Ashwin: County stint helped me rediscover joy of playing cricket

Ashwin speaks about his philosophy regarding the game, playing English county cricket, managing his workload and bowling in the third episode of Couch Talk.

Ashwin: "I cannot refrain from putting a smile on my face and going out to play and do the best for my team."   -  GETTY IMAGES

Ravichandran Ashwin spent a year away from international cricket, after suffering injuries on the England and Australia tours. But the 33-year-old off-spinner has realised in that time that he needs to enjoy his game whenever he plays.

Ashwin speaks about his philosophy regarding the game, playing English county cricket, managing his workload and – of course – bowling in the third episode of Couch Talk.

Lets begin by talking about your County stints. In 2017, you chose to play for Worcestershire. They were a division two team at that time and have since progressed to division one, a lot of thanks to you. What precipitated the decision to play for Worcestershire?

In 2017, I was going through an up-and-down slide in my cricketing career. All of a sudden, when we came back from the Champions Trophy in England and went to Sri Lanka, they (the selectors) communicated to me that I may not be playing that series and they were going to rotate the players. It was quite a disturbing time for me, in the sense that I did not understand why it was happening, because the previous two years I'd ended up playing a limited number of ODI (One-Day International) games as I had to give myself the best chance to be the frontline bowler in the Test format.

It was more of a conscious decision to serve the country in a better fashion. All of a sudden, the games I played had become fewer; people started to talk about my stats and for any cricketer at the elite level, especially for me who keeps excellence at the forefront, it was quite a difficult thing to understand, and I needed a break.

I thought playing county cricket would give me that required break and also allow me to rediscover the joy of playing the sport. I did feel like I was losing a little bit of joy, not necessarily in the sport itself, but playing the sport at different points of time in different places. So, I wanted to go away from the attention and play some cricket. Worcester chose to give me a stint – it is not easy to claim a stint in England – and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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You debuted for India in Tests in 2011. So, for somebody that had played six years of Test cricket to go away and play division two county cricket, and especially as an India cricketer who is mobbed everywhere he goes, what was it like playing in the county system?

I genuinely feel the fans, the people that watch the game, are the elite stakeholders of the game. They dictate how one’s career shapes up and how one becomes popular and gains celebrity status. To me, firstly, I am a sportsman; the love of the game and the passion I have for it has drawn me to it. I am indebted to the game and the fans for how they have celebrated me over the years. I believe even if you are a celebrity or a cricketer in India, you still want to lead a normal life; you want to take a walk. Yes, you can, but you may have to give a few photographs and autographs, which I have no issues in doing. If I’m not in the mood to do it, I do say no as well.

Ashwin: "I genuinely feel the fans, the people that watch the game, are the elite stakeholders of the game. They dictate how one’s career shapes up and how one becomes popular and gains celebrity status."   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

Living back in Chennai hasn’t been that hard. You do get occasional stones pelted at you with rash comments from people that you don’t want to hear. It can’t stop me from living the normal life that I crave so much. I am just a normal human being and the celebrity status was thrust upon me rather than me asking for it. So, it was perfectly fine going to England and be one amongst the commoners and play the game. I genuinely derive a lot of pleasure playing the game. Forget the county circuit, I enjoy playing even in the club circuit in Chennai. I thoroughly love it and I go back to it with utmost passion every time.

For me, playing in the county was about understanding the playing culture there, the way cricket is played there, the different surfaces that you encounter, the sort of roles that you have to play at different stages of the game, the professional pressure that you may have to handle on occasions. Sometimes you feel you have to carry the burden of the team all by yourself, living on your own, making your food. It is not the same as playing for India. It’s not the five-star hotels where you pack up, boot up and eat wherever you want to...

In the Team India setup, you have a lot of support staff that take care of your day-to-day needs so that you can focus on playing the game. Did being on your own take you back to an earlier time as a cricketer?

My early days as a cricketer involved being an engineering student and playing club cricket in Chennai, managing both of that, shuttling between college and practice. Playing in the county, it was a new experience, as you had to assemble your house, get your family over. I had to go first and settle things down. Because I have two young kids, I first had to settle down and get them over. You had to get your groceries, you drive your car. I thoroughly enjoyed it. For the first week or two, it was a bit of a strain as you had to settle down, but then, I enjoyed it as I had time with my family away from home and playing cricket on my terms. I thoroughly enjoyed my first time at Worcester and drawing on that experience, as I go back, I keep getting better as a human being and as a cricketer.

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Former Indian cricketer Zaheer Khan described playing county cricket as an eye-opening experience. He said that playing in county allowed him to get back in shape and get back into the Indian team. How was it from the cricketing point of view for you, first playing in Worcester and later in Nottingham?

I learned something over the last 12-18 months. I’ve been injured two times on big tours to England and Australia. I don’t read too much into it, but I’ve learned a thing or two from it.

When I came out of being an all-format player to playing only Tests, which came under my realisation and the communication wasn’t that sure, when I was rotated out in 2017 and I realized in 2018 that it had been a year out and I might not be back in the white-ball formats. There were a good 12 months when I was hoping to come back, trying to manage my workloads. By the time I reached the end of 2018 and into 2019, I realised that the rigour of playing 12 months (in all three formats) isn’t there any more. My body had become used to playing around the year for the last 10 years since becoming an international cricketer in 2009, and I had played almost every day for 10 years in some high-intensity fashion, playing all three formats. All of a sudden, I didn’t have the same workload. So, I had to skip managing my workload since the cricket wasn’t there as much as it had been. There were big spikes in my workload.

Ashwin: "I learned something over the last 12-18 months. I’ve been injured two times on big tours to England and Australia. I don’t read too much into it, but I’ve learned a thing or two from it."   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

So when I went back to England, I was bowling those overs which I was bowling over the last 10 years but missing from my life from the last six-eight months. All of a sudden, my body didn’t live up to it because it wasn't used to the spikes. A similar thing happened when I went to Australia. I hadn’t played a lot of cricket; I’d played a couple of games here and there. The opportunity to play more didn’t present itself and in a couple of cases I also turned it down. Now my realisation is a lot different. Wherever there are three stumps, I present myself and play cricket. I’ve started to realise that the game draws a lot of love in me. I had to come to terms with my understanding of my game and where I stand in my career. I feel a lot more at ease, and understood my body, and know what needs to be done going forward. Playing cricket in England gives me that sort of understanding within.

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As an international overseas pro, what sort of responsibilities are on your shoulders not only in terms of results but also in guiding the younger players in the team?

One thing I enjoy when I play county cricket is that I get to share whatever I know. I take batsmen and bowlers out on one-on-one sessions. I do enjoy that part of cricket because as I teach, I learn. I understand what they have to offer – it could be very small, but those are the understandings you are trying to pick up. Without any intention of gaining from them, and I intend to give, I enjoy giving back to the game and these cricketers.

In my first stint with Worcester, I took a few batsmen away and had one-on-one sessions with them – how to play against spin, try to understand what they have to say. That was a great experience for me as it was eye-opening. Also, to gain access into how they felt, how they played the game, how they thought about it. For me, those sort of battles and intricate details give a lot of excitement.

I checked in with an English journalist friend of mine about your time at Worcestershire. He used the phrase, “He had a smile on his face,” and that you were friendly and a major hit. It seems you realised something about yourself in your time there.

There is no realisation as such. Different people use different journeys and enjoy playing the game in different ways. For someone, it could be fame that drives them to play the sport; for someone else, it could be the money. The reasons could be one or more. There could be a hundred reasons. The only reason for me is the sport itself. I enjoy doing it. Despite all the opportunities and jobs in front of me, I get to play the sport, enjoy it and get to make a living out of it. I genuinely enjoy it and I am passionate about it. It’s not like I go and play where there are three pegs. I enjoy those three pegs, so I go and play them. It’s that.

Sometimes, along the line, when you are in the circle of playing the sport, or stuck in the bubble of playing international cricket, staying in the bubble, five-star hotels, four walls, planes or whatever it is, you do probably lose the purpose of you being there sometimes and it can happen to the best of the best and it was no different to me. So, when I did get the chance to reflect and go out of the bubble, think for myself and think about the game, why am I here, why am I playing the game? It makes things a lot easier. It also makes me realise how important it is for me to keep being associated with the game, keep playing it in different places wherever it gives me that opportunity.

You try to play as much as you’d like, but the craft of bowling itself – you can’t just play and turn up one day and expect to land it on a dime. When you have time away from the team, whether you are on tour or back home, how do you keep yourself sharp with your skills?

For me, every practice session is very important... I play the sport with the utmost awareness because I enjoy doing it. I think the success in my career or whatever I have achieved so far has come from the fact that I am an aware cricketer, so to say, a ‘process to results’ kind of a person. If I put this process in place, this result will happen. If that result does not happen, then what are my plan A, plan B... I probably have till plan E. So, it works sometimes, sometimes it doesn’t. Even my plan E doesn’t work sometimes. That’s the way it goes. You don’t go to work and be successful every day of your work.

Of course, I do realise that it is work after a point of time, but I have realised that the more happy space I find myself in, the more I enjoy the game, and more successful I have been, in the past and even right now. When I played under-22 cricket for my state, that was one of my successful times before I got into international cricket. I made runs and got wickets for fun. The best part of it was that I wasn’t extremely serious or anything like that; I was having a lot of fun and kept myself in the best possible frame of mind. I used to do things I loved. It’s about that. I can’t hide in the cocoon.

It’s like music. It’s like when A. R. Rahman says, “When I am in the best possible headspace, I create magic with music.” So, he composes music at midnight or past one o’clock. That’s probably when he finds himself in the best headspace. So, for me, if I can find myself in that best space, I give myself the best chance to succeed. I could produce a bad song, but the chances are that I’ll produce more often a good song than bad.

In terms of your performance, you had a big hand in Worcestershire progressing from division two to division one. You performed well with the bat as well. You played only four four-day games for Worcester and you led them in both the bowling and batting averages. So would you say you had a very successful stint in Worcester in 2017?

See, when I landed in Worcester and started playing, I realised something contrary to what we're taught in terms of getting on the front foot to counter spin or seam. Most of the successful English batsmen sit back; they go deep in the crease and allow the ball to move away so that it can miss the edge. So, it was vastly different from what we believe in terms of cutting the spin or seam back home. That’s one thing I learned. However, it’s not like it is the truth and it has to work that way, but I saw some cricketers do that and I tried to implement that in my game and I was quite successful batting there.

Even when I went back to be with India, it was not easy to dislodge me. I was making 30s and 40s on challenging wickets because I allowed the ball to come to me and tried to play it late. I went deep into the crease and I didn’t offer my edge to the movement.

Ashwin: "Most of the successful English batsmen sit back; they go deep in the crease and allow the ball to move away so that it can miss the edge. So, it was vastly different from what we believe in terms of cutting the spin or seam back home. That’s one thing I learned."   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

Even with the ball, I realised that however much action you put into the ball, you have to keep pegging away. You don’t end up with five-wicket hauls in a session, you end up with five-wicket hauls in a day! That realisation dawned upon me when my captain at Worcester made me understand. I played with some senior cricketers at Worcester in Joe Leach and Daryl Mitchell who made me understand it works this way. You will get one wicket here, one wicket there, and all of a sudden at the end of the day you have a five-wicket haul. It’s not like you can take five-wicket hauls every day because fast bowlers do rule the roost even if the pitch has something in it for the spinners. That was some straightforward understanding I needed to take from Worcester and I came out rich from that.

I want to talk in terms of spin bowling – bowling in England, softer pitches, the time of the year you were bowling in, September, I believe. What was the experience like?

I think the days of soft and damp pitches are gone. Those were the days of Derek Underwood and John Emburey. It’s not the same any more. People do cover the pitches now (laughs). They have relaid the pitches. If there are soft pitches, they would aid spin, but there aren’t soft pitches.

English pitches are extremely slow. What happens for a spinner doesn’t happen necessarily quickly. Even if there was rough or a little bit of spin, it can be countered. You don’t pick wickets in a hurry there. Sometimes you are lucky and pick wickets, but sometimes you have to keep pegging away.

That’s when I realised that the way they approach the game and the way their captains drive the game is different from how we do back home and in different parts of the world. There is an understanding of the game on how it needs to be played in different pockets of the world. That’s why the home advantage is as distinct as it is. The understanding takes a bit of time, and sometimes it takes years together.

With India, even with the greatest of batsmen and the great bowlers that we had, it took four-five tours before they started achieving results because the innate understanding of how the game is played in different parts of the world is vastly different. Maybe the aspects are fine and minute, but how you apply it is so very different, and sometimes if you don’t apply it well enough, it could cost you as much as an innings defeat. That was my biggest takeaway from the county stints.

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In high-level sport, no player is ever 100 per cent fit. You are always dealing with some niggles or the other. You have had some injuries. How did you manage those and come back from them?

Contrary to what other people are saying about their similar injuries, I keep reading some of those reports on and off – I’ve refrained from reading anything about cricket or myself over the last 12 months. Wherever I read it fleetingly, it has been very different (to what was said). It has been a freakish (injury).

The first time I injured myself was in Nottingham, where I go to play county cricket now. It wasn’t a cold day, but my adductor just gave up. It could’ve been due to anything. It could have been due to a workload spike – up or down. The second time was an abdomen tear in Australia. I had bowled 40 overs, and at the end of day three, I went to do spot bowling, trying to achieve something with the bowling coach, and it just cracked. Maybe because of the workload again, but it just cracked. It was a freakish injury. It was probably because the body wasn’t warmed up enough or it was too fatigued, or it was the wrong time to do it. So, these are learnings I have had.

Whenever I have done these things before, it did not happen to me, I did not injure myself, but I have learnt now. As you said, you are never really perfect. I wasn’t perfect when I walked into the second innings at Adelaide with a grade-three abdomen tear and I ended up bowling 60 overs. That’s all I can look at. When I look back at my career and say, “Could I have ended with a five-for at Adelaide?” Yes, I could have. With a bit of luck, I could have because Nathan Lyon took a six-fer in the second innings. But that doesn’t put my performance down. I was reflective on creating a win for the team and I am very proud of the way I put my hand up and bowled 60 overs with a grade-three tear. So, for me, looking at any of those negatives is a waste of time. I am only looking ahead.

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Going back to county cricket and your games for Nottinghamshire this season, how was your experience there in 2019? You played three games.

Yeah, three games. I love playing at Notts. It’s a very young side per se. They’ve got players from various other teams and they are trying to assemble the team. Lovely team atmosphere. Worcestershire and Notts – it has not been very different to me, to be honest. Yes, the clubs’ pedigrees are very different. Worcestershire is a very family-based sort of club; everybody comes from the academy. Notts is a slightly richer club. They have got a massive history and obviously, Trent Bridge is a very famous Test venue. But the team and the guys in the dressing rooms have been real stars, they’ve been wonderful. Some of the guys I played with Worcester – Joe Clarke and [Ben] Duckett – are in the Notts dressing room now. They welcomed me well. I enjoyed working with some of them and sharing whatever I know. Personally, sharing and teaching take me higher as a cricketer and that is one aspect I enjoyed there.

Ashwin: "I love playing at Notts".   -  GETTY IMAGES

I know you are a cricket nut and try to watch as much cricket as you can when you are not playing yourself. Having been exposed to spin stocks in England – they have had trouble finding someone of the quality of Graeme Swann since he retired after the 2013-14 Ashes – now Jack Leach is playing for them and they have tried previously Scott Borthwick, Dom Bess, so on and so forth. What is your evaluation of the spin stocks in England?

I think spinners play a different role (in England) and are not the alpha males of bowling attacks in any team. Rightly so, because the conditions demand that. How we go through spin bowling in India, the kind of lessons I have learnt with the right mentors at different stages of my career. I had W. V. Raman as the coach of the team when I made my first-class debut. I credit him highly for the cricketer that I have become today. All those small, fine adjustments that he empowered me to make put me in a good state to the small adjustments to my game (now). Likewise, it is important for (English spinners) to get those mentors. You have one Graeme Swann. How many people can he (mentor)? And even he has moved on to broadcasting.

The way you bowl spin and the way you approach, there is going to be a marked difference in how those people see it. Sometimes, in the first half of the season, they don’t even get to roll their arms over. Even when they do in the latter half of the season, the fast bowlers are the strike bowlers and the spinners do a holding role, which even I did in the seven-eight games I’ve played in England for county teams and even for India. You end up playing the holding roles more often than not and you become a strike bowler by chance. (Being a strike bowler as a spinner) doesn’t present itself very often.

So that being the case, to be able to understand (spin bowling) innately and the ability to try innovations becomes a challenge for them. I do think they are starting to produce their own spinners. They do realise the importance of it. There are a lot of good spinners going around there as well, but as you said, Dom Bess, I had an opportunity to chat with him. We are in touch and I enjoyed passing whatever I knew to him. He is a very keen kid. I am sure he will come through very well.

Even with injuries, you try to do the best you can, but it is only human to think about them when you are trying to perform. How do you manage that?

(Sighs) As you said, it is very human to think about it, but next time I take the field for Team India, it is going to be an interesting time for me and an exciting opportunity. After having played 67 Tests for India, I will be walking in thinking it is my debut game because I am going to have all the butterflies I had when I played my first game for India. I am going to look after my body; I am going to look after my success; my first over, my first ball that’s going to come out. I want to make runs. I want to prove a lot of people right; I want to prove a lot of people wrong.

Fortunately enough, the people bit is one thing I can shelve. I don’t bother about it any more. I used to once upon a time but not any more. All these butterflies running in, it is an exciting opportunity for me to start my career all over again. I’ve controlled whatever I can control; whatever happens, happens. I cannot refrain from putting a smile on my face and going out to play and do the best for my team. I can’t afford to be nervous either.