Important to share ideas with spin partner - Ashwin
R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha have taken a staggering 73 wickets as a pair in their first five Tests together, at home against West Indies and New Zealand. With the focus being on spin as India's four-Test series against England begins in Ahmedabad on Thursday, ESPNcricinfo spoke to Ashwin and Ojha before the Indian team's preparatory camp in Mumbai on their developing partnership.
How has your partnership developed over the years? How much of a boost is it to have someone you know so well bowl from the other end?
Ojha: We have played a lot of junior cricket together. Right from the Under-16s we have been playing against each other and also for the same [South] zone. We are also from the same age group. It is easy to talk to each other and discuss things.
When you are planning something and it does not go your way, you talk to him as a partner. The past two series that we played in India, Ash was in top form and getting a lot of wickets. It made my job easier. We were complementing each other. Sometimes he used to take wickets and I used to not give easy runs and sometimes, he used to hold up [the scoring] a bit and I used to attack the batsmen. There is great understanding between us.
Ashwin: We played in Bangalore [against New Zealand] where the pitch was a little dead and we were looking to break through. We were toiling a bit when [James] Franklin and [Daniel] Flynn were playing. At that point, we were talking to each other about how to pin them down. Slower pace was not working, quicker through the air was also tough, and it was very good to bat on. Then we had a chat. He came and told me slower in the air might help. I was saying slower in the air is just sitting up on the track. These kinds of conversations that we have during games really help, which is not a big possibility if you are not of the same age group. Then it becomes that much more complex, it becomes more of guidance if it is a senior player. This kind of rapport exists between us. For one, you can be very sure that when one of you is running through, the other will stick it out and make it very tough for the batsman there. That's the amount of confidence we have in each other.
How do you decide who will attack and who will defend? How much of it is done on the field? How much prior planning goes into it?
Ashwin: It is not something you decide before a game. This game is a circle. Over periods of time, one person will have the knack of picking up wickets and the other one has to stand by and hold his guns, and his time will come. He just has to bide his time. It has happened already in our short stint with each other at the international level. First innings against West Indies [in Delhi] he picked up wickets, in the second innings, I did. Then in Mumbai, I took wickets in the first innings, he did it in the second. In a way, it is good between us that it has happened on and off. So it relaxes us much more. There has not been that much of a gap between us.
Ojha: It is basically about momentum. As a cricketer on the field, you can understand the situation. Like when he is getting wickets, I always tell myself that I should not be over-smart and should not try to show that I am also there and that I too can take wickets. If I do that, the runs will flow from both ends easily. It is more about being a street-smart bowler rather than just going out and trying to prove a point.
How often do you take each other's advice on the field?
Ojha: We have got that kind of rapport; if he thinks there are certain things I should do during a game [he comes up and tells me]. Sometimes a batsman is comfortable with certain lines and uncomfortable when you bowl in a particular area. Lots of times Ashwin comes up to me, as do the senior players. Ash and I try to make sure we stand at mid-off or mid-on when the other is bowling and discuss strategies and plan how to go about every session.
Ashwin: It is not about taking what advice one is giving. It is about throwing in your ideas. That idea might help, might not help. That is secondary. But it is very important that you put in your point of view so that it gives the other something to feed off. Because at the top of your mark, you might just forget what needs to be done. When somebody actually reminds you, it is a very big help under pressure.
How different do you think your bowling approaches are?
Ashwin: We haven't picked each other's mind to find out how attacking or how defensive one is. We know for sure that we will complement each other. He definitely has an attacking component. I always look for wickets. I am very sure he does as well. If a bowler who does not look for wickets exists, it is very tough for him to pick up five-wicket hauls. He has also picked up a few five-wicket hauls. So it is very evident that he is also attacking.
He is someone who is very hard to get away for a right-hander. Ojha's consistency of keeping it there or thereabouts is his biggest strength. I look for that extra bit and try to throw one up more often what he does, to induce a bat-pad gap or an edge to short leg. But that is my nature. His nature is that he will stick to his guns. There will be days when I can go for 90-100 runs and pick up five wickets but you will hardly find Ojha mucking about that way and giving extra runs. Yes, everybody will bowl bad deliveries but he predominantly will be building up [the pressure] over a period of time and getting wickets.
Ojha: He has got a lot of variations. He's got the carom ball, the topspinner ... My strength is bowling consistently on one length. Right from a kid I have been doing that - varying my pace, using flight, pushing the ball through, and hitting the same area consistently. We don't change our core plan; we adapt to the situation.
Seventy-three wickets in your first five Tests together. That is an incredible number. When you go into a big series with such a record, isn't there pressure that 'now we are expected to take wickets as a partnership'?
Ashwin: This is probably the first time someone has given me the numbers. They are on a statistician's mind; they do not have to necessarily sit in our heads. We are going about doing our jobs. There is another important series coming up [against Australia]. We will just take it as it comes, rather than saying 'we have done so much and we will have to do so much more'. If you are going to look at it that way, it makes it that much more difficult as a professional cricketer.
I don't believe in taglines. I have said I don't believe in being a leader of the attack or in being spin twins or whatever you call it. When someone is not looking for taglines, I don't think he will be under pressure. We have played enough cricket. Yes, it is a big series. I am very excited. But there is absolutely no pressure on me. It is just another series. I have played so much cricket. Test cricket is definitely one [level] higher. I started playing from about eight years old. Till today I might have played about 1000-2000 matches. Yes, it is a Test match, it is a big team, and we would like to prove a point to them. But having said that, it is yet another game. Ten-twenty years from now, if I have to look back, I'll have to tell myself that yes, I played a Test match and I played it with the utmost freedom and utmost ability.
Do you feel you have established yourself in the India side?
Ashwin: I have not even thought about it. That is not even on the agenda. I am not someone who will say 'I have done this' and sit on my laurels. This is a very competitive sport. You have got to be very professional and stay completely grounded in order to keep growing and improving. If you are not grounded, you can rest on your laurels and before you know it, you might actually be in a situation where you are under pressure. I would always like to be one up on the game. I am not trying to say I will always be successful. I would rather be someone who has tried, given it everything and then said, 'Okay, it has been worthless, let's look at something else'. Rather than sitting back and saying, 'Oh my god, I have to work [harder] now'.
Ojha: My childhood coach always says, 'You should never take your place for granted'. Yes, I have had a couple of good series in India but there is always scope for improvement and there is a long way to go. I really want to follow in the footsteps of Anil bhai [Kumble], the way he was leading the pack and contributed so much to Indian cricket ... That is how I want to build my career. This is just the beginning, that is what I would like to say. And I will never take my place for granted.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo