As the start of the home season looms with the first Test against Windies on Thursday, India’s leading spin bowler R Ashwin has had some time to reflect on an interesting 15 months. Ashwin has continued to hold his own in Test cricket, even if the returns (52 wickets in 13 Tests at 27.55, one five-wicket haul) don’t match the staggering standards he has set for himself. But has been out of favour so far as white-ball internationals are concerned, with the Indian team management turning to the wrist-spin of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav since the skirmishes in Sri Lanka in August last year.
Ashwin had decent outings in South Africa (seven wickets in two Tests) in January and England (11 wickets in four) during the summer. A hip injury prevented him from giving his best in the fourth Test in Southampton and kept him out of the final game at The Oval, a bit of a downer considering he had started the series with a seven-wicket match haul in the first match in Birmingham. Between the two series, he led Kings XI Punjab in the IPL 2018, his first captaincy stint beginning in roaring fashion and ending in a whimper as the early table-toppers failed to make the playoffs.
Rehabbing at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore and looking the fittest he has been in a while, Ashwin unveiled a whole new mindset during an uninhibited conversation a couple of days before the squad for the Windies Tests was named. While he has insisted in the past that he doesn’t have a point to prove to anyone, he is now no longer looking to prove a point to himself either. The word he uses quite often during our chat is ‘enjoy’. Perhaps, the fact that he has just ticked past 32, and has had time to reflect on the protestations of an overworked body, have contributed to his changing goalposts, but make no mistake, the fire is far from extinguished. Here are excerpts from the tête-à-tête:
First things first, how is the body holding up?
It is coping pretty well. I started running even before I left England (towards the middle of September), so that was a good sign. Now at the NCA, it is more about strength and trying to get my hip to move around the axis. Obviously it was a little tight, it was a tear. It was quite unfortunate it happened, but I am back to normal now.
How much of a factor was the injury in what is considered an underwhelming performance in Southampton?
The injury was very frustrating. It happened in Trent Bridge (third Test, which India won to reduce the deficit to 1-2). For me, it was all about wanting to make the series two-all. The injury was a hampering factor but I have never played my cricket that way, saying something bad happened because of an injury. I took it upon myself to try and win the game for the team. It didn’t work out but I wouldn’t say I bowled too badly, either. People who know cricket and who have watched cricket will have understood that had things gone a little bit here or there, it would have been different, but that didn’t happen. Obviously, when you compare with the spinner (Moeen Ali) who bowled from the other team, it looks like that (that he himself didn’t bowl well). But if my body had been better, I might have coped with it better.
Moeen seemed to target and find the rough more often than you during the entire Test match…
I don’t agree to the fact that I wasn’t hitting the rough as much as he did. When you look at the way they batted, they played the ball against the spin. I would much rather say that it was also about changing lines as a spinner. You can’t be monotonous and keep hitting the same spot when the batsmen are looking to take runs off you. When we batted both times, they had the ascendancy on the game. It was completely different scenarios, completely different tangents. Comparisons are anyway bound to be there because you are on the same scale and somebody else has picked up wickets (Moeen took 5 for 63 and 4 for 71) and I have not delivered the killer blow (Ashwin had 2 for 40 on the first day and 1 for 84 in the second innings). But overall, I thought my bowling in England was very pleasing for me. I won’t be really harsh on myself. I did bowl really well and my injury did let me down, it was quite frustrating. Having said that, it is part and parcel of the game.
After the Birmingham Test, you touched upon simplifying your action and getting rid of bad habits. Can you elaborate?
My hands were getting in the way of my action and the compromising factor was that the air-speed was not ideal whenever I wanted to switch. So I wanted to get back to my old action where my hands were free and letting the ball go nicely, ripping it through. It came out really well and I was very happy with the kind of air-speed I was generating, the revs I was generating, the changing of pace, all that. As I said, it was a great start and it was dampening to see my body let me down. I had worked hard on more body going into the ball; eventually, ironically, my body gave up on me and it was not happening.
It must not be easy to keep making changes to your action, and then consciously sticking to them…
These are very minor changes. My biggest critic is myself. Thankfully, over the last 15-18 months, I have learnt to be a little bit more empathetic towards myself. I am very hard on myself in the first place and that’s why when people criticize me, it doesn’t really matter. I can understand what (criticism) is good for me, who means it in a good way and who doesn’t, because I am my biggest critic. When I know I can be better than what is happening out there, I immediately work on that. One of my biggest strengths as a bowler is my awareness of what I do and how I change. For me, it’s more about being sincere and committed to myself, being the best that I can be every single day. In the bid to be that, I work on my cricket consciously.
It has been a rollercoaster year and a bit for you. How do you look back on this period?
There is a very spiritual way of looking at it and saying everything happens for the good. But for me, it really is one of the good things to have happened because I have learnt a lot about myself. Like I told you, I have learnt to give myself a little bit more empathy – I have never been someone who has tried to look for sympathy. I have just tried and learnt to be a lot more realistic. I am a lot more relaxed up in my head. I am able to handle different sorts of expectations and different requirements in a much more subtle manner. The brain and the body give up on you when you try to be too intense all the time. I am a lot more relaxed that way. That is one of the reasons why I think I did really well in the early part of the England tour. It was more about my bowling, enjoying my cricket. The focus is going to be more on that because a lot of people can substantiate my career going here and there but you don’t get 530 international wickets without being good, and I have got that. I know that I am good enough. It is just about having the patience to hang in there, behind the doors, and when the opportunity comes, try and be in the best mental space to be able to take it. Physical space is also very important, that’s what I have been working on. These things happen in every cricketer’s career. My body has been a bit of a challenge as well over the last year or so. Different parts have given up at different times and it is a bit of a challenge. But like I said, everything happens for the good. I try and look at it that way and try and create a positive spin around it.
One of the positives, if you like, of not playing the ODIs in Sri Lanka last year was playing for Worcestershire in county cricket. What was that like, how did it impact your bowling in the time that followed?
I learnt in England that air-speed was very, very important. I don’t think barring Anil bhai (Kumble), too many (Indian) spinners have gone to England in the recent past and picked up ten wickets in a series more than once. In the whole context of me not being able to deliver on that particular afternoon (in Southampton), things might be forgotten. I am trying to remind myself of that. I ended up with 11 wickets. For me, the critical thing is air-speed – how much quicker you have to be before you slow the ball down. Sometimes in England, even off the rough, nothing much happens for a period of time if the batsmen stay positive. The deviations are very minimal and you can go flat. One ball needs to misbehave and you need to be lucky enough to get the wicket and then you are back in the game. That’s how it works and that was my biggest learning. But it was not important that just I learnt about it. I was more in competition with myself to be able to execute what I learnt when I was with Worcester.(Credit: worcesternews)
Did the county stint help you in South Africa as well?
Yes, of course, it did. Even in South Africa, when the ball spun, with the bounce and stuff, even if there is spin… A lot of people tend to misunderstand that the margin of spin, the speed off the wicket, the pace of the wicket all dictate how you get wickets. Because of the bounce, the ball tends to miss the bat a lot more, you don’t nick more often. The spin needs to be marginal when the bounce is very high. These are learnings I had as a spinner but you still need to keep plugging away, plugging away, plugging away. It’s like what happened in the last Test at The Oval. Adil Rashid didn’t get a lot of wickets but kept plugging away. Then he picked up those two crucial wickets (KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant). The role reversal happens. As a spinner, you will be able to produce those breaking spells – one or two wickets, not really in fives or sixes or sevens. That learning has sunk into me very well, but perceptions are something I can’t play with.
This year, your tally reads 18 wickets in six Tests in South Africa and England. How would you critically analyse that?
I don’t know, I think the averages and the strike-rates will be pretty good, I reckon. I am not sure. Is that right? (Average in South Africa 30.71, strike-rate 65.5. Average in England 32.72, strike-rate 76.1). It has to be right because that is one thing I have constantly worked on, to try and be as consistent as possible, not give away runs, because the quicks need to come in and do the job. That’s what one can try and work on because as a spinner, your role becomes that of imposing pressure and giving time to the quicks. That is of ultimate importance to me and if in the process I can pick up wickets like I did at Edgbaston, steal the momentum a little bit, that’s what you can do. I have focussed on my batting as well, I batted pretty well without luck.
Speaking of batting, you have gone some 18 Test innings without a Test half-century…
I have not got a fifty in 18 innings, like you very rightly said, but there have been a lot of 30s (4) and 20s (2) in between. A couple of times, I ran out of partners as well and at other times, the par score has been 200. The 20s and 30s don’t look as impressive as they might have been on another day but for my own standards of excellence that I set as a benchmark, I need to focus more when I get to the 30s. Probably if I get a start, I will try and nail the big scores.
Captaining Kings XI Punjab, what was that experience like for a first-time IPL skipper?
For me, it was about leadership -- expressing myself and trying to take guard of the entire team. Trying to be a responsible leader, try and make sure that you are giving your players the best possible environment on and off the field, to go out there and perform. A lot of people will say we didn’t qualify, we didn’t get through to the playoffs, we were pretty bad in the second half, that the (week-long) break after our first seven matches didn’t really help us. But I think personally, for a team that has just got together, a newly assembled team, we had a good year. That’s my opinion. A lot of people might have a lot of different opinions, but this team can only go forward. It is not going to go back. And for me, that responsibility of having to rally around a lot of youngsters and also some of the foreigners was a great experience. Viru (Virender Sehwag, the mentor) was also a very good ally for me in the dugout. It was a great experience, I enjoyed it totally. To me, it was a good season that is going to be a curtain-raiser for many special things.
You have constantly focussed on improving as a cricketer, as a bowler. What did you glean from your teenaged Afghanistan team-mate, Mujeeb-ur-Rahman?
Most of the balls that he bowls – the carrom ball is something that I bowl. But I have developed the slider in the white-ball format. Obviously, I have not played a lot of white-ball cricket but people who have followed my TNPL, they know I have started bowling the leg-break, I have started bowling the slow carrom ball. And an under-cutter, which I learnt from Mujeeb. The reverse under-cutter which works really well In a T20 game, that’s something which I learnt from Mujeeb.
Switching to white-ball cricket, are finger spinners becoming less relevant now than ever before?
I think how hard we are on the bowlers in general in white-ball format in comparison to what we should actually be is the problem here. What are the industry averages that you measure someone against? For example, Moeen Ali had a very good one-day series in England when we toured there. If you look at the ongoing Asia Cup, the finger spinners are doing really well. If you look at the likes of Mujeeb or Jaddu (Ravindra Jadeja) or for that matter the Sri Lankan spinner (Akila Dananjaya), and Mehidy Hasan (the Bangladeshi off-spinner), he has also bowled really well. What your expectations of the spinners are demands or dictates how you are looking at the role of the spinner. In the current scenario of white-ball cricket, people talk about breaking through in the middle-overs, taking wickets. It’s a double-edged sword. One fine day, it might not work. You might finish with 3 for 85. In my opinion, 3 for 85 is not as effective as 1 for 45, because those 40 runs cannot be matched. You should be really pragmatic on the day and assess what your role for the team is. And that’s what I did in all the 111 ODIs that I played.
Have you made peace with your international white-ball situation?
There is nothing as such, making peace and all. I think it’s only about coming to terms with what has happened and what’s panned out. You have got to give credit to Kuldeep and Chahal, who came in for myself and Jaddu and did really well. You have to applaud them. At the end of the day, competition is the healthiest thing. How many teams in the world actually have the luxury of sitting spinners of Jaddu and my quality outside? That’s something you need to applaud them for, for having taken their chances with both hands. But to me, it’s all about standing behind the door and waiting for the opportunity. When the opportunity presents itself, I have to be ready to take it.
A fair amount of Test cricket lies ahead this season, culminating in the series in Australia.
I have gone well past the situation of setting goals and being ambitious and really charged up. I am in the situation of being in an extremely composed phase of my career where I need to be sure of what I am doing with the bat and the ball and on the field, and with my fitness and my body. These are the things I need to tick. If I can tick all these boxes, things will fall in place, like they did in Edgbaston. But I can’t really fret over what I need to achieve, where I need to be, what my performances are likely to be. I am well past that situation. I have definitely decided that I need to enjoy the cricket that I am going to be playing from now on.
Does it mean you were taking yourself a little too seriously in the past?
Yes, I think I did. It’s very easy to play the card of victim for yourself every time something happens. I don’t want to feel victimised anymore. I just took it upon myself that people around, they might wear sympathy on their face, they might talk something else behind your back… I am very clear in my head that I need to enjoy the game and I shouldn’t take anything too seriously but I bloody well need to make peace with the fact that I am a very good cricketer (laughs). And I need to go out there and enjoy my cricket, which is of paramount importance to me.
You told me a couple of years back that no one questions a scientist thinking about science all the time, why should a cricketer be pulled up for his obsession with his craft. Are you still as cricket-obsessed?
Yes, I still am, and will always be. I enjoy watching cricket. I do analyse cricket like never before. But I may end up going out with my kids (two daughters) in bargain for not watching a match now. That’s the one difference that has happened, but I think that happens with everyone in their lives. It’s a very important thing that happens in everyone’s life. For me, I still love the game. I don’t think I can quit loving the game, that’s not gonna happen. But I had to tell myself ‘You need to enjoy your cricket. If it doesn’t go your way a particular day, it doesn’t mean anything.’ If you look at spinners playing abroad, they don’t perform for 2-3-4 Tests. But that fifth Test match, you need to keep plugging away to be successful in that fifth Test match. That’s something I realise. You can bowl well on umpteen number of days, especially when you travel abroad or play on good tracks. You might not end up with wickets but not just you, people around you also need to have patience for you to deliver that match-winning blow on that particular day. So when so many things are not in my control, why should I fret over all these things? It is important that I enjoy my cricket. A lot of people have a lot of trust in themselves, so do I. But it’s very important for me to enjoy who I am, that’s the bigger picture.
It is very important to understand that in a country like India, in the Indian cricket team, always the bowlers are less celebrated than the batsmen are, one. And two, we are constantly on the lookout to produce results. When you are constantly on the lookout to produce results, changes are inevitable. You can’t really expect that rope for you to deliver that match-winning blow. That also happens with pacers when we play in India, they also get chopped and changed quickly because of the requirements. But having said that, it is very critical for you to stay in your bubble even if it doesn’t happen, or if somebody else replaces you. After all, there are good enough people to replace you. Against that backdrop, you still have to keep pegging at it and wait for your day, the right time and the right place where you can deliver.
India is the No. 1 Test team in the world, but has lost six of eight overseas Tests this year. How much of a setback has that been?
It’s very hard for me to assimilate and say if it is a setback because at no time in a majority of these six defeats did we feel that we were outplayed. I have been on tours before where we have been outplayed on many occasions but both these tours, it felt like we were in the game all the time. It is just that we were not able to deliver that finishing sucker punch every time. I think how that happens, how you enable yourself to give that sucker blow is by understanding the cricket that happens in that country. If you play a lot more and if there is greater understanding of how the scenarios pan out, you tend to play the situations a lot better. Having said that, it is disappointing that we are not able to convert and win a series because I genuinely believed and still continue to believe that this team is good enough to deliver results. It just hasn’t gone our way. It’s very important to remain humble and understand and learn and go forward.
Having played so much away from home recently, how close do you think the team is to delivering that killer blow?
See, we failed twice now. I would say that if we can stay humble in our processes and start from scratch all over again when we tour next time and stay in the moment – I think staying in the moment is very important, playing in the moment is very important. And look at each of the Test matches day by day, we might be that close (a couple of millimetres between his right thumb and forefinger). But since we haven’t delivered yet, we are at ground zero. We need to start and build up again. Until we deliver, I don’t think we will be able to really figure that out.