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When Sunday morning dawns on Ferozeshah Kotla, a visiting team will enter a Test match in India knowing that they will neither be Jumboed nor Bhajjied, after a decade of almost ceaseless torment from one or the other or both.
Anil Kumble retired three years ago, but his teammates still look towards gully and see him in mirage form, and wish it would take flesh and bowl another uncompromising spell. Harbhajan has waned, and is in exile, but no one knows for how long. He might well be back for the Australia tour in December. In the meantime, though, a new navy blue cap will in all likelihood crown the suntanned visage of Ravichandran Ashwin. The 25-year-old off spinner is not an unknown quantity, but even those who have nodded admiringly at the quiet competence of his limited-overs performances can’t quite tell whether he can replicate that air of belonging while wearing whites. This, after all, is Test cricket. How will Ashwin cope? How will he bowl, and what will he bowl?
We do not know for sure, but he might not resemble his limited-overs avatar all that much. “Basically, your line changes,” says Ashwin. “In ODIs, you can’t bowl too wide of off stump. You tend to bowl straighter, have a midwicket in place and make the batsman work in that direction.”
The shift from a stump-to-stump line to one a little wider of off stump will, in theory, lessen the effectiveness of his carrom ball, since the success of that skiddy, finger-flicked leg-cutter lies in trapping or bowling a batsman while he looks to play it towards the on side. The wicket-taking options are minimised if the carrom ball starts from outside off stump, and a shift back to middle stump just for that delivery is a dead giveaway to top-class batsmen.
And so, from making an appearance once or twice every over in the shorter formats, the carrom ball is likely to be seen only as a surprise weapon. “I don't use the carrom ball all that much in first class cricket, unless I get this instinctive feeling that I can trap someone with it,” Ashwin says.
On the spot
Delhi’s Mithun Manhas has faced a lot of Ashwin’s bowling in domestic cricket, most recently at Chepauk last season, when the Tamil Nadu offie picked up 11 wickets in a Ranji Trophy group match. “There are two kinds of bowlers,” Manhas says. “One keeps it on a spot consistently and knows that he’ll get him if he bowls enough good balls. The other has a lot of variety and keeps mixing it up. From what I’ve seen, Ashwin is of the first kind. He’s got patience, and doesn’t really use the carrom ball that much.”
The parallels observers might draw between Ashwin and Ajantha Mendis are therefore fairly wide off the mark. Mendis the ODI bowler is exactly the same as Mendis the Test bowler, a wicket-to-wicket, slow-medium bowler with a loopy googly, a skiddy carrom ball and an off break that doesn’t turn or bounce much. Thanks to that fact, and to the fact that he doesn’t use his off break as a stock ball (it’s hard to say if he has a stock ball at all), his line remains the same across formats.
With the taller, slower Ashwin, mystery takes a back seat to his more obvious physical gifts. Delivered by long fingers from the top of a high-arm, open-chested action, his off breaks turn a decent distance on surfaces with any amount of assistance, and the overspin he puts on the ball gets him dip and bounce.
Former Tamil Nadu left arm spinner Sunil Subramaniam, who has coached Ashwin since his formative days, identifies bounce as his ward’s key weapon. “Turn is visually appealing,” says Subramaniam. “But very often, big turn only means you beat the bat. With bounce and a bit of turn, the ball has every chance of taking an edge or hitting the bat high up, and you can force catches in the short leg area.”
Armed with this potent stock ball, Ashwin’s variations are likely to be subtler than the ones seen in limited-overs cricket, pertaining to the amount of spin he puts on the ball or the way he uses the crease or the speeds he bowls. According to Subramaniam, Ashwin usually has a plan in his head well before he comes on. “Even before the match begins, he identifies areas where he can get wickets. He's a bit of a throwback in that sense,” he says. “When I saw him the first time, he wasn't what you would conventionally call talented. But he knew what he was doing. He thinks through situations.”
You only need to watch him bat at the death in an ODI to see the ‘thinker’ in Ashwin. Coming in to bat with only two overs to go, his response to the first delivery he faces is invariably to shuffle around his crease and target either fine leg or third man (whichever boundary is vacant) rather than deep midwicket or long on. You can also see the gears in his head turning furiously when he launches into long-winded and sometimes tangential responses to questions in interviews.
Where does this analytical bent come from? “Frankly, I don’t know,” says Ashwin. “It might be because I've watched a lot of cricket, ever since I was seven or eight years old, and I guess my educational background also helps.”
WV Raman, Ashwin’s first coach at Ranji level, contends that he is occasionally prone to overcomplicating things. “He has always been a hard worker in the nets. But I had to constantly temper him down as his mind is always active or over-active at times. As a coach, I had to try and calm him down as much as I could. His mind is always churning at high speeds, and it is important to help him focus his energies,” he says.
Raman identifies patience as a key virtue for Ashwin to succeed in Tests. “In ODI cricket, he has the leeway of getting wickets off bad deliveries, which will not be the case in Tests. I think he should look to just bowl well rather than try too hard to take wickets. He will not get too many easy wickets at Test level. Bowling for wickets can make you desperate,” he says. “Another challenge will be bowling 30-odd overs and spending a long day in the field. His fielding will have to be top-notch, and he will have to ensure his bowling doesn't get affected.”
But there is a fair amount of evidence, from first class cricket, that suggests Ashwin relishes bowling long spells. He has bowled 8494 balls in 34 matches – roughly 42 overs every match. In comparison, in first class cricket (excluding Tests), Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha average 35 and 37 overs per match respectively. Ashwin’s record – 134 wickets at an average of 28.12 and a strike rate of 63.38 – are a fair indication of the role he’s had to perform for a mediocre Tamil Nadu attack, of stock bowler and strike bowler rolled into one.
Attack pays dividends
According to Subramaniam, the defensive side of this role threatened to engulf him in his second and third full seasons in first class cricket, in which he averaged in the mid-to-high 30s. A return to an attacking line in the 2010-11 season brought him 31 wickets at 23.77, with four five-wicket hauls.
“In his second season, he was bowling a defensive line, out of instructions, simply because the other bowlers lacked sting,” he says. “He was getting closer and closer to leg stump. We had a chat after that, and last season, he willed himself to return to that off stump line. He also discovered that carrom ball, and that was a big help as well.”
Tamil Nadu teammate Subramaniam Badrinath has also observed Ashwin’s bowling evolve. “He’s become a different bowler in the last six-eight months,” Badrinath says. “He has made a slight change in his action that has helped him get more revolutions on the ball. Earlier, he was a little quicker in the air but now he gets the arc that every spinner wants to have. After pitching the ball comes quickly off the track, and that can trouble any batsman.”
Manhas predicts that Ashwin will enjoy a good series. “His bounce is going to be even more effective in Test because he’ll have more close-in fielders,” he says. “And I expect him to do well, because the SG ball helps the spinners.”
Sanjay Bangar saw one of Ashwin’s marathon spells at close hand, when he made an undefeated 163 for Railways against Tamil Nadu at the Karnail Singh Stadium during the 2009/10 season. Ashwin bowled 42 overs, and took three for 104. “He is a unusual off-spinner,” says Bangar. “He releases the ball very late. And I haven’t seen anyone else who comes so close to the wicket. He was trying to bowl the carrom ball in that match, but hadn’t mastered it yet at that stage.”
But however well Ashwin does against the West Indies, Bangar says that he can’t look beyond Harbhajan for the Australia tour. “It has to be Harbhajan,” he says. “Ashwin is getting a chance in this series and he will only gain from this experience.”
On the perception that he is a limited-overs specialist
You can't think of what others are saying. It's hard to change impressions, even if you show them a record that says you've taken 140 wickets in 30-odd first class matches. I'm happy that IPL gave me a platform to showcase my talent. After that, there was a perception that T20s are different from ODIs, and people said I might have trouble adapting. I've done reasonably well in whatever ODIs I've played, and I hope I can make the switch to Tests as well.
On his emotions ahead of his Test debut
Honestly speaking, I've never really dreamed about my Test debut or thought about who I'll be playing against or where. But whenever I've watched matches at Chepauk, I've wanted India to win, and wanted to somehow be out there contributing to India winning. I was at the stadium when Sadagopan Ramesh made his Test debut in '99 against Pakistan, and I was extremely excited about that.
On Harbhajan Singh
I've always wished that I had that air speed he’s got. It seems to travel so slow in the air, but it zips off the wicket. I've always admired him, and he's been a big hero for me.
THE TWISTS AND TURNS OF SPIN DEBATE
India’s spin scenario has seldom looked as uncertain as it does now, with the premier tweaker in the land fighting for his place against a group of contenders who are yet to make persuasive claims for a regular Test spot. A look at where each of them stands
Dropped after a miserable tour of England, Harbhajan still remains the most plausible leader of the spin attack, especially if he can regain his form in the Ranji Trophy. The off spinner is likely to be on the plane bound for Australia, and should play his 99th and 100th Tests fairly soon, but his long-term future isn’t clear.
Ashwin has made a seamless transition to international cricket in the shorter formats, and will hope to fit in just as well during the Test series against the West Indies. His biggest test is to prove that he can trouble batsmen who aren’t coming after him.
In the two home series against Australia and New Zealand last year, Ojha bowled like a miser without quite getting a truckload of wickets. He hasn’t played since then, and the West Indies series gives him another chance to show he can combine incisiveness with his undoubted control.
Three years after a splendid debut series against Australia, Mishra left England looking more adept at playing feisty knocks as a nightwatchman than at bowling leg breaks. Whether it’s a technical issue – detractors say he doesn’t get zip off the track – or a lack of self-belief, Mishra needs to sort it out quickly if he has any hope of a long international career.
The towering Punjab leg spinner might well be the first Indian cricketer to gain selection for the Test squad based on IPL performances. There is definite potential in Sharma’s unrelenting style vaguely reminiscent of Anil Kumble, but he isn’t even a Ranji Trophy regular at this point.
Consistent performances with bat and ball in consecutive ODI series against England, home and away, have brought Jadeja right back into the forefront for the ODI all-rounder spot. The Saurashtra left-armer has a good first class record as well, and could make the Test side if he works a little more on the attacking side of his bowling.