Spinning away with Ashwin

Ravichandran Ashwin is flying high these days. The Man of the Series in India’s triumphant Test campaign in Sri Lanka recently, the 29-year-old off-spinner is looking at the future with confidence.

Ravichandran Ashwin is learning by the day and has become a far improved bowler.   -  REUTERS

Ashwin and skipper Virat Kohli enjoy a very good relationship.   -  AP

Graeme Swann is the ideal off-spinner in Ashwin's estimation.   -  AP

Ravichandran Ashwin is flying high these days. The Man of the Series in India’s triumphant Test campaign in Sri Lanka recently, the 29-year-old off-spinner is looking at the future with confidence.

His 21 scalps during the three Tests in Sri Lanka played a huge role in India roaring back to nail the series 2-1. Ashwin struck telling blows.

The Chennai cricketer, who has 145 wickets at 28.44 and 1103 runs at 32.44 in 28 Tests, has grown in stature and belief. He is also relishing the responsibility of being India’s spin spearhead.

Sportstar caught up with Ashwin in Chennai recently.

Question: You had a wonderful tour of Sri Lanka. The delivery with which you dismissed Kumar Sangakkara in the second innings of the second Test, one that curled in to the left-hander before spinning away, should, probably, rank as the best in your career.

Answer: Probably yes. But you never know. I would like to surprise myself in the future. Maybe yes. The Hashim Amla ball will be very close to that, the Twenty20 World Cup ball. It was a carrom ball from round the stumps and was considered to be one of the balls of the century.

The delivery I bowled to Jehan Mubarak on the first day morning at Galle is something I would really like to remember. I got Sangakkara out at silly point. Thirimanne out nicking to slip. Then I put a short-leg in place and bowled an over-spinning ball. He played for the spin and it went to short leg. I thought that was a classical off-spinner’s dismissal. Someone who bowled really well and constructed a dismissal.

Setting up a batsman and planning his dismissal is a key element in a spinner’s success…

It is. Like Angelo Mathews’ wicket in the first Test of the series. I came back after a small break. Angelo was well set and batting well. He was looking to drive me. I put a long-on, a mid-wicket and a deep square-leg. He stepped out to drive, the ball dropped on him and he nicked it to short-leg and Rohit took a great catch.

How’s your chemistry with India’s Test captain Virat Kohli?

Kohli gives me a lot of freedom. I am always telling him what I am trying to do. I give him clarity about my plans. Give him a clear picture of what fields I need. He is more than happy to give me the fields I want. On occasions he differs. He tells me why he differs and there is a mutual consensus. The communication channels are so clear that even differences of opinions don’t matter.

The series against South Africa represents a big challenge for the Indian team. How do you look at the long home series?

It is very exciting, they are a great side. To compete with them and do really well is going to be one of the challenging aspects for this Indian team, which is quite inexperienced. The advantage we have is that we will be playing at home. But it doesn’t matter. That advantage is taken away somewhat because the South Africans have done really well abroad. They have travelled to every destination very well, they come hard in every single Test match that they play. It is going to be a real test of our character. We have to start well and keep the intensity levels high. If we win and put a positive result on the board we would have taken a big stride in our careers.

The busy season culminating in the World Twenty20 could be a physical and mental test…

If you look at it as a whole year, it is going to be mentally very draining. So what we do as international cricketers is look at one game at a time. One Twenty20 match, second Twenty20 match, one one-day, second one-day, one Test, the next. It is very important for you to stay in the moment. If you stay in the moment, the chances of you improving over a period of time are higher. To look at it as a long season is not quite the right way. If we are playing South Africa here, you cannot straightway look at the Test series without looking at the Twenty20 series. If you look at the Test series at this stage, you will lose focus of the current scenario.

Can you tell us how you have worked with India’s bowling coach Bharat Arun?

With respect to loading and all, me and Arun have worked very closely. He’s been telling me a lot of things. Drifting the ball is something I am able to do now. If I want I drift the ball, if I don’t I try and bowl in a straight line. He has been very helpful in terms of transferring knowledge.

How would you explain the process of loading?

Loading is your wrist or shoulder positioning before you deliver the ball. It can be done in so many ways. And it can be loaded at different positions starting from your head to your lower body. And whichever position suits you the best, is the optimum position for yourself. Bowlers can have different optimum positions. Identifying that optimum position for myself was the biggest challenge.

You have also been using a lot more of your body in your action…

It helps in getting more energy to the ball. It helps in transmitting the entire energy that you brought in your run-up and to the crease towards the batsman. Ultimately, it helps in fastening the revs on the ball. Revs is completely generated by your fingers so it is not exactly by your body. But the amount of zip you get off the wicket is generated from your body. That enhances the bit you get off the surface.

What is the one aspect you have worked on in the last year?

The whole knowledge of my own bowling, the whole knowledge of loading, the whole knowledge of studying or reading or learning the art of bowling. Understanding my own skill is something that is at optimum right now. Know that is something I treasure for life and I would like to hold on to this as long as possible. If I do that, there will be more additions to my knowledge pool.

Who have been the off-spinners who have influenced and inspired you over the years?

There have been so many off-spinners that I have always watched. Starting with John Emburey to Pat Symcox. Harbhajan Singh was the biggest motivation as an Indian kid growing up. The one off-spinner I love watching even now is Nathan Hauritz. He is a fine, fine, off-spinner. Very good action, very clean action, used to get good shape on the ball. You don’t have to be younger or older to admire someone. However, the biggest admiration I have had for an off-spinner is Graeme Swann. He redefined off-spin bowling with his very clean action. The use of body and the pivot were picture perfect. He is one bowler you crave to become.

Many believe you were not using the off-spinner, your stock delivery, enough earlier…

I don’t think it is a very fair criticism. I think I understood myself a lot more. I never used to bowl a lot of variations. It was just that I didn’t have enough knowledge to correct my technical glitches to land the ball at the right spot. Be it variations or the off-break, to land it in the right spot has always been the challenge. To do that you need to have the technical knowledge of where you are erring. This has been the biggest difference in my bowling over the last couple of years.

Using the crease is a critical element of a spinner’s bowling.

The use of the crease is according to the players you are bowling at and what kind of results it fetches. You bowl in the nets and you start discovering yourself and re-discovering yourself. It’s a constant wheel that you keep innovating and re-innovating. On certain pitches some angles might work, on certain other pitches those angles might not work. To understand and adapt is very, very important. Possessing a skill set is basic, it requires hard work. Acquiring it takes a bit of time. Using the skill set at the right time, applying it on the right occasion after adapting, is the difference between a good and a great bowler.

Although off-spinners relish bowling at southpaws, you have very good results against the right-handers as well.

The round-the-wicket angles against the left-handers have worked really well for me. The over-the-wicket angles against the left-handers is also something I have used well. For a right-hander I am very happy to go over and round the stumps. The versatility to set my own fields and plan my dismissals against both right and left-handers is one of my biggest strengths.

You have forged an effective combination with leg-spinner Amit Mishra…

Amit Mishra is a very senior bowler. He is someone I have learnt from, admired a lot. Because of his flight, and so many other skills that he possesses. Some of his skills are unbelievable. I enjoy bowling with him because of the different aspects that we bring into the game. He brings not so much bounce into the game, but brings the lbw into the game a lot. He puts a lot of revs on the ball, he has got flight control, he is slow, very slow. On the other hand, I am looking for speed off the pitch, I am looking for zip to nick batsmen out. We have different qualities and the combination is working well.

Do you back yourself to perform better in Test matches in England and Australia when India tours those countries next?

I actually don’t attach importance to Australia or England or any such place. I don’t agree with people who say it is compulsory to do well there. I am just seeing the way I am bowling, I am just seeing the way I am improving as a cricketer every day, be it in South Africa, England, Australia, India, or Bangladesh. If it happens for me in these countries it happens, but I am very sure it will happen. I don’t consciously try to do well in a specific country. I don’t think the Sri Lankan pitches were conducive and I take credit for my performance there. Once in a while I should take credit for my performance. I did really well in Australia this year as well. There is no reason I should not do well in England or South Africa in the future.

There is a feeling that you have not been given enough credit for your batting efforts for the Indian team.

Maybe, maybe not. It’s in the viewer’s eyes. Whenever I have been presented with an opportunity to create a difference, I have. If not today, tomorrow I am very sure I will be recognised for my batting and will be up for bigger things. I am very hopeful of it. Even today, if I get out at 50 or 60, I am not happy. That is a clear sign that I want to attach importance to my batting. I look inwards rather than outwards. If I look inwards, I am looking to improve. If I am looking outwards, I am looking for excuses.

How have you worked on your batting over the years?

When it comes to batting, you should feel comfortable in the middle. I should not feel that, okay, this bowler is going to get me out, or he is going to trouble me. I should be prepared for everything, I should have ample time on my hands. I should be moving well, getting into good positions to play the ball. Most important for me, is to get the balance right. Balance of the body is very important because I depend a lot on timing. If I am balanced, I get runs.

Do you consider yourself a genuine all-rounder?

I consider myself a genuine all-rounder. There are no two ways about it. I bat as much as I bowl so I do give myself that status. Physically it is very demanding, but I am very happy to do it. Many of the experts like Sunil Gavaskar or Sanjay Manjrekar have echoed the same views. That gives me a lot of confidence.

Switching between different formats represents a great challenge in these times. How do you manage it?

It is a great challenge to adapt to different formats. It is important to be aware of your body. Very aware of your action, very aware of what you are doing. What you are doing today in a Twenty20 game will not be of any use to you in a one-day game, it has to be completely different. You bowl different speeds, different trajectories, not giving a boundary, you bowl a yorker sometimes. You need to make the mental switch, be aware of what you are doing. Your awareness is the most crucial thing. To train your mind to understand ‘these are the shifts I need to make’ is of utmost importance. Once you do this, you are open to changes and execution. An open mind is very important in adjusting and adapting to different formats. This has its challenges, but what’s life without challenges.

How do you unwind after a hard day’s cricket?

I enjoy cricket so much. My winding and unwinding is both cricket. I play other sports. Other sports is one of the biggest recreations I have. I play badminton. Virat loves badminton, we play badminton. He is a very good badminton player by the way. I also play squash.

I enjoy my game of soccer. I am not a naturally gifted football player, but I have definitely acquired skills having been with the Indian team. I watch badminton, tennis, everything.

Do the players take the football games during practice sessions seriously?

Of course we do. But we know our limitations. We enjoy scoring a goal. We enjoy each others’ success.

Who is your favourite football player?

There is not one player I can pick, but I enjoy watching Messi a lot. I watch a lot of World Cup football. I watch Messi or Ronaldo play. Last year I used to watch a player Santi Cazorla who plays for Arsenal. That’s one of the players I followed. He is a Spanish player and he is pretty good.

Have you followed any football team in particular?

If there is one football team I have followed, it is Arsenal. I enjoy Manchester United because of the success they have put on the board over the years. Me and my brother have a personal attachment to Arsenal from a young age.

You have been seen reading books as well on tours and you like watching movies.

I love novels. I like reading series of novels. I like reading crime novels, I read Clive Cussler. I like Mark Billingham who is a crime fiction writer. I read a lot of history books as well. I am a big movie freak too. I like going to theatres. I watch a lot of DVDs, Tamil, Hollywood and Bollywood and the other regional movies. It relaxes me.

You have become a father now…

I am enjoying the moment a lot. My baby is in a stage now where she is more dependent on her mother. I look forward to the day when she starts playing with her father. I am actually cherishing being a father.