Born on September 17, 1986, R Ashwin is India’s numero uno off-spinner, spearhead of the spin attack and also a capable bowling all-rounder. Jaideep Vaidya recaps the unfinished and promising career of the tall and wiry spinner from Chennai who, like fellow offies Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan, made a mark internationally in cricket after graduating with a degree in engineering.
At first glance, you feel as if someone has perhaps lifted him from an IT campus and placed him on a cricket field. With a fidgety bowling action full of tangled arms, you can almost imagine him working up the angles and the trajectory and all the physics involved in delivering an off-break while he hops across to the bowling crease. The lanky Ashwin has got that nerdy engineer look to him, and why not? The 27-year-old has a B.Tech in Information Technology from Chennai’s SSN College of Engineering and is one of the many techies in the country, who is plying his trade in an industry more suited to his passion.
If it wasn’t for his overwhelming passion for the game, Ravichandran Ashwin would have been one of the many techies dished out by the country’s assembly line (Ashwin follows the likes of Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan who made a mark in the international cricket arena after graduating with an engineering degree). Validating all the stereotypes of TamBrahms (Tamil Brahmins), Ashwin was immersed into studies from a very young age, even though he loved playing cricket. Mother Chitra told MiD DAY in an interview: “We never allowed him to focus only on cricket. I kept pushing him to do well in studies. In Brahmin culture, we never compromise on education, and Ashwin was mature enough to accept that. There was pressure from school for attendance, for better marks, and there was the pressure of balancing all these factors with cricket. If you ask me, this is the reason Ashwin is a mentally tough cricketer.”
Father Ravichandran, who himself played club-level cricket, added, ”Cricket was his passion, studies were not. Academics were imposed on him, and he came out with flying colours.” Young Ashwin used to accompany his father to his matches on weekends and even represented the fifth division side at age 11 as an opening batsman. “Our club gave him a good platform. Also, Ashwin was blessed to go to a top school (Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan), and thereafter attended the best possible institute for his further studies,” added Ravichandran, who is a Southern Railways employee.
When Ashwin was 14, he suffered a severe pelvic injury which required surgery and threatened to disrupt his fledgling cricketing career. He was out of action for almost eight months since the ligaments between his hip bones were torn and the blood went into the bone joints, causing it to be diffused. However, his mother says that it was a turning point in his career because “he went back to his school side and found that someone else had taken his opening batting slot. I was the one who suggested he take to spin bowling, and it all turned out fine in the end.”
Even so, Ashwin went on to represent India Under-17 as an opening batsman, but didn’t do so well at the position. That was when he decided to stick to his mother’s advice and started bowling his version of fast and flat off-spin. “I bowled flat and got a lot of bounce on matting wickets, and it helped,” Ashwin told the Indian Express. “I could retain my place in the state and league team because I could double up as an off-spinner. My batting had stagnated — I would play a lot of shots and get out impatiently. Then, in an Under-19 game against Andhra [Pradesh], I was picked ahead of a regular off-spinner and picked up four wickets in each innings. I got a bagful of wickets for the Under-22 team that season and came into Ranji reckoning.”
Luckily for Ashwin, just when his name was popping up everywhere around the domestic circuit, the Indian Premier League (IPL) was taking shape. In his debut Ranji season for Tamil Nadu in 2006-07, he took 31 wickets, followed by 32 First-Class wickets two seasons later. In 2009, in the Duleep Trophy semi-final, Ashwin smashed two half-centuries for South Zone and backed it up with a match-winning six-wicket haul in the second innings. He was picked by the Chennai Super Kings franchise of the IPL, owned by then BCCI secretary N Srinivasan, as a back-up to lead spin option Muttiah Muralitharan. While Ashwin barely played in the second edition of the cash-rich league, it was in IPL 3 that he broke through to the top level. In 12 matches for the men in yellow, he took 13 wickets with a best of three for 13, even as Chennai won their maiden title. But more importantly, he began the norm of opening the bowling with spin as he repaid skipper MS Dhoni’s confidence in him with tight, stingy spells. He also had just the right amount of variations in his arsenal, having developed a carrom ball as his mystery delivery.
After having made his reputation as a crafty off-spinner, who could fox the best of batsmen with his flight and change of pace, and a handy lower middle-order batsman capable of whacking a few, Ashwin was handed his limited overs debut in June 2010 against Sri Lanka in a triangular series in Zimbabwe. Later that year, in the Champions League T20, Ashwin was the highest wicket-taker in the tournament with 13 wickets, which won him the Player of the Tournament award. Needless to say, he was retained by Chennai in the 2011 auction and went on to play a crucial role in helping them defend their title, taking 20 wickets in 16 games.
Ashwin was soon handed his first Test cap in the winter of 2011 during a home series against the West Indies. In his debut Test, at the Feroze Shah Kotla, Delhi, Ashwin recorded figures of 27–4–81–3 in the first innings and 21.3–5–47–6 in the second innings. This performance won him the Man of the Match award in his very first Test, becoming only the third Indian to do so after Narendra Hirwani, Praveen Amre and RP Singh. It was the perfect prelude to his marriage to childhood sweetheart Prithi Narayanan a few days later. “It’s a pleasing effort. I expected to get a few wickets but not so many. I don’t know if it’s gift for me and my wife before the marriage but it is a very happy feeling to go into my wedding with such a performance,” Ashwin said at the post-match presentation ceremony. Then, in his third Test, played at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium, Ashwin became the third Indian to hit a century (103) and take five wickets (five for 156) in the same match. Doing so, he joined a prestigious club, with the only two other members being Vinoo Mankad and Polly Umrigar.
India had clearly given birth to the next spin-bowling superstar. Over the next few months following his debut Test series, Ashwin grew from height to height and went on to challenge Harbhajan Singh’s mantle as India’s premier spin bowler. However, his best was yet to come. When the Kiwis came touring India in the monsoon of 2012, Ashwin was in spectacular form and took 12 of the 18 wickets scalped by Indian spinners in the first Test at Hyderabad (the other six were taken by Pragyan Ojha). His match tally of 12 for 85 (six for 31 and six for 54) is the best ever for an Indian bowler in Tests versus New Zealand, bettering Srinivas Venkataraghavan’s 47-year-old record of 12 for 152 in Delhi. Then, in the second Test at Bangalore, he took six more wickets that propelled him into the top 20 in the ICC Test Rankings for Bowlers.
In the winter of 2012, Ashwin became the fastest Indian to record 50 wickets in Test matches as he overhauled the milestone in his ninth game, during the first Test of England’s tour of India, at Ahmedabad. The previous record holder was the legendary Anil Kumble, who had reached the milestone in his 10th match. The following month, Ashwin completed 500 runs in Tests in just his 11th match as he went on to score 91 not out in the same series, thereby joining Australia’s Jack Gregory and England’s Ian Botham as the fastest players to complete the all-round double of 500 runs and 50 wickets. Ashwin was, obviously, the quickest Indian to do so, ahead of Salim Durani 14 Tests) and Vinoo Mankad (15 Tests). Later, in 2013, Ashwin got one over one of India’s best spinners, Anil Kumble, as he became the leading wicket-taker for India in a four-Test series, scalping 29 victims; Kumble had taken 27 in the 2004-05 edition of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
The tall Chennai lad has thus taken over the mantle of India’s premier spinner after the retirement of the legendary Kumble in 2008. He has done so after outperforming fellow offie Harbhajan, who has since been dusted away to the sidelines. In the longer format of the game, Ashwin is similar to Harbhajan in that he seems to want a wicket with every ball he bowls. But, unlike Harbhajan, he does not start showing signs of impatience when the wicket doesn’t come. Instead, he will not look to contain the runs and will continue to bowl wicket-taking deliveries, even if he goes for a few; he will continue flighting the ball, varying his pace and sticking to his stock off-break delivery; he’ll sprinkle his overs with a few variations from his arsenal and eventually get his man. He gets a lot of bounce, something that he generates with his high-arm action and his six-feet-two frame, and relies on that more than the turn he gets off the pitch.
Ashwin has made clever use of the carrom ball too, which he picked up watching Sri Lanka’s Ajantha Mendis, but he’s always said that he relies on his stock ball more even though his variations have yielded wickets for him in the past. “I have always maintained that I’ve relied on my stock ball much higher than I have on the carrom ball,” Ashwin had told the Times of India in an interview. “Yes, [the carrom ball] has done the trick once or twice, I have got people out with it, but it’s not that I bowl that one every over. [The] carrom ball is not an attacking ball at all and is used as a defensive mechanism. I’ve played enough First-Class cricket to know what [a] stock ball is.”
Spoken like a man who is in control and clearly knows what he is doing. At 27, Ashwin has a bright future ahead of him as a bowling all-rounder and is yet to peak. In 16 Tests, he has taken 92 wickets, including nine five-wicket hauls and two 10-wicket hauls, and scored 616 runs, including a century and two fifties. He has taken 80 and 14 wickets in 58 and 18 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and Twenty20 Internationals (T20Is), respectively, and boasts of a healthy strike-rate of over 80 in the 50-over format and above 120 in the shortest version of the game. If he maintains his consistency and remains majorly injury-free, there is no reason why he cannot go on to become one of India’s, and even the world’s best bowling spin bowlers in the years to come. And to think, in a parallel universe, he could have been sitting in front of a computer everyday using his fingers to type codes, instead of spin a cricket ball!