Spinner aims for a showing that convinces himself and the team, not the many doubters
Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Or, even if someone else don’t. If that’s how R Ashwin feels these days, he has good reason to.
In the space of one wicketless overseas Test, Ashwin went from being India’s lead spinner to second choice, behind Ravindra Jadeja. The experts cluck-clucked and had this ‘I told you so’ look about them when Jadeja picked up six wickets in the first innings in Durban in December in his first bowl in an overseas Test match. A majority of those same experts appeared bemused and bewildered after the first day of India’s next Test, against New Zealand at Eden Park in Auckland, when Jadeja returned unflattering figures of 20-1-81-0 and Ashwin was warming the bench.
Some of the very men who had called for Ashwin’s head after the Johannesburg Test were wondering why he wasn’t in the playing XI after day one of the Auckland Test. Not before the game, mind you, when Jadeja was everyone’s first option, but after the first day when Jadeja had offered, in a rare occurrence, neither control nor penetration. Jadeja must have been stunned, for sure. Ashwin most definitely was.
The fastest Indian spinner to 100 Test wickets – this in the land of the Bedis, the Chandras, the Prasannas, the Kumbles and the Harbhajans – is now at the crossroads of others’ making. If he were to take a leaf out of the Kevin Pietersen book, he might say, “It is not easy being R Ashwin.” But Ashwin has no time for self-pity; he is clear in his mind about what he wants to do, he is confident that he has the faith and the trust and the backing of his captain, his coach and his teammates, and if his growing band of critics are not on the same page, then he doesn’t really bother too much.
The ‘bash Ashwin’ chorus reached a crescendo after India’s first game in the Asia Cup late last month. Donning full sleeves and with an action more Sunil Narine than R Ashwin, the lad from Tamil Nadu sent down ten overs on his way to figures of 1 for 50 against Bangladesh. Immediately, questions began to be asked of his commitment. Of his confidence. Of his belief in his own abilities. Of the need to ape someone else. Of sacrificing his identity.
Ashwin returned to short sleeves and his own action for the remaining three games of the tournament, and ended the league stage as the highest wicket-taker with nine sticks from four matches in one of his more successful outings in recent times. Whether he changed tack because he felt the other action was still work in progress and needed time in the nets to fine-tune, or because he felt the heat from external sources is unclear. But to believe that Ashwin merely buckled under the weight of criticism will be doing gross disservice to a man with a mind of his own, who makes mistakes but learns from those mistakes, and who doesn’t use invisible, helpful crutches to lean on in difficult times.
“Generally, I keep trying different things whenever I go for a practice session,” said Ashwin on Saturday (March 15), as the topic of his temporarily changed action cropped up immediately. “We have a lot of practice sessions – like someone turns up for an office, we have to turn up for practice sessions. If you are not going to do something different, eventually you are going to get bored with what you are doing, that’s how I see it. I keep trying things. If there is something I think can be applied in a match scenario, I go and do it. It’s just about convincing myself and convincing – not so much about convincing, it’s about trying to take the opinion of people around me, I see how they look at it. If I am convinced, I will go out and try it. Unless you try it, you will never know.”
That’s about as much as Ashwin was willing to discuss the change in action. Otherwise, there came down a curtain of studied indifference as he was asked about adapting to different formats, and bowling with different actions. “The three formats of the game are a definite challenge, that is how the modern era of the game is,” he offered. “With respect to batting, as many changes that Virat (Kohli) and Rohit (Sharma) make is as many changes we make as bowlers. The experts are good enough to point out what the bowlers do and what the batsmen do.
“More than me, they (the experts) are good enough to answer it (the change in action). There are enough and more experts going around who know the game really well and do a very good job of it. As far as I am concerned, if I am really convinced about doing something, then I go ahead and do it rather than sit back and say I could have done this. I would rather go out there, try it and see how it comes out. There’s not much more I can add to it. I have tried it, it was not like it was hammered, it was not like it was venomous but what I needed to get out of it is what I have got out of it.”
Ashwin will, with Jadeja, once again carry Indian bowling hopes at the ICC World Twenty20 2014 on pitches expected to assist their craft, though he was quick to point out that the quicker bowlers weren’t exactly inexperienced. “As such, there is enough T20 cricket being played,” he said. “As (Mahendra Singh) Dhoni has mentioned, we have played a lot of IPL cricket, everybody has gone through it. In that regard, we are not falling short. Yes, it’s a different format, the World T20, it’s not the IPL. I understand that. Still, the experience of T20 cricket is obviously the same all over the world.”
An aggressive mindset is Ashwin’s greatest ally and sometimes his biggest enemy too. “Definitely, adaptation is the key to playing at the international level. If you ask anyone, they will tell you that,” he said of the need to adjust one’s sights in deference to match situations. “Yes, there are going to be scars that you carry from the previous game, but predominantly, the scars that the Indian team carries are from what they read. We eventually don’t read nowadays.
“When we go into a game, I try and replicate as many times as possible to take an aggressive mindset into a game. When I am not able to do it, I still will my mind to get around to doing it. I try to be aggressive 99% of the time and it eventually works out that way 80% of the time, which is not a bad thing at all.”
Ashwin will never ever embrace the angry young man tag that sat heavily on Gautam Gambhir’s shoulder. His anger, if that is the right word, is channelled along more defined, cricketing lines. And if that ‘anger’ rouses him into that ‘I will show you’ mode, then the experts will have unwittingly done their bit, too.