Like the crowing of roosters at dawn, Aswin Crist habitually woke up to a familiar sound. The sound of a volleyball being smacked around by his father, Antony Chandrasekaran, and his fellow spikers — a motley bunch of friends, neighbours and even a few passers-by — in the backyard. On weekends and vacations, Aswin too would smack the ball like his father and friends. Chandrasekaran, who led Tamil Nadu to the national volleyball title in 1991, even enrolled his son in one of the several academies that dot Tharuvaikulam, a volleyball-crazy fishing hamlet in the northern Tamil Nadu district of Tuticorin. Taller than most kids of his age, Aswin made rapid progress and even represented his school.
But that was when his passion and priorities suddenly swayed. It was the summer break of 2004, when L Balaji had won hearts in India and Pakistan, with his incisive bowling, merry batting and a merrier smile. Like most adolescents, Aswin too suddenly wanted to be like Balaji. He told his father he wants a leather ball. He reluctantly brought him a rubber ball.
From then on, while his father and friends would smack a leather-crusted rubber ball around in the morning, Aswin would fling another rubber ball of smaller proportions, at an imaginary batsman and flower-pots that functioned as stumps. Now Chandradeskaran put him in a cricket academy, one among a handful in Tuticorin.
By the time he turned 16, Aswin was a dreaded bowler in the local club circuit, unfailingly picking up wickets in district matches. That was when a senior player informed him about a selection camp at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai, a 12-hour train journey from Tuticorin. He made an instant impression on foundation’s head coach M Senthilnathan, who had no hesitation whatsoever in inducting him to the academy. “He was reasonably tall, fit and fast for his age. And seemed quite enthusiastic and receptive,” recollects Senthilnathan. “The first thing we noticed was that he had a good, natural outswinger. It needed a bit of polishing, for sometimes he compromised swing for pace. Also, he had the tendency to jump out in his run up. His strides too were long, and as a result he used to bowl a little short. So we basically worked on his run up, apart from the general training.”
His run-up is now shorter and smoother, and there’s no unneccesary jerk or twist at the point of delivery, enabling him better control over swing and direction. Crist, says Senthilnathan, was a quick learner, and used to keenly await the visits of Glenn McGrath at the foundation. Crist remembers their first ever meeting. “I stuttered when he asked me my name. I was very nervous and would just nod my head at instructions. Gradually, I understood he was a friendly and informal person. You could ask him anything related to bowling and he would readily clear your doubts,” he says.
With his fellow trainees, he used to watch McGrath demonstrate his immaculate control at the MRF nets. It was something they’ve all tried to knit into their game, with varying degrees of success. This 33-wicket season, though, Ashwin has succeeded, to a large extend, in reprising the famed control of McGrath. The latest vindication of his gifts came in Vizag, when he flitted through arguably the most rounded batting unit in the domestic circuit and collected his best First Class figures till date.
True the overtly green surface allied the seamers, but Crist and his young accomplices made optimal use of this conduciveness. “He was disciplined and kept bowling in good areas. They bowled basically short of length, which was the perfect length on this surface,” observed Karnataka coach J Arunkumar.
This was another instance of his swelling maturity, for he quickly changed his natural length, which is generally fuller. As importantly, he seldom wavered from the outside the off-stump line, making the ball swing away from the right-hander, and occasionally making it hold the line. A perfectly-weighted outswinger snared Karun Nair, the triple-centurion in the Chennai Test. Crist must have known the enormity of this wicket, for Nair had, two years ago, reeled off a splendid triple hundred in Mumbai in the 2014-15 Ranji final against them. Crist, then an understudy to Balaji, had leaked 140 runs for just two wickets.
Karun must have been the most prized scalp in a haul that also included the dangerous trio of Manish Pandey, Stuart Binny and CM Gautham, besides R Vinay Kumar, not a slouch with the bat either, and Kaunian Abbas.
Understandably, he rates this his best ever performance. “Considering the pressure and rivalry between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, I rate this as my best performance,” he said after the match. Most of the Tamil Nadu players in the last 10 years could relate and attest to that sentiment, as they were accustomed to habitual thrashings by their neighbours.
They haven’t quite overturned their fortunes, but Crist and his accomplices K Vignesh, who debuted this year, and T Natarajan, who was plucked from the cold on the back of his TNPL buzz, have furnished them with a platform to avenge the string of defeats.
What makes their surge even more commendable is that no one quite expected them to blossom. In fact, fast bowling was considered their weak-link, more so with the retirement of Balaji, now their bowling coach. At the start of the season, Aswin had played only 14 first-class matches, Natarajan in only one and Vignesh callow. Meanwhile, M Mohammed was injured. J Kaushik and Yo Mahesh have slipped off the radar. Sunil Sam was lost in transition. Palani Amarnath and Ganapathy Chandrasekhar have gone AWOL. In the last couple of years, Tamil Nadu were merely surviving on the craft of Balaji and their spinners’ utility on square turners at home.
But suddenly, out of nowhere have sprung three young seamers (Natarajan is the eldest at 25, while both Vignesh and Crist are 22). Between them, they have picked up 86 wickets, more than double of what their spinners have managed.