It’s R Ashwin’s feet that were tying him up in knots. They were triggering problems in his bowling. The strides were getting longer and uneven in his run-up, affecting everything that followed: the load-up, the release, and preventing him from getting his body into action as much as he would like. Over the years, bad habits creep up, affecting the muscle memory of a bowler. Ashwin was no different.
It’s like walking, as he would say in the past. If the strides are longer or shorter than you are comfortable with, the whole balance goes, and something as natural as walking can seem unnatural. An effort. It was the same with his bowling. He knew what he had to do: sort out the stride, remove the snake charmer’s wave of the arms, which he used to do in his run-up and that would creep in as almost an involuntary movement, and had to strive to keep his body loose.
A few months ago, he had spoken to Bharat Arun and Ravi Shastri about how he wants to “take the pitch out of the equation”. That he wanted to create something in the air, beat the batsmen in the flight. To do that, he had to get more of his body into action.
A person privy to the whole process said the hard work done away from the spotlight had made a genuine difference to the off-spinner’s bowling.
Ashwin hit the nets in Chennai and time out of Test cricket did help in the revamp exercise. In some ways, it was a return to a younger Ashwin. The strides were shortened. The rest began to fall in place: the waving of arms, which stiffened up his body, fell away. How to get more body into the action now? It was decided that the bowling arm had to be kept loose. Look at the how it syncs up now, in highlights from the Edgbaston game, or wait for the next Test. It’s supple, fluid, the wrists get far more into action now, snapping the ball out with more furious revolutions and the fingers revv the ball a lot more. Importantly, the body gets into his action a lot more. Everything is more seamless now. The left foot stopped going too far across the body, which helped the hip swivel through the action a lot more smoothly, helping him to pivot better.
He was no longer past the side-on position that affected his length in particular. He had gone back to his old philosophy: All the energy and body weight should go towards the intended target. Else both line and length suffer.
“Over the last 12 months, I have been working on simplifying my action; make sure I can get more body into the ball and hence, create something in the air,” he told bcci.tv. “Doing the batsmen in the air is something I have consciously worked upon. When you are trying to do it, the body simply gives up — you are touch short or long. Lot of bad habits creep up, like the arms coming in. I had to work against my own will.”
According to the source, Ashwin went back to the basics to get the desired results, and not being in India’s scheme of things in the shorter formats was a blessing in disguise.
During those months, when Ashwin was playing club cricket in Chennai, he went back to his old routine. Grid lines were drawn in the areas where he wanted to bowl, little boxes of target to speak. For hours, he would rip balls into those little boxes. It’s funny how something like a stride can trigger a whole host of problems but once he sorted that out, the rest fell in place. When he is with the Indian team, he worked with cones instead of boxes but the aim was the same. Not playing ODIs allowed him to spend a lot of time working on his bowling. And play county cricket, where he found that pitches were slow even on the first day and that he had to crank up his pace a bit to be successful.
The boxes in the nets helped quieten his hyperactive creative mind and focus on what he needs to do. To bowl ball after ball into those areas requires patience and a certain sense of stillness of the mind. Things began to fall in place. The left leg didn’t go across, the body started to kick in more and more into action, the (new) action itself slowly started to entrench itself into muscle memory. The bowling arm got looser, the jerk was gone. With the body into it now, the drift got better and, of course, the loop. The ball started to come out much better.
He could now do the batsmen in the air. Alastair Cook would vouch for it. Twice. People go on about the ripping turn, but the real deception came in the air. Watching the match at Edgbaston was Harbhajan Singh and he was moved to comment. “Spin toh tha hi, but he was done in the air.”
Cook is a tall guy and he was stretching well forward on both occasions. Tall man, long stride, and yet he couldn’t reach the ball. For it was not there where he thought it would be. He could have done better in covering the spin, getting far more across but he was concerned with the ball hitting his pads. Cook seems worried against Ashwin about LBWs, and rarely gets too much across. While that element played its part, the trajectory suggested that the ball would be a lot fuller before it dropped in front and then, of course, the turn took over. To do it once in a Test was magic enough but to reprise it twice?
It triggered a classic comment from Ashwin at the end of the game. Can you talk us through those two deliveries that you bowled to Cook? “They were both same deliveries!”