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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Tim on December 10, 2013, 13:28 GMT

    @Sachin equal to Bradman(terrible name by the way) just because someone has failed in the same place a legend has failed doesn't mean they're a future legend. This writer is talking about Ashwin joining the ranks of the greats. Ashwin has only proven himself in India and even there he averages far higher than Murali did over his career, including games vs Australia. Ajantha Mendis is another player who comes to mind who burst onto the scene like Ashwin has. His career was undone by the lack of a stock ball. Ashwin has the same deficiency. In two years he could be lost to world cricket and back to the IPL as a professional mercenary. Where does Nathan Lyon fit in the pantheon? He has done far more tough time than Ashwin and is beginning to shine

  • Dummy4 on December 10, 2013, 10:51 GMT

    @Muhammad IqbalJunaid averages 29.19,Babar 44,Irfan 38.90,Rehman 27.55,Ajmal 26.54.Ye they are better bowlers than Ashwin?

  • Dummy4 on December 10, 2013, 10:36 GMT

    In australia and england,Indian pacers didn't do well.How could a spinner do well there?Ajmal ,Swann get wickets abroad because their pace bowlers perform well and make pressure on opposing batsman.Don't blame him until our quick bowlers do well. pacers will do well and the opposition will relax when he will come to bowl then he will get lots of wickets.

  • Dummy4 on December 10, 2013, 10:18 GMT

    Somehow,anyone who is related to N.Srinivasan or CSK is tagged to be an average player.You say that Ashwin,Raina get chances due to politics. Rohit who is said to be the most talented player failed many times,but he was given chances after chances.Amit Mishra never impressed too much,neither did Rahul Sharma.Pragyan Ojha and Ashwin play together but Ojha improved only after he got Ashwin's company but even ashwin outbowled him. He is still in his formative age.AJmal has years of experience with him. Is he a bad bowler only because he gives 5 more runs for every wicket or takes 1 over more to dissmiss a batsman?Murali has taken many wickets against bangladesh,zimbabwve and in sub-continent.Warne was not too successfull in India,where you would get best turning tracks.Then why he is not good?He never went to australia before.He is no. one allrounder not because he batted or bowled against you but due to his perfomance against international players.

  • Dummy4 on December 10, 2013, 8:22 GMT

    Had the privilege of watching great off spinners of the world. EAS Prasanna according to me was the best in this art I wonder how Mr. Ramnarayan missed the West Indian great, Lance Gibbs. I am confused if Ashwin's action can be legal specially when pauses before delivery of the ball. But then if Murli's action can be legal then Ashwin's cannot be questioned. Prasanna's action was poetry in motion. By the way I have seen Ramnarayan bowl while he played for Hyderabad.

  • Dummy4 on December 10, 2013, 8:21 GMT

    Ashwin's bowling average: Test: 27.47 ODI: 31.58 T20: 40.78 Looks like an average bowler.

  • Oz on December 10, 2013, 7:38 GMT

    Ashwin is a legitimate bowler, unlike Ajmal or Murali.

  • krithivasan on December 10, 2013, 6:52 GMT

    @ zobab and Ashwin haters : Please be informed that the so called GREAT MURALI is such a ZERO in australia!!!! Why are u not understanding that cricket is condition based game!!! None can do everythin in all pitches ...Especially bowlers.... Are u really expecting Anderson or a broad or a Steyn to consistently win matches for u in sub-continent??? Or do u think MURALI can win u matches in AUS??? Or Can Swann win games in AUS??? They all can jus support... Ashwin is king in spinning conditions... But AJMAL is greater than Ashwin...But can ajmal bat like ash??? Thats wat. Jus encourage wat he has

  • Tanmay on December 10, 2013, 6:48 GMT

    well most of Ashwin's success has come on dustbowls at home...he struggled in Australia in 2011/12 the current series in South Africa he is struggling too...a spinner's job is to pick wickets and not i dont see Ashwin as a long term option for India in test cricket as well as one day format...likes of Amit Mishra, Pragyan Ojha, Rahul Sharma are far better than him, but they dont have required backing....& with India playing most of their cricket away from home in coming year, Ashwin is bound to struggle more..