin’s wickets have been taken outside the subcontinent, but then he has played only half his Tests away. Over a long career, such inconsistencies tend to even out.

I have written in these columns before of how Ashwin suffered from 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 great 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!

Together, both Kumble and Ashwin have rewritten the job description. The former is an acknowledged great, and the latter is en route to that exalted station.