Ravichandran Ashwin, the champ of Chepauk

Just for a moment, pause and consider R. Ashwin’s mind-boggling sequence in the second Test against England in Chennai: 13, five for 43, 106, three for 53! Barring that 13 first up, this was primarily a bowler acquiring the halo of a supreme all-rounder across four days of the contest.

Ashwin whips one to the boundary during his century knock in the second Test against England in Chennai.   -  Sportzpics / BCCI

It was a moment that revealed a man completely at ease. R. Ashwin leant a little and shook his left shoulder in an easy, waves-lapping-the-shore way. Perhaps the adjoining Bay of Bengal may have suffered an inferiority complex, such was his nonchalance. But essentially, he was just imitating southern star Vijay’s signature dance step from his latest blockbuster Master.

But India’s leading spinner was in the middle of a Test and he snapped out of his instinctive move and began to stride forward as the bowler ran in to deliver. But those few seconds revealed a cricketer at peace with himself, aware of his strengths and also relaxed enough to do a jig, much to the joy of the faithful in Chennai’s M. A. Chidambaram Stadium, always Chepauk to its enthusiastic fans.

 

And who can deny Ashwin his own moment of private sunshine? The second Test involving India and England largely belonged to the man from Madras. Even if Rohit Sharma had set the tone with his magnificent 161 on a surface leaning towards turn while the flaky topsoil gifted queasy stomachs to the visiting Englishmen, it was Ashwin who etched his prominent signature as India won by a whopping 317 runs. And to quote ‘Quick Gun Murugan’: Mind it!

Just for a moment, pause and consider his mind-boggling sequence: 13, five for 43, 106, three for 53! Whisper all that again, allow it to sink in. Barring that 13 first up, this was a bravura performance. This was primarily a bowler acquiring the halo of a supreme all-rounder across four days of the contest. It was all about an individual imposing his will, and since we are in the Tamil landscape, all this was done with the swagger of a Rajinikanth and the intensity of a Kamal Haasan!

The second Test largely belonged to the man from Madras. Even if Rohit Sharma had set the tone with his magnificent 161 on a surface leaning towards turn while the flaky topsoil gifted queasy stomachs to the visiting Englishmen, it was Ashwin who etched his prominent signature as India won by a whopping 317 runs.   -  Sportzpics / BCCI

 

Ashwin’s stature as an eminent cricketer was long set and yet he had to battle hard to get into this zone. Obsessed with cricket — a trait that steels his jaw, lends a bite to his voice and forces him at times to explode with a fiery line in tense press conferences — the great off-spinner had to reflexively cope with intense scrutiny. His wickets were taken for granted, his rare blips overanalysed. It is the curse that most spinners suffer in India and often they would be placed under the shadows of their predecessors.

Even when Anil Kumble and much later Harbhajan Singh added guile and slow venom to the Indian attack, much of the initial discourse was about the splendid wares that were offered by Bishan Singh Bedi, E. A. S. Prasanna, B. S. Chandrasekhar and S. Venkataraghavan. Perhaps the quartet too may have been judged by earlier templates. Distance surely makes the heart grow fonder.

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And when it was Ashwin’s turn to spread his wings and seduce a few batsmen to their doom, he was placed in the giant boots of Kumble. It also did not help that initially Harbhajan, upset at his own omission, fired a few veiled tweets. But much stomping has happened at the Wagah and Harbhajan has warmed up towards Ashwin, recognising the inevitable passing of the baton.

But it was never easy. When England defeated M. S. Dhoni’s men in India during the 2012 Test series, or in the odd fourth-innings joust on overseas pitches when India couldn’t twist the knife in, the cold gaze of criticism veered towards Ashwin. It does affect players and more so in the case of someone who is constantly analysing his game, dwelling on new deliveries and prone to deep introspection.

When it was Ashwin’s turn to spread his wings and seduce a few batsmen to their doom, he was placed in the giant boots of Anil Kumble.   -  V. V. Krishnan

 

It can be excruciating too when a player fiercely proud of his skill set is pushed to just one format: Tests. Ashwin last played a One-Day International and a Twenty20 International in 2017, though he shows his relevance in the annual Indian Premier League. And when Joe Root’s 218 helped his men seize the first Test in Chennai by 227 runs, the local icon, despite his match haul of nine wickets, was under needless pressure. But both Ashwin and India have shown that when pushed into a corner, the riposte has always been a tale of all guns blazing. And the second outing in Chennai proved that inference all over again. It was also about Ashwin the bowler and batsman attaining a welcome synergy. His spinning fingers had never lost their verve, but his batting shoulder had suffered a slump in recent times. And this was a man who as a lad excelled as a batsman and later had his significant moments with the willow in international cricket.

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The return to batting robustness commenced in Sydney, where his unbeaten act (39 off 128 balls) in the company of an equally rugged Hanuma Vihari helped India draw a seemingly lost third Test. Ashwin took blows on his body from a relentless Aussie pace attack. He struggled with a sore back, but he saved his citadel and India lived to fight and pocket another Test — the magical one at Brisbane’s Gabba.

And back in the familiar environs of Chepauk, Ashwin got his batting groove back. At his best, his loose-limbed style mimics another stylist — V. V. S. Laxman. And to that he added a dazzling array of sweeps — conventional, slog, improvised, you name it and he had them all. As a bowler, he kept an inevitable tight leash, not getting carried away by the abrasive surface, controlling the flight, loop and dip, and doing just about enough to keep the batsmen hypnotised. Ben Stokes would concur with that.

The great spin quartet of (from left) B. S. Chandrasekhar, S. Venkataraghavan, Bishan Singh Bedi and E. A. S. Prasanna.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

“I am someone who tries hard. When it doesn’t go my way, I try harder,” Ashwin said. It summed up his cricketing philosophy. But at 34, with his reputation and legacy set in stone, Ashwin can exhale a bit. Stay intense, but be detached as well. Spinners do get a second wind in many ways. Kumble had his during India’s 2003-04 tour of Australia, and it is Ashwin’s turn to reclaim his mojo thanks to his stirring deeds Down Under and the subsequent exploits on his home turf.

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Again mimicking the movie Master, Ashwin might say all this is a kutty story, but like a page turner offering fresh twists, he keeps reinventing himself. Both as a remarkable cricketer and with his latest interview series on YouTube, Ashwin has shown that there are many shades to him, even while his better half Prithi, with mock anger, wonders who will do all the packing as he hops from one city to another. And maybe by the time you read this, he would have gone past 400 Test wickets. Truly a champion!