Ravichandran Ashwin – The turn, the bounce, and the brain

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© Getty Images

Ravichandran Ashwin – The turn, the bounce, and the brain

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Amlan Majumdar


2/167 in 46.1 overs—this was Ravichandran Ashwin’s figure in the 2nd Test against England in 2012 at the Wankhede. Kevin Pietersen was in prime form, and he took apart the young off-spinner on his way to a scintillating knock of 186 as England won the game comfortably by 10 wickets.

That match was not an exceptional occurrence, though. Leading into the current series, Ashwin had picked up 17 wickets in 6 matches at an average of 49 against England. It seemed as if Ashwin would never recover from that trouncing he had received at the hands of KP.

But then again, not every journey towards greatness starts auspiciously. The great Shane Warne was smashed around the Sydney ground by Ravi Shastri on his Test debut in 1992 as he picked up just one wicket after conceding 150 runs. In his second match, he went wicket-less. Closer to home, Anil Kumble conceded 170 runs for 3 wickets in his debut Test at Manchester as Robin Smith and Mike Atherton dominated the Indian bowling. Kumble did not play another Test match for two years.

But both Warne and Kumble went on to write their names in the annals of the game. They evolved into something special, much like Ashwin has done over the past few years.

He has realized that the doosra, the carrom ball, and the arm ball is only as good as his stock delivery – the off-spinner.

At the start of his career, Ashwin appeared as someone who had a lot of tricks up his sleeves, but with no steady stock ball. He had many weapons in his arsenal but was not adept at using them properly. As time passed by, he realized that you cannot take wickets on every delivery. Instead, he realized picking up a wicket is almost a cognitive process, where one knows exactly how he would get the batsman out instead of throwing every trick he knows at the batsman and hope he makes a mistake. The latter might work in the shorter formats of the game, but not in the five-day version.

He has realized that the doosra, the carrom ball, and the arm ball is only as good as his stock delivery – the off-spinner – and that is what separates him from the rest. Ashwin is not the biggest turner of the cricket ball one could come across, but he does enough. Enough to get the edge or to beat the bat. Enough to plant the seed of doubt in the batsman’s mind, which then makes him vulnerable against his ‘special’ deliveries. However, his biggest strength now is his ability to exploit a batsman’s technical flaw. He works on his opponents, chalks out a plan, and executes them with unerring precision. And, he is now backed by a captain, who is not afraid to be aggressive with his field placings.

 © BCCI Media

Although Joe Root’s dismissal in the first innings of the second Test match might seem like it, it was far from a random event with one of the best batsmen in the world simply having a moment of madness. It was coming. The buildup to that dismissal had started six overs back.

In the 26th over, Ashwin bowled a ripper of a delivery which initially drifted away from Root in the air before turning in sharply, and bouncing to beat his inside edge and the wicketkeeper to go to the boundary. Six overs later, Root nearly ended up gloving another turning and bouncing off-spinner from Ashwin towards the leg slip. These two deliveries had planted enough doubt in his mind, and his natural instinct to dominate bowlers meant that a counter-attacking shot was around the corner. After a discussion with Kohli, the fielder at long-on was pulled up at mid-on. That left the mid-wicket region open for a slog-sweep – an area Root had been targeting. Ashwin’s plan was to wait for Root to advance down the pitch and bowl wider outside off-stump, and things went exactly as planned in the penultimate delivery of the 32nd over. Root came down the track, Ashwin’s delivery drifted away from him in the air, and the Englishman ended up miscuing his shot to long-off.

While he exploited Root’s need to dominate and his love for shots over mid-wicket, he had exploited Ben Duckett’s technical fault earlier in the day.

While he exploited Root’s need to dominate and his love for shots over mid-wicket, he had exploited Ben Duckett’s technical fault earlier in the day. The 22-year-old has a habit of staying on the leg-side of the ball. Instead of taking his front foot towards the ball, Duckett moves it away towards the leg side to open up his body. It is a flaw which has been exposed far too often, and it is something the youngster is yet to rectify. In fact, Duckett has been dismissed by an off-spinner four times in his six Test innings so far. It started with Mehedi Hasan in Bangladesh and ended with Ashwin in Visakhapatnam.

Ashwin went around the wicket to the young Englishman, and that had put him in a mess. There is no place to hide one’s technical fault at this level of the game, and Ashwin will continue to exploit his weakness throughout the series. The delivery which dismissed him drifted towards the leg-side from an angle before turning away to dismantle his stumps. Ashwin made him play down the wrong line of the delivery.

Planning the dismissal of a batsman shows an extremely shrewd cricketing brain, and executing the plan with such precision shows his ability and accuracy as a bowler. The pitch that England were batting on was not a minefield. There was just enough turn on offer for Ashwin to create doubts, and there was enough bounce, on odd deliveries, on offer to make the batsman think twice about playing on the front foot. It was not a rank-turner. Nothing like the wickets South Africa had played on.

While people still doubt Ashwin’s ability to pick wickets outside the subcontinent, his five-wicket haul in the second Test showed that the offie does not require a dust bowl to dismiss his opponent. It also showed how far he has improved as a cricketer since the last time England had visited India. In an age where the overall quality of bowlers in the sport has been questioned time and again, where spinners are said to be a dying breed, Ashwin is leading the fightback of his species.

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