The decision to exclude Ravichandran Ashwin was one of the main talking points during India’s World Test Championship Final against Australia.
In a chat, the top-ranked Test bowler opened up about missing out on a spot at The Oval, his journey and more on the sidelines of the TNPL.
You are the No. 1-ranked bowler in the world, but do you feel you are being judged on something apart from your primary skillset?
It’s a hard question to answer because we are standing right after the WTC Final. I would have loved to play because I have played a part in us getting there. Even in the last final, I got four wickets and bowled really well.
Ever since 2018-19, my bowling overseas has been fantastic and I have managed to win games for the team. I am looking at it from (the point of view of) a captain or coach and I am just talking in hindsight, in their defence. So, the last time when we were in England, it was 2-2 with a drawn Test and they would have felt four pacers and one spinner is the combination in England. That is what they might have thought going into the final.
The problem is, for a spinner to come into play, it must be the fourth innings. The fourth innings is a very crucial facet and for us to be able to put that amount of runs so the spinner can come into play, it’s completely a mindset thing.
To look inwards and say, ‘okay, somebody is judging me is foolishness’. I am not at the stage of my career to think what others are thinking of me. I know what I am capable of. If I am not good at something, I will be my first best critic. And I will work on it and I am not someone who will sit on my laurels. I have never been made that way. So, to think of who’s judging me is immaterial.
Isn’t it tough to deal with it considering that you are operating at your peak?
For me, it’s not a setback. It’s just a stumbling block, I will move on because I have gone through that. When somebody knocks you down for the first time, you have a knee-jerk reaction. I think you should be knocked down once in a while along your life so that you are used to it and will know how to bounce back. That’s what life is. Whether you are at your peak or not, it is still a set back. The fact that you need to learn how to deal with it is very important.
Sunil Gavaskar has asked whether the ‘horses for courses’ rule applies only to the bowlers...
This is a true story and I don’t talk from something made up. One day, I was seeing the India-Sri Lanka game and India’s bowling was in tatters. My favourite was Sachin Tendulkar, and whatever runs he used to make, we used to leak those runs with the ball. I used to think - one day, I must be a bowler. Can’t I be better than the bowlers that are there currently? This is a very childish way to think but that is how I thought and that is why I started bowling off-spin. This is where it began.
However, tomorrow when I hang up my boots, the first thing I will regret is having been such a fine batter, I should have never become a bowler. This is something, a perception I have constantly tried to fight but there are different yardsticks for bowlers and batters. And there are different ways of treatment. I understand, for the batter, it is a one-ball game and they require the opportunity.
“ I think you should be knocked down once in a while along your life so that you are used to it and will know how to bounce back.”Ashwin
I had this conversation with a stalwart of the game who once said it is because you can see a bowler struggling in a Test match for over 40 overs. But my argument is, you are seeing a batter struggle in the match and nets, and the requirement of a batter doesn’t change. It is still a one-ball game. I am not saying the batter shouldn’t play. He should play and similarly, the bowler must also play. They should be treated equally because I think at the end of the day, you’re earning your stripes and I definitely believed through the ups and downs of my career, I have kept turning in and earned my stripes.
Some people will get 10 matches, some people will get 15, some people will get 20. The day I wore the Indian colours I knew I will get only two. So I was prepared for it. It’s not that it is some unfair treatment meted upon me. The only reason for my improvement or where I stand in how I play my cricket right now is that I have accepted that I will get only two Test matches.
I don’t want to go back home and say ‘Boss, he got 15 and I got two’. I don’t want to do that because all I can control is who I am and what I can do.
How tough it is to keep going knowing a sword is always hanging over your head?
I am a lot more chilled than I used to be. A lot more relaxed in my life than I ever have been. Sitting here today, I realise how much of a toll it had taken on me mentally to the point where I was traumatised. But I am very glad to have come through that and discovered a new me.
A lot of people marketed me and positioned me that I am an overthinker. A person who will get 15-20 matches on the go doesn’t have to be mentally overthinking.
A person who knows that they will get only two games will be traumatised and will be overthinking because it’s my job. It’s my journey. So, this is what suits me.
If somebody is going to tell me, you’re going to play 15 matches, you will be looked after, you will be this, you are responsible for players, you are in the leadership role, I won’t be overthinking. Why would I?
It’s unfair to actually say somebody’s an overthinker because that person’s journey is his own. And nobody has a right or business to do that.
Has it worked against you?
It was created to work against me, right? And as I said, there have been statements that people have made all along. When leadership is a question that’s come my way, there have been people who have been out there telling, my name is not the first name of the sheet when India tours abroad.
Whether that name is first on the sheet or not is something I can’t control. If I earned it, it’s got to be there and that’s my belief. As I said, I have no complaints, I have no time to sit back and throw punches or regret or anything. I have no regrets about anyone.
The moment the final finished, I put out a tweet because I realised one thing is that I need closure. The moment I get the closure I can move on. There is no time to hang around. I have understood life a lot better now.
The more I see it, the kind of toll it takes on my family is incredible. My father has a heart problem and other issues. Every single game, every single day, something happens, he will call me. He is stressed. It’s very easy for me to go out and play because it is still in my control. For my father, it is not and he goes through double of what I do. So, looking at this in hindsight, everybody on the outside is irrelevant.
Can you elaborate on this? What do you mean when you say you want closure?
You need to be able to get up and move on. What I am trying to say is I have learned to live life a lot better than I used to. Sometimes, I look back and think I have taken too much stress but maybe if I didn’t, I might have not been playing cricket for so long. But looking at it, it’s taken away my personality, it’s taken away my character. It’s taken away, how I have lived life.
Whenever I came back from a tour, I used to go to my academy to bowl because I know I have to keep up my skills. I have never taken a holiday. When I look back, the two years leading Kings XI Punjab and then the Covid years and my struggles, it’s been the greatest learning of my life. When I went there as captain, I was this intense person because that was my journey. After I tried to get work done by a lot of other people, I realised my journey need not be necessarily somebody else’s journey. It completely relaxed me and flattened me out.
I have got no sympathy for my journey. It’s very easy for me to go back and say, okay, this didn’t happen for me or something happened for him. I don’t give myself one second of sympathy. That’s why I put that tweet because I wanted closure. I hated the fact that people are giving me sympathy, I just couldn’t take it anymore.
In this social media age, you don’t play and sometimes you are bigger than if you had played the game, right? People are talking, if he had played we would have won. I am not sure if I had played, we would have won. I would have given my best and I definitely think I gave myself the best opportunity to succeed there. I also think I earned my stripes. That’s all I can do. But the moment it got done, I just wanted to move on and focus on the TNPL for Dindigul Dragons.
Was it comforting that some of the great cricketers came out in support of you?
I am 36 years old and honestly, what triggers you, what gives you happiness, it changes. Yeah, every time, I get a text message from some of the former senior cricketers, I always get excited and immediately respond. That’s because of how I have seen them as a youngster. I felt happy they thought I was good enough to play. But the fact of the matter is, I couldn’t get an opportunity or the world title. I knew I was going to be left out 48 hours before. So for me, my entire goal was to make sure I can contribute to the guys and help us win a title because I played a part in it (getting to the final).
The perception is you are so intense and focused. Do you feel you could have enjoyed a bit more outside of the game?
Enjoy it a little bit more? I would have then been sitting at home and not played 92 Tests. I have made peace with the fact about what I have done in life and what’s happened to me in my life. I am completely aware of what I have done and what I have lost in my life because of what I had to do.
“I knew I was going to be left out 48 hours before.”Ashwin on Indian team’s selection for the 2023 World Test Championship Final against Australia
Do you tap into other cricketers for any help on the cricketing front or for a frank conversation?
It is a deep topic. This is an era where everybody is a colleague. Once upon a time when cricket was played, all your teammates were friends. Now, they’re colleagues. There’s a big difference because here, people are there to advance themselves and to stride ahead of another person sitting to your right or left. So, nobody’s got the time to say, ‘okay, boss, what are you up to’?
In fact, I believe cricket gets better when you share it. It gets better when you understand another person’s technique and another person’s journey. But it doesn’t happen anywhere close to how much it must happen. Nobody will come for your help. It’s an isolated journey. Of course, you can reach any professional you want to, tap into some coach, you can pay and go, practice, try to feed of them and all that. But sometimes, we forget that cricket is a very self-taught sport.
During the second Covid wave, your father was admitted to the hospital and so was your wife and you were in the IPL bubble and not able to reach any of them. You didn’t know what was happening. How much of that had a effect on you?
I don’t know. I mean, looking back at it I don’t know if that had an impact, but generally, I was not in a great state physically and mentally. After the 2018 England tour, I didn’t play in the 2019 World Cup, I was not even in contention. I was not in a good state. So when I came out of it, I told myself not, it’s not worth it. At one point in time, I wanted to be a three-format player. I always believed I had great leadership qualities in me. And always believed that I could be a good leader because it’s not about leading on the field. It’s leading men.
However, when that journey (leading KingsXI Punjab) came to an end, I figured I needed to work on my intra-personal skills. It wasn’t the greatest, but I had to go through that journey to understand it. Because, how intense I am as a cricketer is necessarily somebody else’s journey.
You have been part of different Indian teams over the past decade. What is the best memory you have of those?
I have forgotten everything. Before when I used to go to sleep, maybe five-six years ago, I used to think of some great moments, getting a great wicket, great ball whatever it is. I can’t remember anything now.
Is it because of too much cricket?
Maybe not. It’s just your journey. Maybe because of things that are far more important. If tomorrow, one of my players from Dindigul Dragons goes into IPL, maybe that will be a memory. That’ll stick with me. My memories don’t stick with me anymore. I mean, for a while, for about two-three days that Bangladesh Test, where we played in Mirpur stuck with me. If you go to sleep, sometimes you feel okay good. But it doesn’t happen now.
They always say spinners evolve with age. Where is the 36-year-old Ashwin right now?
I am very proud of what I have done in my life not just because of the wickets or runs but how consistently I have been able to reinvent myself. One thing that plagues cricketers or anybody as they grow old is insecurity: you want to hold on to something so tight that you eventually end up breaking your own neck.
When I came back from Bangladesh, I told my wife that the Australia series could become my last. I used to have some knee issues and I told her I was going to change my action because when I was landing, my knee was buckling a bit. To change my action would have been a ridiculous thing considering I was doing well in the last few years. But I decided to go back to my action that used to bowl with in 2013-14.
I practised for three to four days in Nagpur and I went into the Test without having played a game with that action at all. On the first day, I didn’t even feel like a bowler for three to four overs but I was able to get on with it because of the awareness I have.
I think that is probably one of the best series I have had and the best bowling performance for me in the last four to five years. I feel so proud of having done that at 36. Looking back, if I can change my action and put my career at stake, I don’t think there can be a greater challenge in life.
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