Ashwin: hungry and creative

Ravichandran Ashwin... very conscious-GETTY IMAGES

Ravichandran Ashwin should be the ideal leader of Indian spin bowling in the years to come, given his desire to innovate, writes Vijay Lokapally.

Off-spin is the best thing in cricket, wrote Erapalli Prasanna in his autobiography. The best thing in cricket! Shane Warne and Anil Kumble may be tempted to contest the legendary off-spinner’s claim. But Prasanna had a point. The sight of a flighted ball, curling in and taking the bat’s edge to lodge in the safe hands of forward short leg can be a fascinating. The great Donald Bradman dedicated a chapter ‘Dealing With An Off Spinner’ in his classic, The Art Of Cricket, the ultimate cricket manual.

The recent success of Ravichandran Ashwin, taking 10 wickets in a match, sadly in a losing cause, should gladden the old timers, so used to the traditional style of off-spin… flight, turn, change of pace. Ashwin demonstrated all the aspects of off-spin at Galle, creating a web of spin and enhancing his reputation as one of the premier spinners of world cricket.

Harbhajan Singh... re-kindled interest in off-spin.-K. PICHUMANI

The credit of reviving the art of off-spin should go to Harbhajan Singh, a wily performer, according to Ashwin’s long-time coach Sunil Subramaniam. “Revival of off-spin bowling in India started with Harbhajan and Ashwin is continuing the fabulous work done by Harbhajan in the last decade.”

Ashwin brings in a new brand of spin. He plans and plots and essentially doesn’t believe in the dart-like style of Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel, the former promoted by M. S. Dhoni and the latter dismissed by Sunil Gavaskar as one who at best “rolls” the ball. The best part of Ashwin is he takes responsibility, whether in the Powerplay in the shorter format or with the new ball in a Test match. He has the skills to emerge as a complete off-spinner.

Subramaniam exercises caution. “He is getting there but it’s too big a statement to call him a complete off -spinner as yet. One thing for sure is that after Ghulam Ahmed and Prasanna, he is probably India’s most subtle and nuanced off-spinner. Of the two other greats, Venkataraghavan essentially relied on pressure exerted by sustained accuracy and Harbhajan on bounce. Ashwin would surely be a complete off-spinner when he wins a Test or two and possibly a series on his own in non-subcontinental conditions. I am more than confident that with Krishna’s blessings and his work ethic Ashwin will do so in his cricketing journey.”

Ashwin has developed a decent leg-cutter and has been among the wickets on all surfaces. The team can rely on him even away from home. In the last one year his consistency has been exemplary. His coach attributes it to his desire to excel. “His hunger and thirst for excellence is the best that one can hope to see. Being dropped after an ordinary showing in a Test in South Africa hurt him deeply and it was, in hindsight, the best thing to have happened to him. The work he put in the nets thereafter on the tours to England and Australia towards sorting his basics out were priceless.”

What did Subramaniam tell his student? “It was before the England tour that I advised him to get back to being the off-spinner he was during his first four years of first class cricket for Tamil Nadu, which was to pitch the ball on a fuller length outside the off stump to right handers and let the tremendous revolutions that he imparts, both over and side spin, do its job. It was around the same time that Rahul Dravid ,who assisted the Indian team as a mentor on the tour of England, advised him the same, as did Muttiah Muralitharan on the virtues of spot bowling.”

There were issues with Ashwin’s experiment with his action too. “Yes, we discussed that the sooner he settles down on a stable action, the better, simply because muscle memory wouldn’t allow him to execute what his mind asks of it if he frequently changes his action as he was prone to do to combat the challenges of the various formats of the game.” Subramaniam also believes that the appointment of Bharat Arun as bowling coach of the Indian team and Ravi Shastri as Director helped Ashwin grow.

Ashwin spends a lot of time training in off-season and this little-known aspect of his game is probably the most crucial. It has not only improved his repertoire, but also helped command respect from the opposition. The way the batsman is committed to shape his approach after the ball comes in makes Ashwin a bowler to be watched closely.

Often Ashwin has had to toil alone, but can benefit if the support at the other end is more consistent. Harbhajan does motivate, but then the two have not struck in tandem. The Indian selectors do have a task on hand to find a partner for Ashwin in the times to come. Left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha is in the process of re-establishing himself and can be trusted. There is support for leg-spinners Amit Mishra and Karn Sharma, the latter fit to be groomed, having worked on his bowling under the guidance of coach Abhay Sharma for 17 years now.

Karn has worked on his googly and accuracy and of late added the flipper too. Ojha has done well with a slight change in his action.

Pragyan Ojha... could well be groomed to be Ashwin's partner.-PTI

Ashwin, however, should be the ideal leader of Indian spin bowling in the years to come, given his desire to innovate.