Crafty Ashwin catches the eye
Chennai Super Kings' run to the title mirrored the fortunes of one of their young, local players, who rose from an ordinary start to become one of the finds of the IPL-3. Offspinner R Ashwin was benched after a couple of ordinary matches, which made him 'angry with himself', and pushed him to work on perfecting his variations. He soon returned to become a vital cog in Chennai's attack in the second half of the tournament.
"I was very angry with myself more than anything else," Ashwin told Cricinfo from Chennai days after their victorious campaign. "I wanted to shed out my anger somewhere. Whenever there was a training session, I made sure I gave it more than 100%. I was determined not to get hit in the nets. Matthew Hayden mistimed me 5-6 times daily. I just developed my variations, the pause before delivery, and my confidence improved."
Ashwin's performance was a lesson in spin bowling in the Powerplay overs, where he utilised his clever variations in pace, flight, the carrom ball and mind-reading skills to earn the respect of several trigger-happy hitters.
There's nothing extravagant or complicated about the offspinner's action. With a run-up of barely a few steps, he bowls with a high-arm action and focuses on a miserly stump-to-stump line to cramp the batsman. He may not turn the ball on glass, but that hasn't been a disadvantage so far. He had proved to be a frugal spinner in school and domestic cricket and it was no different in the IPL, where his economy rate of 6.10 was the tournament-best (min six overs). The discovery of Ashwin as a third strike spinner to Muttiah Muralitharan and Shadab Jakati was a luxury which Chennai used effectively from the second half of the tournament till the final.
Ashwin is not an unfamiliar face in the national circuit, for he has been on the fringes in the national limited-overs squads. He made an impression in his debut Ranji season for Tamil Nadu in 2006-07, taking 31 wickets, followed by 32 first-class wickets two seasons later to push his case for a regular place in the Super Kings XI, after barely getting any opportunities in 2009. He conceded less than 30 off his four overs in his first two games this season, but was at the receiving end of a savage assault in Bangalore, where he leaked 40 runs and also dropped Robin Uthappa early before the batsman ransacked Chennai towards the end of the innings. Ashwin had earlier cracked under pressure with the bat against Kings XI Punjab, which led to the Super Over and his subsequent axing.
Murali had carried Chennai's spin hopes in the first half of the campaign, taking wickets and keeping the runs down, but Ashwin seized his chance when Murali was benched against Mumbai Indians in Chennai to allow the side to balance their foreign players. Bowling first change, Ashwin's 2 for 22 was instrumental in tying Mumbai down early, handing Chennai a surprise win against the table leaders. MS Dhoni discovered he had a Powerplay specialist and Ashwin took to the new ball like a magnet in the forthcoming games.
In the next game against Deccan Chargers, Adam Gilchrist was tested with spin straightaway and Ashwin trapped him for just 7. What does it take for a spinner to dominate in a batsman's format? More than just the technical basics, he says, it's about the ability to understand a batsman's psychology and also win the mental battle.
"In T20, the odds are always stacked in favour of the batsman and it's actually a comfort factor for the bowler. If the batsman doesn't get me away for the first three or four balls, the pressure is on him. Your mentality should be such that you should be determined not to give runs away. That way, you will be very successful in this format. When you are aggressive the batsman wants to take it easy on you and that's what happened in the semis and the final (where he bowled a maiden in the first over of the chase)."
His mind-reading skills were put to best use against Kolkata Knight Riders in Chennai, where he foxed Chris Gayle with flight and change of pace after being slammed for a six.
"I can tell when the batsman is going to come after me. The first ball I bowled to Gayle was an arm ball, which he picked easily. I realised that this is not the speed to bowl. The next ball, I bowled it slower and he hit it off the length and it sailed over the rope. I didn't have much to lose so I decided to slow it down even more. Understanding a batsman's psychology, he probably expected me to bowl it quicker. I bowled it from behind the crease and tossed it up." Gayle was down the pitch by a few feet and ended up swishing at thin air, giving Dhoni an easy stumping.
The carrom ball is another variation he had been working on for more than a year. He discovered the skill while playing tennis ball cricket but was initially reluctant to use it on the big stage until his father encouraged him.
"I ignored him (my father) for a while but slowly I started practicing it with the cricket ball. I didn't want to overuse it and get too predictable so I preferred to keep it as a mystery ball. It was a well known phenomenon in Chennai even before (Ajantha) Mendis came in. In fact, before he played for Sri Lanka, he was bowling at Chepauk and our coach picked him up and brought him to VV Kumar (former India spinner) who introduced him to us."
Ashwin didn't interact with Mendis, but he did have several conversations with Murali, who made it a point to analyse the spinners' performance game after game. Advice was never far away for Ashwin during his formative years as well. He credits WV Raman and Sunil Subramaniam, the former Tamil Nadu spinner, for turning him into an attacking bowler. He says he was guilty of over-spinning the ball, which wasn't yielding the best results. Over the last few years, he has worked hard on his wrist position, bringing the left-arm higher, and cleverly managing his variations, which has brought him plenty of success. After hitting a purple patch in the IPL, bigger things could be in store for the 23-year-old IT engineer.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo