In Tom Scollay’s popular podcast Process of Success, Ashton Turner reminiscences about the first time he was picked for Australia, in a T20 series against Sri Lanka, thus: “Someone was taking a big, big risk.”
He wasn’t trying to spark humour at his own expense, but was inscrutably grim-faced. He then explains: “I thought I was not quite skilled enough to play at this level. I was just getting comfortable with Shield Cricket. I knew some of the senior players were taking a break, some preparing for a Test series, but a rookie like me? No way!”
This streak of underselling runs through him, though it’s odd for a big hitter to project himself as self-effacing and mild-mannered. Most big-hitters, more so the Australians, by their very nature, exude an irrepressible look-at-me machismo. Think of Andrew Symonds. But not the Australian who smote 84 off 43 deliveries to keep the series against India alive.
Several years ago, when the then Western Australia coach Geoff Marsh informed him about his Shield debut, Turner was like, “Did you mean a different Ashton? I have just played a couple of second-grade games and haven’t done anything mind-boggling to deserve the Baggy Blue.”
Now one can comprehend his stunned response when Rajasthan Royals snaffled him during the IPL auctions last year. “I have no idea why they picked me.”
He couldn’t have sounded more self-deprecating. For, he was in the middle of a breathtaking BBL campaign, where in the last couple of seasons he has made his name as a chasing phenom — when chasing he averages 48.80 at a strike rate of over 150. He ended this edition as the highest run-getter for Perth Scorchers (378), the year before he had racked up 252 at 31.50.
His coach at the Fremantle Club, Joe Piromalli, is least surprised by the demeanour. “He is a modest young boy, and sometimes he can come across as a little shy and nervous. But he’s completely different when he’s in the middle. He’s so full of confidence in his shot-making,” he says.
Why India need their own Turner
Preposterous as the comparison might sound, Ashton Turner's sustained aggression in the heady run-chase in Mohali was reminiscent of Yuvraj Singh. Two-ODI-old Turner is still cutting his teeth at this level, but illustrated the same virtues as Yuvraj, the ability to remain unflustered under pressure, pace his innings according to the situation and influence the match's outcome. Turner made India feel the absence of someone like Yuvraj, whose similar knocks were pivotal to India winning the 2011 World Cup. India do have match-winning batsmen top of the order, but chases in excess of 350 involve contributions from several batsmen, ideally someone in the middle to orchestrate the chase. Peter Handscomb's century and Usman Khawaja's 91 could have gone futile if not for Turner's late blitz. Unfortunately, there aren't any Turner or Yuvraj replicas in contemporary Indian cricket. Vijay Shankar has played cameos, but to win Mohali-like run-chases, you need more than a cameo.
The coach adds: “He believes he could hit any ball out of the ground, or any bowler. Then when he’s back in the pavilion, he’s again the shy, quite boy,” Piromalli recollects.
Except when it came to talking spin bowling, which Piromalli asserts his ward was utterly mad about. “He just wouldn’t stop talking.”
One afternoon in Brighton, England, six years ago, a bunch of kids swarmed a wonderstruck Turner. He was then playing club cricket in the Sussex league, as part of an exposure programme, called to bowl his off-breaks in the nets to some of the Australian batsmen, who were devising methods to counteract Graeme Swann.
The kids had clearly mistaken him for namesake Ashton Agar, who had marked his Test debut with an plucky 98 in Nottingham. He immediately realised the genesis of the coincidental fame. The next day, one of the Australian newspapers splashed the headline: “Ashton, the new offie with aggro.” An English daily carried a different headline: “Sussex ready for spin twins- Ashton and Ashton”. The day after, he made his first-class debut for an injury-ravaged Australia in a tour game against Sussex, as Australia’s second spinner.
It was how Turner envisaged his career would pan out — as an off-spinner capable of a “biff or two” down the order. Throughout age-group domestic cricket, Agar and he were competitors vying for the same daunting mantle — Shane Warne’s heir. Turner climbed through various rungs of age-group cricket and broke into the Australia U-19 side on the strength of his off-breaks. Later, he toured India for a quadrangular series in 2012 and played the entire 2012 U-19 World Cup as a spinner. He ended up as Australia’s highest wicket-taker (11), but it was his 43 in the final they lost to India that caught the attention of the cricket fraternity back home.
Their fixation with his batting amused him, though Piromalli claims he was always more confident of Turner’s batting than his bowling ability. “The first thing I noticed in him was his ability to strike the ball cleanly. His technique had to be honed, but the hand-eye coordination was super. So we always used to work a lot on his batting more than his bowling, though deep in him he considered himself to be more of a bowler,” he says.
Clean hitting, Turner says, he learnt from playing alone in the spacious garage of his house. “I didn’t have brothers, I had a sister. Also, my parents had never played cricket. So I would try to drag anyone I met on the road to play cricket with me, or I would play all alone, banging the ball against the wall and trying to hit it as hard as possible,” he explains in the podcast. It’s later that he was lured by the gentle potency of spin bowling, though whichever junior coach who saw him bat was instantly struck by his clean-hitting prowess.
The narrative was similar during his Sussex stint too — in 13 games for Chichester, he picked up 18 wickets at an average of 40.78, whereas he racked up 521 runs at 50 with the bat. But try convincing him about that.
It took three surgeries on his right shoulder to feel convinced. “I couldn’t bowl, then my batting wasn’t quite at that level. That’s when I seriously started thinking of how to improve my batting against the red ball,” he says.
Turner realised the need to tighten his defensive technique. “All batsmen leave or defend more deliveries than they attack, except in T20s. So to survive in other formats, you need a good defensive technique, you need to realise your percentage shots and plan the innings. Once I got this aspect of the game sorted, the rest fell into place and midway through the season I stumbled into an effective method in T20s.”
The finishing part, he says, comes just like that. Piromalli attributes it to the several club matches he had won batting down the order: “We have a strong batting line-up including the Marsh brothers,. So he used to come lower down the order, where he was automatically thrust into finishing duties.” Or down predominantly to the hand-eye coordination he subconsciously imbibed during the garage sessions.
After his most recent finishing jig in Mohali, Turner was swarmed by kids who had mistaken him for Peter Handscomb. He might have felt a sense of deja vu, but it’s time he merited an identity of his own.
It’s Turner’s running between the wickets that impressed Justin Langer the most. “That might sound like the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard, but you watch Ashton Turner, the way he runs between wickets is unbelievable,” the coach said after Turner replaced the ill Mitchell Marsh for the ODI series against India Down Under.
As if not to sound demeaning, he elaborated: “I remember when Mike Hussey came into Australian cricket, the thing that almost got him a shot in the one-day side was his running between the wickets. One of the hallmarks of great Australian teams – you think about Dean Jones, Michael Bevan and Michael Hussey — is the running between wickets.”
Lofty comparison that, but little doubt that Turner has set off in the right direction.