Ravichandran Ashwin is one of the greatest cricketers India has produced, with 716 international wickets. He has already secured 489 wickets in Tests and is likely to finish his career as India’s second-highest wicket-taker in the format. Though Anil Kumble’s record of 619 wickets is currently out of reach, the 37-year-old can surpass it.
While Ashwin has been a dominant force in Test cricket over the past decade, his performance in white-ball international cricket has been sporadic. He was dropped in 2017, and it took him four years to return to the Indian team ahead of the 2021 T20 World Cup. Since then, he has made occasional appearances in coloured clothing, including at the 2022 T20 World Cup.
In one-day cricket, Ashwin played a few games in South Africa in 2022 but was not a regular member of the team until he was recalled for the three-match series against Australia ahead of the upcoming 50-over World Cup. Despite failing to make it to the initial squad, he has now been included as a replacement for the injured Axar Patel and will make his third appearance at the showpiece event.
During the 2011 World Cup in India, Ashwin played two matches. He even opened the bowling in the quarterfinal against Australia and took the wicket of Shane Watson.
Life will come full circle for Ashwin if he is selected for India’s opening match of the World Cup against Australia at his home ground in Chennai on October 8.
Incidentally, it is the venue where he made his World Cup debut in 2011 and played his first-ever First-Class match in 2006 against Haryana. This place has always been a great hunting ground for the off-spinner, as he has managed to take two five-wicket hauls and score a century in Tests.
If Ashwin finds a place in the playing XI, C. K. Vijaya Kumar, who has been training young cricketers for over two decades at St. Bede’s school ground a few kilometres away from the Chepauk stadium, will be proud of Ashwin even if he is not in the stadium.
In high school, Vijaya Kumar played a pivotal role in transforming Ashwin from an opening batter and medium-pacer into an off-spinner.
Recalling the decision, Kumar, in a chat with Sportstar, says, “He joined St. Bede’s Anglo Indian High School from Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan for the 11th standard. While bowling one day at the school nets, he felt tired and asked if he could try bowling off-spin. I agreed, and he soon demonstrated great control. It was evident that he had a special talent for it.”
However, Ashwin was keen to get back to bowling at full tilt until Kumar insisted on him focusing on his new craft. “The next day, he was unhappy and wanted to bowl medium-pace. But I did not allow him to bowl that day and told him to pursue off-spin. After that, we spoke with his father and decided this was the best for his future.”
Under Kumar’s supervision, Ashwin spent long hours in the sprawling St. Bede’s School grounds, tucked behind the All India Radio premises near the world-famous Marina Beach, honing his skills in this new art form.
Explaining the rationale behind asking him to bowl off-spin, the 57-year-old Indian Bank employee says, “We had two off-spinners playing at the under-16 state level. But when I saw him, it was clear he stood apart. He was using his height well, getting that extra bounce, and having pace off the pitch. He was a quick learner, too, compared to others in his age group.
“If you are a batter, you are competing with many people. But picking wickets helps you get into the state team quickly. At that time, Tamil Nadu did not have many good off-spinners at the under-16 level. Even at that young age, with his bounce, he was getting people caught at bat-pad.”
But once set on the new path, Ashwin left no stone unturned to succeed. “We knew he would shine as an off-spinner, but he has achieved everything in international cricket because of his dedication and hard work.”
A key reason behind Ashwin’s success has been the never-ending desire to stay ahead of the curve by constantly experimenting and outsmarting the batters. Was it evident even back then? “Yes, even at the school level, he had plans for every batter. He was very particular about match-planning.”
“What stood out more was the control he had even then. He would set his field, bowling with close-in catchers, and could bowl to the field. A lot of cricketers at that age will not be able to bowl to a field,” the veteran coach explains.
When asked about the specific aspects of the game he worked on, Kumar says, “Apart from the basics of line and length, we worked on how to be quick off the pitch. You need to develop control to be quick, even while giving flight. It is easy to start bowling flat when trying to be fast, and it won’t be effective.”
While Ashwin burst into the public imagination through the IPL and international cricket, he had by then done the hard yards at the competitive Chennai league circuit and had spent a few years in First-Class cricket. It is this solid foundation right from his school days that has helped the 37-year-old be at the top of his game for the better part of the last decade.
Apart from his talent and bags of tricks, Ashwin is also a fierce competitor and rarely gives an inch on the field. “He did not just want to do well; he also wanted the team to win. We won most tournaments when he played for us. More importantly, he used to guide other players. He was always ready to share his thoughts about the game.”
On his expectations from one of his most famous pupils at the 2023 ODI World Cup, the coach says, “To play in three World Cups is a great achievement. I am sure he will do well because we are playing at home. I think an off-spinner is key to any bowling attack, and he is a wicket-taking bowler. We saw how well he bowled in the previous match (3 for 41 in the second one-day against Australia in Indore). It will be great to see him play in the World Cup.”
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