ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
World Cup 2011
Ashwin patiently waits in the wings
R Ashwin's presence, or absence, in the game against West Indies may well indicate how India will head into the World Cup's knockout phase.
Sharda Ugra in Chennai
March 18, 2011
An hour or so after landing in Chennai, a local friend blessed with the wickedest of humour sent an sms greeting. It read, "Welcome to the land of Ravichandran Ashwin." In a few words, the message swept past a thousand or so years of history, culture, politics and Rajnikanth and went straight to the centre of India's steaming World Cup campaign.
The Indian team's future in the tournament is largely not dependent on what happens in Sunday's match in Chennai against West Indies (barring a few possibilities). Offspinner Ashwin's presence, or absence, in its bowling attack, though, may well indicate how India will head into the World Cup's knockout phase.
In the course of the last month, without bowling a single over at the World Cup, Ashwin has gone from being one of those "promising" youngsters to a mythic figure, kept hidden from the public eye so that he can be unleashed on unsuspecting batsmen at the business end of the tournament and help India storm their way through to the title.
Chepauk is where Ashwin will put on his cape and shoot into the stratosphere. That is, if the team decides to play him.
The chances of that happening are increasing, like the humidity levels in Chennai. Chepauk is the most spin-friendly of Indian tracks in this World Cup and is expected to give India's slow bowlers the advantage of extra purchase and with it, help them to turn out their most confident performance of the tournament. Ashwin's "mental stability" and toughness have been so well-advertised by his captain that he is expected to turn up in his first World Cup match, take five wickets and strike fear.
The one buffer in the midst of much overstatement is that Ashwin 's debut World Cup appearance itself may well happen on familiar ground, on his own 'land'. All 22 yards of it. From his first-class debut in December 2006, he has played a total of 15 matches (first class, List A, IPL, international) at Chepauk. He has bowled 470.1 overs for his 61 wickets at 21.50 (economy rate of 2.79, strike rate 46.20, five wickets in a match six times, ten wickets in a match twice.) The numbers are very good, but India v West Indies at a World Cup will be like none of those 15 matches.
Ashwin's coach, Sunil Subramanian, is as baffled by his student's continued absence from the XI as the rest of the country, but he is not anxious about whether Ashwin can instantly switch on for what could be a big game on Sunday. "Ashwin has the mental framework of Ravi Shastri, Anil Kumble and Venky." (Whether combined or individual doesn't really matter.) The Venky being referred to is off spinner S Venkataraghavan, with whom Ashwin has been often been compared, not merely because they share a home town but also a resemblance of craft. Ashwin, however, is a bowler who has arrived and thrived in the most modern format of the game, Twenty20. His IPL team, the Chennai Super Kings, won the IPL and Champions League T20 double last season.
Even though he belongs to the city that usually churns out more batting dashers and stylists, Ashwin went from being an opening batsman in his teenage years to concentrating on bowling, first medium pace and then offspin. The consistency and accuracy that is gold dust in the shortest version of the game came, Subramaniam says, from Ashwin's greed for improvement and his willingness to sweat.
One of the practice tools the two men used at the TNCA Academy during their training is called The Grid, a 9ft long and 4.5ft wide fluorescent tape used to perfect spot bowling, where lengths and lines can be modified for a variety of conditions. Subramaniam was given the tape for a trial by former India spinner Nilesh Kulkarni, who has patented the practice tool that is meant to help both bowlers and wicket-keepers. Subramanian says Ashwin's success rate on The Grid is close to 80%. In a match the only variant is, of course, the minor matter of the batsman facing him. The success rate could go haywire then but in an interview with ESPNCricinfo, Ashwin spoke of enjoying the mental tussle that bowling involved. In the interview, one of the IPL dismissals he mentioned was that of a batsman he could run into should he play on Sunday - Chris Gayle.
Subramaniam tells another story about Ashwin's appetite: after a Duleep Trophy final defeat to West Zone, in which he had bowled a total of 78 overs, and batted for over two hours on the fifth day, he turned up at practice the next afternoon and bowled another 100 balls at the Academy. No matter how effective Ashwin might or might not be in the World Cup, if he is called up on Sunday, he will at least be ready.
India must only hope that they have not left it too late to use him, though Ashwin is used to waiting. In the Chennai Super Kings, he was understudy to Muthiah Muralitharan, and with India he has stepped in every time Harbhajan Singh has been unable to play. It has meant him six ODIs and four Twenty20s in less than a year and given the touring workload now charted out for the Indians over the 12 months, those numbers should increase.
Subramaniam says, "Ashwin is here to stay." And he doesn't mean on the bench.
A look at what lies behind the rise of the West Indian allrounder who just might be the world's hottest T20 property at the moment
I Was There: In 1986, England were battered, bruised, broken and blackwashed in the Caribbean
Burning questions, walking on water, liquid breakfasts, and more selfies than you can shake a stick at, in our Twitter round-up
Numbers Game: In a little over 12 months, he has established himself as the captain's go-to man in the toughest situations
Thirty years ago England were battered, bruised, broken and blackwashed in the Caribbean