“Cricket is a failure sport,” R Ashwin tells a group of schoolkids hunched on the ground in Chennai. “Even Sachin Tendulkar had just 30 per cent success rate.” He later corrects it to 35.
It’s a sobering introduction to the world of frustrations but seems an apt message to engage a potential spinner among those 10-year olds. Another video, another kid – this one seems even younger, and has the ball in his hands when Ashwin questions him about his field. The kid shyly states his case and moves his friends. Ashwin probes further, “which side is tougher to hit?” Off, says the cutie and Ashwin points to the onside and goes, “then use one more fielder here, no. If he hits through the offside, you can clap for him.”
In those two YouTube video chunks, more than any conversations with adults, Ashwin captures the inner world of a spinner, and in particular his own art of off-spin.
In England in 2018 and Australia in 2019, he started dreamily at Edgbaston and Adelaide, before his body betrayed him. “If I could, I would have pulled my soul out and killed this body,” he told Cricbuzz about that phase.
“He will take 20 wickets in the four Tests this series,” says Prasanna Agoram, South Africa’s performance analyst who has worked with Ashwin in the Indian Premier League and Tamil Nadu Premier League.
It was Australian spinner Mitchell Swepson who nailed Ashwin’s secret couple of years ago. “The batsmen have to watch his hands closely which gives them less time to move and they sort of stay in the crease a bit. It (the watching) cuts their reaction time and that’s probably his biggest asset.” Another Australian, batsman Matt Renshaw, detailed the effects on the mind. “Working out what he is trying to do is probably the biggest (challenge) and how is he trying to get you out, what fields are in play – the mental side is the biggest thing as a batsman.”
Ashwin doesn’t place the fingers on the ball, he wraps them around. It’s a sight to see him demonstrating his grip to kids; he would pick, lift, and fold his fingers into preferred spaces.
For most off-spinners, the index finger cuts across the seam and so does the middle finger, with the ball clasped between these two spread-out fingers. Ashwin is different. The middle finger curls in and stretches alongside the seam rather than cutting it, which means the ball rests on the knuckle –imparting more revolutions on the ball. Unlike other off-spinners, Ashwin’s thumb too is tucked in beside the seam, pointing towards the index finger, almost touching it.
When he wants to impart sidespin to get more turn, his index finger does cut that seam. When he wants overspin, he cocks it in, towards him, beside the seam, like a hook, and the extremely supple wrist turns like a doorknob to send the ball up and over.
“He will bowl a lot more overspin in Australia this series, according to me,” says Agoram. Ashwin will have to adapt, and he will, as he has the “experience and intelligence”.
“In Australia, the order of traits needed by a spinner is as follows: Trajectory, length, speed, and line. The ideal length is six metres from the batsman, full enough to make him feel he can drive but just about dipping short. The ideal line is fourth stump – not too far outside off as they will drill you through the off, and not too straight as they can easily work you to the legside,” says Agoram.
He places trajectory on top as a spinner has to beat the batsman in the air in Australia. You can’t be too fast or drop it too short in Australia because you can be cut or heaved away as there is no fear of variable bounce or alarming turn, unless there is generous rough in the second innings.
“Ashwin usually bowls at 82 kmph and it’s quite good for Australia – if he can vary the pace in the 80s with the occasional quick one or a real slow one, and focus on overspin, he can beat the batsmen in the air,” Agoram says.
Ashwin had burnt his fingers on his first visit to Australia in 2011-12 when Michael Clarke kept driving him en route to a triple hundred in Sydney. “He drove me through the covers really well, I wasn’t putting any speed on the ball and I kept tossing it up.”
“Overspin in Australia isn’t going to make the ball spin as much as in India but it will help you beat the batsmen in the air,” says Agoram. A crucial element in Australia would be bat-pad catches. The extra bounce coupled with the angles will result in hesitant prods.
Even his open-chested run-up has been tweaked towards this effect. In recent times, Ashwin has already tinkered with his action (no longer do his arms kick in as much as they used to) and his run-up too is fairly straight as the focus is on loading up in front of his face. That load-up helps him stay upright at release which to generate more overspin. He varies the pace with the revolutions on the ball, but also positions his body smartly for extra effect. At times, he leans front at release if he wants to bowl slower but doesn’t give too much time in the air to the batsman. Or drop his arm sideways a touch to flatten the trajectory. When he wants more flight, turn, and dip, he will arch back after loading and finish the action in an exaggerated way.
“In the Pink-ball Test on a slow Adelaide track, you might see him try even leg-spin and carrom balls,” Agoram says. “It’s not his T20 game coming in but it would be a calculated move as the pink Kookaburra has a black seam which can get difficult to pick in lights in the last session, and can be exploited by wrist spinners.”
Ashwin’s Australia campaign won’t be easy. “Can’t Bowl too straight, can’t bowl too wide, got to make them drive,” Agoram says. “There will be lots of dot balls in Australia but also lots of fours as Aussies can cut or play that pick-up flick shot on the leg that they all look for against off-spinners as they can trust the bounce and turn. You have to get it perfect for long periods to succeed, but I think Ashwin has the skill and the heart for it. My bet is that he will take at least 20 wickets.”