“Here is a guy who has been wanting to be captain for many years now. Now that he has finally got it, it will be interesting to see what he does with it!” That’s WV Raman hitting the nail on the head on R Ashwin becoming Kings XI Punjab. No other Indian player in recent times has carried that captaincy aspiration in him as much as Ashwin. After Virat Kohli, that is. Last February, ahead of an intense home season, he had said how he sees himself as a “leader without a title” in the Indian team. Now that he has been finally given the job, albeit in an IPL franchise, it will be fascinating to see how he goes about the job.
It’s been a burning desire in him for many years now. It’s easy to see why. Always bursting with ideas about the game and how it can further evolve; waking up at odd hours to watch games from around the world; he even runs and takes active participation in a cricket academy for youngsters back home. Not many, if any, current cricketers get as involved in the game. Captaincy has been a theme that he has often spoken to his friends as well. In 2015, one of his friends, Arvind, had talked about it to this newspaper. “His captaincy dream will automatically happen if he keeps doing what he is doing. If he doesn’t expect too much too fast, I think he is going to be one of the legends of Indian cricket. If there is any suggestion that I want to give him, I would like to repeat his own advice he gave me at the start of my career. ‘Don’t rush, wait, good things will happen, don’t expect too much; just keep doing what you’re doing, things will skyrocket.’”
That observation is what makes this all the more interesting. Here is a man who has almost been thirsting for it — though he has made peace with the eventuality that it might not happen with the Indian team.
In 2008, when he was just a youngster, he was given the job to lead Tamil Nadu. And Raman remembers a young man jumping right into it. “I remember he led a fairly young team to Vijay Hazare trophy that year. We were taking a young team to Sri Lanka for the Gopalan Trophy, and we thought he was the best fit among the youngsters. He was very excited and was good at communicating to the team about his plans. At times, a bit too much!” Raman laughs. “But he was young then. He has since played 12 years of cricket, and has matured a lot, and would have unlearned some of the stuff that had to go. I am really keen to see how he leads.”
Leading an IPL franchise isn’t the same as leading the Indian team, but the hype that surrounds it, the pressure of owners, and the presence of players from around the world makes the job that much harder. Raman doesn’t think any such factor would faze Ashwin. “I think he will handle all that pretty much okay. He has those skills.”
Abhinav Mukund, who played for India recently and captains the Tamil Nadu Ranji team, remembers the detailed plans that Ashwin chalked up. “He’s a guy who believes in communication and giving specific roles to specific players. He had a lot of one-on-ones with the players and he believes a lot in preparation. He’s definitely a guy who will not leave any stone unturned with regards to preparation,” Mukund says.
The other thing Mukund remembers is a penchant for innovative fields. “He has different ideas. He won’t be an orthodox captain. He led Tamil Nadu in the Vijay Hazare Trophy one year and he set quite unorthodox fields. He’s always maintained books and notes on players. He’s a guy who has believed from his childhood in his personal preparation for a game. I think he’ll bring the same mind-set towards captaincy. I think he will definitely be a different kind of captain. He’s a guy who won’t follow the book much, but he can be successful because of his unorthodox ideas, especially in the shorter formats of the game.”
S Badrinath, former India and Tamil Nadu player, remembers an occasion when Ashwin came up with the suggestion to open the innings. “I was playing under him in a 50-over BCCI Corporate tournament, and he suddenly came up with this suggestion that I should open the innings. It was slightly seaming conditions and he felt, I would be the best bet to play out 50 overs and get a big score. He thought my style of batting would be best utilised in that position in an ODI game instead of coming and swinging out in the middle overs. I had never opened before in a 50-over format, but I agreed and it turned out to be for the best.”
Like Raman, Badrinath believes this would be a great challenge for Ashwin, and it would come down to how he filters his numerous ideas. “It would be interesting to see how he handles it. How he filters them (the ideas), and how he chooses which one to go with, how he convinces the others about his decision, and how he handles the situation after that,” Badrinath says.
In Raman’s words: “The challenge as a captain isn’t having ideas. Ashwin has lots of them. It would be in how he selects on the field in that moment, which one to go with, and more importantly, how he handles what happens after deciding. Some ideas work sometimes, it doesn’t work always, and he would have to internally process all that. You can’t have ego in processing.”
Here is a player’s concern: “He’s someone like Tendulkar who comes in with so many ideas that he can end up confusing a player. Some of his ideas could possibly make no sense to some of the players. What can happen if you have a captain who portrays himself as being this very intelligent guy is that it can make players around him slightly insecure. It can kind of have an effect on them executing their skills freely.”
There are two other areas where it could get interesting. One is in how he handles the media — and while that’s not a direct bearing on the game, if he remains as feisty as he has been at times in the past, it could get real interesting and could have a ripple effect on the players as well. Franchise cricket has its own set of pressures as well, with very involved owners, and it would also be interesting to see how he handles it.
Another facet, and this is a fascinating subplot in itself, would be his relationship with the team’s mentor Virender Sehwag. An instinctive character vs a man of method. Ashwin has immense respect and admiration for Sehwag, that he has publicly spoken about in the past, and in some minds they would compliment well. As Mukund puts it: “People who are inclined towards flair and showcasing their talent with just flair, they can be more inclined towards Sehwag. People who believe in systems, mind-sets and processes and preparation they will move towards Ashwin. If they work in tandem, I think it’ll make them a very successful team.”
That’s the good take. The other perception is how two strong individuals would get along, especially, if the team experiences a few losses at the start. “That will be the key. How Ashwin handles setbacks, and how Sehwag reacts in those situations. I am sure they two respect each other, but their reactions to losses could be different. And add the passionate involvement of the franchise owners. It can get tricky,” says another.
Time will tell how it plays out but Raman summarises it for us: “Some players who become captain need to learn a lot; for some like Ashwin, it will be about unlearning in some aspects. I hope he succeeds. I am very keen to watch him as the captain. There won’t be a boring moment for sure.”