‘Nobody asks batsmen to go and watch how Steve Smith bats and replicate that all the time when we tour Australia. We are all aware that everybody skins a cat very, very differently. You can learn, there's no stoppage to what you learn from people. You can always learn all the finer things.’
It was Ravichandran Ashwin at his usual self in one of the press conferences during the Adelaide Test, talking about his comparisons with Nathan Lyon and what he learnt from the Aussie spin maestro in the previous trips to Australia. Ashwin wasn’t amused by the question but gave a matter of fact answer, further establishing a driving niche of his forthright nature and clarity of thought.
One wouldn’t have to go far to understand Ashwin at a micro and macro level. He is an open book, unlike many modern-day PR-trained cricketers. He is a breathe of fresh air every time he speaks and he speaks about the sport with a passion that makes him stand out. He operates his own Youtube show, talks about cricket analytics, gets Cricket journalists on the show, gets CEOs and commentators to speak about certain stories that always intrigue him. Can you imagine another cricketer doing the same? That’s why Ashwin is different, someone who has dictated life his own way and never made himself a slave of any PR firm.
And he knows that too. On “The RK Show” - a podcast with cricket commentator Radhakrishnan Sreenivasan - Ashwin let his guard down and spoke about that side of his life in a pretty detailed way. “People might think that I am arrogant because sometimes it’s not their way of life, it’s not their way of operating. I am too straight. A lot of people, in the last 10-11 years, have given me the feedback saying that you should try and be a little diplomatic because straight trees are cut first,” he said.
“But I chose to tread a path that I am comfortable with. When there is a question posed to me, I answer that question. I don’t see what answer will fit the brand value or what will make me more appealing to a brand. If people don’t agree with me they can call me rebellious but that’s just the way people think. I am completely okay with it. If you don’t have rebellious people out there, if you don’t have people who think for themselves, it’s going to be very hard to put history out there,” Aswhin said.
And that’s such a beautiful and brave statement. At least in this day and age when an odd remark might bring in a barrage of trolls behind you, Ashwin is a misfit who “skins the cat his own way.” On a cricketing field, he is not too different either.
Not many bowlers in the world would relish bowling to Steve Smith in Test cricket. No matter the lean patch, once the Sydneysider finds his “hands”, you know what kind of carnage he can inflict. But Ashwin already had his number in his head and it was only a matter of time he did that again. He came round the wicket, bowled one down the leg and instinct took over for the Aussie. Leg-slip was employed specifically for him and he fell in that trap.
Ashwin is a bowler who thrives on confidence. And if come face to face with him in that situation, there’s a good chance he would leave no gaping hole to expose. The very fact that Steve Smith was shadow-practising how to play Ashwin even when Jasprit Bumrah was bowling must tell you the psychological impact it has had on him and in an extension, a validation why the Chennai boy is one of the greatest ever to have donned the Indian cap.
It was not the moisture that helped Ashwin stay ahead. Surely it helped that he had Marnus Labuschagne with a clever set-up - bowing slower ones relentlessly before pushing a quicker one on a middle-and-off line to force the batsman to play to the wrong line. Many would have got carried away by the skid on the surface, aided by the remaining moisture but Ashwin understood that if he slowed down a bit, it would play to the batsman’s head and they would commit an error too many. It was a classical off-spinner's trap - something Saqlain Mushtaq did very successfully in his prime - and Ashwin was happy to take refuge in that.
Even in Jasprit Bumrah’s wickets Ashwin had his own sweet contribution. Even though it can be considered a mutually exclusive one, Ashwin was the first to realise that the lack of moisture would mean less skid and the batsman would try to poke in the off-side and back to the third man region if he doesn’t draw the forward defense angle in the smartest way. With a packed cordon and a leg-slip and leg-gully, Ashwin asked difficult questions, with Bumrah adding pressure thanks to his not-so-subtle rockets. Bumrah emerged as the highest wicket-taker in the first innings and Ashwin the second, but they will know it was a tag-team effort.
India will take a lot of inspiration from the Test, knowing the context behind it, but for Ashwin, this will be a red-letter day in his champion cricketing career. He can be mighty proud of it and "put out his own history" by being rebel that he is.