December 9, 2013

Ashwin in the offspin pantheon

He is among the most successful bowlers of his kind, and excitingly, his best may yet be ahead of him

R Ashwin removed Kieran Powell and Darren Bravo before the end of play © BCCI

The success of India's young offspinner R Ashwin in international cricket has prompted me to revisit my memories of some great bowlers of his tribe I have watched over the last five decades.

I never saw my earliest offspinner hero Jim Laker in flesh and blood because he did not play Test cricket in India. My only acquaintance with him was via radio broadcasts featuring the voices of the likes of Norman Yardley and John Arlott, and photographs. His immaculate bowling action, captured by still cameras, was etched in my cricket-crazy 1960s schoolboy mind - a perfect image of his easy run-up, high-arm action and perfect follow-through.

Reading about his Test cricket exploits (193 wickets in 46 Tests at an average of 21.24, an economy rate of 2.04, a strike rate of 62.3, best innings figures of 10 for 53, best match analysis of 19 for 90) and listening to radio commentary of his matches gave me a high rarely experienced afterwards.

According to Arlott, the voice of BBC's Test Match Special, Laker was a good bowler on all types of wickets. He spun the ball viciously and ran through sides on turning pitches at the lowest possible cost. On good wickets, whether in cool England or in tropical conditions, he could bowl over after over of perfect length and line. On those, he set the batsmen puzzles of length and flight.

I first saw Erapalli Prasanna in action in the final Test of the three-Test series between India and West Indies, at Chepauk, Madras, in January 1967. That was the first time Chandrasekhar, Bedi and Prasanna bowled together in a Test.

Prasanna was impressive in that game, though not incisive enough to cause a collapse in either innings. The bouncing run-up and tempting arc were very much in evidence, and so was a happy optimism, as if he expected a wicket every ball. For someone who was making his comeback to Test cricket after a hiatus of five years, he looked comfortable in his shoes, as if he had never doubted he belonged in the company of his seniors in the side.

Prasanna was one of the most confident bowlers I have seen, certainly the most aggressive offspinner. Short of stature and generously built, even plump at times, he had a springy run-up to the wicket, and he used that momentum to great effect. At his best he was perfectly side-on in his delivery stride, and he brought his right arm down quickly to maximise the spin he imparted to the ball. His variations were subtle - including intelligent use of the crease, and changes of grip, ranging from fingers loose and far apart to tight and close together, to control the amount of turn. He could bowl a flat, quick ball with the fingers close together, or a floater angling away from the bat by rolling his fingers over the seam. All these variations were marked by the magic of the ball dropping short of the length the batsman anticipated.

I admired Harbhajan Singh's confidence and spinning ability during his early years in Test cricket, but his relative lack of follow-through later made him a less attractive proposition. I find his successor, Ashwin, intriguing. I watched him gobble up wickets at the international level without ever looking as dangerous as, say, England's Graeme Swann, whose lovely run-up comes closest in my mind to Prasanna's. Compared to that of Prasanna, or the more erect, quicker-through-the-air Venkataraghavan - again classically side-on in finish - Ashwin's action is relatively ungainly, and he initially seemed obsessed with displaying a whole range of variations rather than in pegging away with deliveries that troubled batsmen. Yet the wickets kept coming, his victims often fooled by one mystery ball or other.

Incredibly, Muttiah Muralitharan, (with 55) is the only offspinner to have a better strike rate than that of Ashwin, who has so far grabbed a Test wicket for every 56 deliveries he has sent down, a record that leaves the likes of Swann, Laker, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan and the famed quartet behind, in that order. "Lies, damned lies and statistics," Benjamin Disraeli is said to have thundered once, but this is one number that cannot lie, and at this stage of his career Ashwin is the most successful Indian spinner of all time.

Watching recent developments in his bowling action and in the work ethic evidently behind it, it seems he is striving to achieve a smoother run-up and focusing on greater consistency of line and length and fewer bad balls, without sacrificing the creativity that made him special in the first place. He has also regularly demonstrated the ability to bounce back after punishment, a trait that puts him in the company of greats like Shane Warne. The thoughtfulness and sense of assurance he exudes on the field, no matter what the state of the game, bode well for him. It would seem the best of Ashwin is yet to come.

V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s