India cricket March 29, 2014

Nothing to hide

Cricket moves on with the influx of long sleeves, but it also celebrates the Ashwins, who bowl with half sleeves, a little more as the perception - to be seen as fair - matters

R Ashwin hardly looks like a modern athlete. No gel in his hair, no studied stubble, no gymnasium-sculpted body. In today's world of micro-managed and personalised diets and training schedules, it is hard to imagine a sportsman as portly as Ashwin. Then again, cricket is one of the few sports - not including darts or chess here - that can accommodate players of this build. Cricket even celebrates such oddities. Ashwin is, in fact, the fastest Indian to 100 Test wickets, and the fifth-fastest overall.

Ashwin's batting, too, is almost from an era gone by. Not one for the stolen singles, he relies on timing, feel and touch. He is one of the few modern Indian cricketers whose autograph is legible. An autograph enthusiast at Eden Gardens once sulked to me how most of the players nowadays just scratch out gibberish for autographs. "Ashwin," he said, "takes the time and effort. Two months later, you can tell only Ashwin's autograph; others are just circles and underlines."

There is, by all accounts, something nice about Ashwin. Something old-fashioned. Something of the '70s. Most of all, though, we love that he bowls offspin wearing half sleeves. Even when it is cold enough to wear a sweater, Ashwin bowls in half sleeves. It makes you root for the guy in a world full of full-sleeved offspinners. You like that he is flexing that poor finger of his and not the elbow for the variety an offspinner badly needs in today's cricket.

There are two kinds of bowlers in cricket. Those who bowl in half sleeves, and the rest. The latter are a minority. Even allrounders who like wearing full sleeves when batting switch to halves when they are bowling. Even on the bitterest of cold days, most bowlers either roll their sleeves up when bowling or reveal half sleeves when they hand over their jumper to the umpire at the start of an over.

There is a legendary photograph of Michael Holding kicking the stumps, unhappy with a decision, during a Test in Dunedin. It was a cold day. The batsman who survived the appeal, John Parker, wore a full-sleeved sweater. Wicketkeeper Deryck Murray had a full-sleeved sweater on. The short leg, still appealing, wore a sleeveless sweater and a full-sleeved shirt. Holding, he wore the old cable-knit sleeveless sweater and a half-sleeved shirt. Bowling was meant to be done in half sleeves, not just because it is a summer game. It is natural to bowl in half sleeves. Full sleeves are clumsy, they restrict the arm movement. Apart from a few exceptions - Wasim Akram didn't mind full sleeves, for example - there aren't many bowlers who don't prefer half sleeves all other things being equal.

Modern cricket, though, has introduced longer sleeves to bowling. Call it the bowlers' response to counter the imbalance of modern cricket towards the bat, call it impure, but there are many today who prefer bowling in full sleeves. These bowlers' actions are mostly legal in the eye of the law, but they also know that their actions don't look pretty when in half sleeves. The straightening of the elbow, although permissible by the ICC at most times, is accentuated to the naked eye when not covered by their shirts. Bowlers have been reported for suspect actions in recent times - Shane Shillingford and Marlon Samuels being the latest - all wear full sleeves.

These bowlers bowl the doosra, something the offspinners of previous eras didn't try because they knew they wouldn't be allowed to. The modern offspinners also bowl the quicker deliveries, and not the topspinners. Sometimes they clock 120kmph from two steps. These are possibly their way to counter heavy bats and shorter outfields. These are all legal until they are sent to Perth for examination. It is open to argument whether the game is richer or poorer for it.

Cricket moves on as it has shown with the influx of long sleeves, but it also celebrates the Ashwins of the world a little more; while winning matters more than anything else, the perception - to be seen to be fair - also matters. Ashwin is the only one left to those who like their offspinners in half sleeves.

All of a sudden, though, on February 26, in an Asia Cup match against Bangladesh in Fatullah, Ashwin came on to bowl in the 13th over wearing full sleeves. The cricketing world, especially those who rooted for him because of the disadvantage they thought the half sleeves had put him at, groaned in unison. Ashwin was now bowling like Sunil Narine, and felt it necessary, for possibly the first time in his career, to take the field in full sleeves. There is, at least, no photographic evidence of his having bowled in full sleeves before.

It is worth trying to empathise with the state of mind Ashwin would have been. Despite his sensational march to 100 Test wickets, Ashwin had been dropped for the last three Tests India had played, in Durban, Auckland and Wellington. Even in the ODIs, he had taken just two wickets in his last eight matches. His childhood coach, Sunil Subramaniam, had recently said in a published interview that Ashwin was losing his way without proper support, and not putting enough body into the ball. The shoulder and hip into the ball, the pivot on the front foot, the follow-through, and all that, you know.

Possibly down on confidence, possibly bereft of ideas, Ashwin chose to try the easy way out. It brought him two Bangladesh wickets, including one first ball, and his first maiden in 10 ODIs. It also made him a little less likable. Then again, why just me, he asks, and rightly. I am not holier than the next offspinner, he says. At the Asia Cup, Sri Lanka had one full-sleeved bowler, Pakistan three, and almost every Bangladesh spinner wears full sleeves. Ashwin has turned around and said he plays to win matches, and cannot be expected to stay disadvantaged when almost every spinner in the world has gone long-sleeved. He can even point towards the IPL, which hasn't a paisa for the offspinner who wears half sleeves.

"I'd never bowled in full sleeves before, so I wanted to see how it would feel to bowl in full sleeves," Ashwin says. "That's point number one. And I just wanted to see if I can get more revs on the ball if I could do little bit with my elbow - as much as there is. That's what it was all about. I don't know, you can tend to get a lot of advantage doing all these things. So why should I lag behind in the advantage when somebody else is getting a competitive edge?"

You can't really question Ashwin's words here. These are honest words that we all secretly agree with, but cannot speak in a politically correct world. These are words that make us question our attitude towards him and other bowlers. We like him more when he bowls in half sleeves, but he says he is exploring possibilities because it is not always possible to keep up with where the game is headed bowling as he does. In a world that has time only for winners, and the bottom lines, isn't it nice about our game that we still care a little more about bowlers that don't have to hide how their action looks?

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • raj on April 1, 2014, 2:06 GMT

    I like Ashwin as a cricketer and a gentlemen with ethics. He has honestly stated his case and pointed out that he is taking advantage of the rules as they stand (or playing according to the current rules). From his words you can gather that he is not totally comfortable with the rules as they stand but he has stated his case. Now, if Ashwin can learn to bowl on wickets outside of the subcontinent then he is headed for greatness! Best of luck to Ashwin.

  • Dummy4 on March 31, 2014, 11:46 GMT

    The 15-degree rule is what allowed mystery spinners to develop. Before the 15 degree rule was implicated, there was no doosra, carrom ball etc. It has made the game so much more exciting, after all, if the bowlers are developing, the batsmen will have to adjust as well, and that will result in deeper aspects of the game bing discovered. No batsman of the 80s or 90s could have ever thought of shots like dilscoop, helicopter shot, switch hit etc. Change is good, it has transformed the world of cricket for the better...

  • Amit on March 31, 2014, 1:32 GMT

    At least he spoke honestly.

  • Dummy4 on March 30, 2014, 13:27 GMT

    @joker - "u cannot see with naked eye how much flexion has occured in a match situation" Exactly so how do u know whether a spinner is pure or not if u can't tell how much he is flexing. So how can u say that swann's action is more pure than murali's.

  • Supratik on March 30, 2014, 10:16 GMT

    It's not about long sleeve, short sleeve, red sleeve blue sleeve. The point is that because Ashwin doesnt put enough body into the delivery (as his childhood coach rightly said), he can never hope to get success overseas - where a spinner must put in more effort to get purchase. Until he gets that right, he can bowl in long sleeve, short sleeve, clever sleeve, dumb sleeve - he will always be a tiger in the subcontinent and sitting duck abroad...

  • Parthiban on March 30, 2014, 10:13 GMT

    Not many outside India think Ashwin is a good offspinner. He is a good bowler, not a good offspin bowler.

  • KUMARAVEL on March 30, 2014, 9:37 GMT

    This is why I will always rate Swann Kumble and Warne better over the Ajmals, Bhajji and Muralis of the world.To me the 15 degree rule makes no sense at all , you cannot see with naked eye how much flexion has occured in a match situation. Sometimes you feel there is no place for a pure off spinner in the game anymore.You atleast need to have the carrom ball to last in top flight cricket nowadays.

  • Android on March 30, 2014, 9:32 GMT

    well the way author showed looks somewhat that only ashwin is legal or totally fair while others still are unfair. and as per shane warne remeber him being tested positive? and if teams have issues with certain spinners get them tested. making noise here wont make ashwin a greater bowler.

  • rustyryan on March 30, 2014, 6:44 GMT

    This is one of the reasons why I consider Shane Warne as the greatest spinner ever played the game. And Murali may be the second best off spinner , next to Jim Laker. A great analysis. Also Ashwin trusts his carrom ball more than typical doosra and he's got good control over it, though at times he overuses his variations and loses his rhythm. I, for one, not against the inventions from bowlers end as the game is tending more toward batsmanship. When we are okay with Swtich hits, Dil Scoops, which were completely unheard of two decades back, where batsmen have no conspicuous limitations to his physical abilities, why not for a bowler. Bowling from wide of the crease, bending elbow to the last limit, express fast sliders and I would also like to see a bowler who bowls both left arm and right arm bowling in the same over. My friend used to do that when we played backyard cricket and it was incredibly tough to hit him over the park.

  • ESPN on March 30, 2014, 0:07 GMT

    Cringeworthy long sleeves. A very good article, strikes a chord. After all it's not baseball even if we have lowered ourselves to saying batters. I suppose it's better than saying pitchers though.

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