Back in 1985, a year before R Ashwin was born, Paul Hardcastle topped the charts in a dozen countries with ‘19’, a song that dealt with the average age (since disputed) of the American combat soldier during the Vietnam War. Ashwin turned 30 in the week leading up to India’s historic 500th Test in Kanpur, and once his playing days are done, he may well look back on the importance of #19 in his own journey.
In December 2013, he played his 19th Test at the Wanderers in Johannesburg. It was a game that India dominated, but masterful batting from AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis utterly transformed it on the final day. It eventually ended in a draw with South Africa eight short of victory, but the big loser was Ashwin, who bowled 26 overs across the three sessions without reward.
He would be dropped for the next six Tests that India played. At that stage, he had 104 wickets at 28.5, and a strike-rate of 58.8. In 18 matches since returning to the XI in England in August 2014, he has 99 wickets at 21.45, and a strike-rate of 43.3. Those are unreal numbers, even more so because only five of those games have been on home turf.
“If I look back from the point of view of setting a standard for myself, I’m very disappointed I couldn’t win a Test match for India,” he tells Wisden India, looking back at the match which would force him to take a long, hard look in the mirror. “Deeply gutted. Right from the start at the Wanderers, everybody had said it wouldn’t spin. To be precise, on the fourth day, the grass started coming out of the wicket, clearly suggesting it was binding in again. If I talk of such cricket nuances, people will say I’m giving excuses.
“The criticism that came out of that game got the better of me. It told me that I wasn’t good enough and that I needed to improve. It made me raise my standards. I had seen an article you wrote where you said that an all-time great (de Villiers) and a modern-day great (du Plessis) had denied India. Yes, that’s true, but I want to be bigger than both of them. If I want that, I have to beat them in that battle. But I couldn’t. So I needed to get better and push ahead.”
The expectations from Ashwin have been immense from the start. Anil Kumble had retired three years before he made his debut and though he played Tests alongside Harbhajan Singh, the older offie was a fair way past his Turbanator best. Yet, the man himself says he felt no pressure. “I never felt that at all. I watched that 2001 series. I was still in school then. It was a fabulous series. Some of us were exempted from classes, and the entire school was taken to the auditorium to watch the game because of what unfolded in Kolkata.
“I was still a batsman who bowled part-time offspin back then. From there to become an offspinner and actually replace Harbhajan Singh, and even play alongside him, that really got the best out of me. I didn’t perceive it as a trial. I reminded myself time and again that it was only me I was competing against. Every Test innings is a chance to get a five-for. Every Test is a chance to get a ten-for.
“My goal is to pick up at least five wickets every Test. That’s what the greats have done, be it a Shane Warne or an Anil Kumble. When that’s the thought process, it becomes immaterial who you’re bowling with or who’s batting against you. To develop your strategies for each batsman consumes all your time. If you think of who you’re in competition with, you’ll lose sight of the main goal.”
Legspin has always had the greatest mystique attached to it. Thanks to Bishan Singh Bedi and his flighted variations, left-arm spin has also been viewed as an art form. But with the exception of Erapalli Prasanna, lauded by Ian Chappell as the best he faced, offspinners have seldom had that kind of glamour attached to them.
“I did give legspin a try as well,” says Ashwin with a grin. “I used to play a lot of under-arm cricket in the streets and roads of Chennai. I can spin the legbreak a mile. But when I tried it, a lot of people discouraged me saying it was very difficult. They said that I batted anyway, so why not bowl offspin? So I started, and a lot of people were impressed.
“There was a time when I was studying in school when one of my coaches clearly told me I shouldn’t be bowling at selections. We had a couple of offspinners from our own school and he said that if I bowled offspin, their chances would get affected. So, I didn’t really bowl at the selections till I was in my late teens. It was Anirudha Srikkanth that saw how I used to bowl, and gave me an opportunity. I went to the NCA, was captain of the team, bowled and picked up a seven-wicket haul. My career changed after that.”
If offies are underappreciated, he hasn’t noticed it. “I want to be the match-winner every time I play,” says Ashwin without missing a beat. “Whether I bat or bowl, that doesn’t change. I don’t think like I’m an offspinner. I think I can beat anything – beat the conditions, beat the batsmen. That comes from the fact that I want to be excellent rather than look towards short-term goals. I want to do more because I want to be the match-winner, not to prove a point to anyone.”
He could have been forgiven for wanting to assert himself after the way the last season ended, with his quota of overs often incomplete in both the World Twenty20 and the IPL. “Whenever I get flak or there are negative comments, I find it weirdly crazy that people talk about my form when there’s nothing to measure it against,” he says. “What I’ve realised over the past six months is that people are comparing me to the benchmarks I’ve set for myself. Tomorrow, if Virat (Kohli) goes without a hundred in six months, that will stack up against his own benchmarks.”
In his case, he is so clearly the leader of the Indian bowling pack that no one even bothers to mention it any more. In the years since he made his debut, he has taken 117 wickets more than any other Indian bowler – Ishant Sharma, who has missed the first two Tests against New Zealand through illness, has 86. “What people fail to realise is that a bowler only produces numbers between one and ten,” says Ashwin. “Fortunately for batsmen, the numbers are far bigger. I’m competing with myself. I don’t have anyone else to compete with.”
But surely the talk of MS Dhoni, India’s limited-overs captain, not trusting his skills enough played on his mind as the World T20 gave way to the IPL and another campaign that ended in disappointment. “I’m not shying away from your question,” he says. “We unfortunately don’t comment on what cricket we watch. We comment on what we perceive we’re watching. I’m not taking a dig at anyone, but we talk about the captain’s trust in a bowler, whether there’s something brewing between them. All these things are really immaterial to me. How does it even matter if somebody trusts me or is giving me the overs if I can be the best match-winner I can be?
“The facts are out there. I haven’t completed my overs. I’m looking for avenues to get better. T20 cricket has got to a phase where you should be able to do everything. I take it on the chin and move on, try and get better.
“This is not the way cricket needs to be seen. The captain’s trust in a player is being discussed when the team is going through a World Cup campaign. That’s not required at all. And it just led on into the IPL. These are not things I want to talk about. I walk on a different journey, and these things don’t matter to me. At the end of the day, these are perceptions and not reality.”
Another perception deals with cricketers from his home state, Tamil Nadu. Before Ashwin came along, few from the state, if any, would have been in the mix while debating an all-time Indian XI – this, despite the fact that the club scene in Chennai is among the most robust in the country.
“There’s no point hiding behind the sheds,” says Ashwin with a smile when asked to explain that disconnect. “One of the greatest batsmen we’ve produced is Murali Vijay. In my mind, he’s one of the legends of the game from Tamil Nadu. The sheer grit he’s shown all around the world, he’s got runs everywhere. In terms of bowling, what I’ve achieved is probably the best that’s come out of Tamil Nadu.
“Rather than looking back, we need to build on this. We’ve had a lot of talented cricketers who didn’t go on to achieve what they could have. The reason for that could be lack of exposure. But I also feel that international cricket is all about handing pressure and having a benchmark for yourself. Many people in the past, I felt, wanted to get to the Indian team, but couldn’t excel once they got there. We do have a lot of young cricketers coming through. I believe Abhinav Mukund is a fine talent who’s again making a lot of runs. (Baba) Aparajith is a very, very good player.”
Ashwin is a self-confessed cricket geek, and his commitment to the game at all levels was evident when he made himself available to play a couple of matches in the Tamil Nadu Premier League within days of returning from the tour of the Caribbean, where he was once again Man of the Series.
“For me, Tamil Nadu cricket and Chennai cricket are very close to my heart,” he says. “I’ve been pushing for the TNPL for quite some time. I wanted to see what talent we can get from the districts. We haven’t had a whole lot of fast bowlers, even in terms of raw talent, in the past ten years. You have a lot of strong boys who comes from the districts and you never know who can surprise you.
“In the TNPL, the first couple of games weren’t that great. But the quality of cricket has definitely gotten better. I’ve seen every single game, given what a cricket nut I am. This gives cricketers the opportunity to work on their skills. The franchises will look to better their results and while doing that, they’ll improve the quality of the cricketers as well.”
He didn’t play in the latter stages of the competition for Dindigul Dragons, but emphasised the importance of being a part of the squad. “All I can say is that whenever I played with established stars, I wanted to punch well above my weight,” he says. “When you go and play against someone now, two things can happen. Some guys will buckle under the pressure. Others will raise their game against you. We’re looking for the kind of cricketers who can raise their game when they see the bigger players. When a bowler bowls to Vijay or me and he can trouble us, that’s what we’re looking for.”
The youngsters he interacted with would also have been made aware of the importance of not relying on natural ability alone. “I would say attitude is about 90%,” he says. “Talent is probably 2%. And method is the rest. As far as I’m concerned, I’m more a method cricketer than anything else. I was a talented cricketer coming through the ranks, but since getting into club cricket and then first-class cricket, only method started fetching me results.
“Until then, I used to make a flamboyant 40, pick up a couple of wickets. The belief in method comes from what I did as a student in engineering college. I couldn’t go back to college being a nobody. I couldn’t be a 50 as a cricketer and a 50 at college. I had to be excellent somewhere. I think method, and more importantly attitude, is everything.”