May 11, 2016

'Six well-constructed bad balls could be the way forward in T20 cricket'

Offspinner R Ashwin believes that cricket's shortest format is a different sport altogether

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You've bowled in the IPL since 2009 and have been playing for India since 2010. How have you seen the role of spinners evolve?
I think initially people never gave spinners a chance. They thought spinners will just be hammered all over the park. That has changed over the last six to seven years of the IPL, and even in T20 cricket across the globe. Teams started to believe in what the spinners could bring to the table. But at this stage, as we speak, T20 cricket has changed. In the next couple of years, par scores will be tested. I have no doubt that the game has definitely gone to the next plateau.

You are saying that this is a crucial juncture?
Especially playing in the IPL, having played in Australia and Bangladesh and other places, the grounds in India are turning out to be of a size where it makes a batsman believe that even a quarter of a decent hit would clear the fence, which is definitely putting the spinners in a bit of risk, in terms of bowling aggressive speeds, lines and lengths.

There was one good spell from Amit Mishra and one good spell from Axar Patel in this IPL. Apart from that, the spinners have struggled to stay in context of the game. It is not easy, me included. Although I haven't gone for many runs, to bowl an attacking line or speeds has been a bit of a challenge so far.

Make no mistake, we are standing at a juncture where we have to evolve with the game. I have already decided how best a bowler can offer [his services] to the team. We are going to be tested not [just] as a bowling community but as a sport. We have to find a balance. I found that in different forms of the game, as the bowlers have adapted and evolved, the game has moved forward, and it is again time to adapt and move forward.

Could you talk about your own journey as a spinner - what your training was and what your preconceptions were when you started off in 2009?
When I started, the team was new. That was not a big challenge because everybody was just getting into this.

I was just a spinner transforming from first-class cricket to one-day to T20 cricket. There was not much thought process. My intention was to bowl what I knew. I threw it out there and tried to evolve. Since I started playing, I always wanted to pose a threat to the batsmen, so I always kept evolving. I also want to reiterate that whatever is existent is not going to stay [that way]. We will have to take the game forward. Posing a threat to the batsmen will be the only way you can stay in the format now [as a bowler].

"Skill and finesse is going out and it is becoming a power-oriented game - which is all right, but the ground sizes and the kind of wicket quality need to be readdressed"

Wristspinners are considered to be more attacking, but fingerspinners have shown that they are equally effective in T20s. How do you see the essential difference between the two, in terms of taking wickets against containment?
This is not about fingerspinner or wristspinner. What is going to be important is the kind of versatility and adaptability one shows. It doesn't matter if you are a fingerspinner, wristspinner, fast bowler. What will matter is how much you can adapt to the changing pace of the game, how much you can understand the game, how much you live and thrive in the pressure the game is going to throw on you.

This [T20] is a very short duration game, just three hours, and the bowler is going to be involved for just four overs. How much are you going to understand the situation of the game and try and execute the best possible delivery at that stage without any hindrance or fear? These are all very interesting aspects, which, I think, will definitely drive the game forward.

What do you mean by adaptability?
Adaptability is anything ranging from different grounds and conditions to the batsmen - what kind of shots the batsman is playing on the day, what the wicket has to offer and how the batsman has adapted. How are you catching up with the game?

When you turn up at a ground, you expect the wicket to behave in a certain fashion and it doesn't. There are so many variables in this game. It becomes even more important when it comes to T20 cricket. A single ball, a single event, can change the course of the game, so you stand at the top of your mark realising the importance of every ball. It's not about an over; each ball delivered is an event. If you are able to execute the perfect delivery under that pressure, that is all the team is going to look forward to. That is what we talk about as adaptability in this format of the game.

Are there habits as a bowler that you have to unlearn or relearn as you go from one format to the other?
Definitely. From my own perspective, the speeds with which I bowl change, not just from one format to another but from one ground to another. There is a natural length that every bowler hits, but you have to change the lengths because the ground is smaller. In the IPL it has become increasingly clear that even the spinners will have to bowl short, because most grounds offer a very small straight boundary. If you throw the ball up on a very good batting wicket and try to get the ball to spin, [there] is so much risk against the reward. Half-decent hits with the modern bats are very likely to clear the boundary. Spinners are increasingly starting to bowl short, which means they are taking the straight boundaries away. When you play Test match cricket, you can't bowl short. That is the difference.

"You will have to construct every single ball of your spell. You need to expect to be slogged at every possible opportunity. You have to be on your guard. Giving just a single is gold, dot ball is platinum" © BCCI

How do you evaluate your performance in a T20? Do you look at the outcomes or evaluate based on the bowling plans you had?
It is a very interesting question and a difficult one to address. More often than not, you could end up with four overs for 25 runs and not be happy. That's how I am. If I finish four overs for 25 to 26, it is supposed to be very good in itself, but I am always pushing myself. That is a great spell in the [context of a] T20 game.

As far as assessing your performance, you have to go by seeing how well you adapted, assess how well you executed your plans and what you had taken to the game and see if you matched up to it. It creates some momentum going into the next game. At the end of the day, after a game is done, it is about going into a fresh game. You will have to plan differently, prepare for a new batsman. So it is all about how well you bowled rather than the figures. Sometimes the figures cannot reflect what you've done.

Independent of the outcome, you can say that the bowler bowled a good delivery in a Test. Is that possible in a T20 game?
There is subtle difference in a T20 and a Test match. The sheer class of a batsman can convert a good delivery in a Test, but I don't think that will happen in a T20 game. The viewers and experts will have to change their phrase by saying, "It was sheer power that dealt with that good delivery."

I am afraid the game is shifting. Skill and finesse is going out and it is becoming a power-oriented game - which is all right, but the ground sizes and the wicket quality need to be readdressed. There is balance that needs to be struck. If you see it only as complete entertainment, then I would agree with what is happening.

As a bowler, do you think in your mind that that was a good delivery but what happened beyond that is not in your control? In some ways, can you convince yourself that you did the best you could?
It could be very hard. You can't say that you did your best and give up on it. It might be that you bowled well and still went for runs, but as a very competitive athlete, I never think like that. I always think, how I can improve on that, what other options do I have? The ultimate thing for me is to dismiss the batsman, not [just] beat him in the flight. Beating him in the flight and getting him out is gone. It is not the trend anymore. Beating him in the flight and getting hit for a six is the trend now. With that happening, you have to push yourself and see what options you have. Probably the best ball is not any more the best ball now. Probably a short, wide and shit ball could be the best ball to bowl from now on.

"There was one good spell from Amit Mishra and one good spell from Axar Patel in this IPL. Apart from that, the spinners have struggled to stay in context of the game. It is not easy, me included"

I basically think that six well-constructed bad balls could be the way to go forward in T20 cricket.

What is a good ball in T20? You said that, especially for spinners, bowling short is better now. Can you say that is a good ball whether he got a wicket or went for runs?
Do you think any of us have it in us to say that a six being struck can be a good ball and it was unfair it went out? Nobody talks like that. Everybody says that he just floated it up there and it went for a six. We never say that it was a good ball anymore. It is not unfair because that is where the game is headed.

If we think it is unfair, we can call it unfair, right?
I am sure we can. I think we can safely say that T20 cricket is another sport. It is probably not a part of cricket.

There is this statistic called control percentage - in a Test match, the batsman is in control of the shots he plays 92 to 95% of the time. It reduces to the mid-80s in ODIs and mid-70s in T20s. Roughly, a batsman is in control three out of four balls in T20. Yet if you bowl four out of six balls exactly where you want and you miss out on two, you can go for 15 to 16 runs an over.
Definitely. That is why I say the power component is so huge in cricket now.

I think bowlers need to just try and find ways to adapt. As of now, it seems like an unfair component. I don't want to suggest any tweaks that can make it even, but we have to find ways. At the end of the day, it is the bowlers that are left to find ways to move the game forward.

Cricket has always been a batsman's game.
But bowlers have again and again found ways to dismiss the batsmen. That is the balance bowlers give to the game. But the game doesn't give much back to the bowlers.

Would it make it more fair if, for example, the specialist bowlers got not four but more overs? Or if they reduce the number of wickets a batting side gets? You have ten wickets in 20 overs - that is not fair for the bowlers.
Interesting. For starters, batsmen batting [with] both hands is a problem. When I am at the start of my mark, I am telling the batsman, this is what I will commit to. I keep a five-four field or a four-five field, with respect to what I do. But the batsman is free to change hands, which means I can bowl on both sides of the wicket and the wide call is in the hands of the umpire. He interprets what he wants to do. That itself is a problem. There are the basic rules that need to be tweaked in the first place. I don't know what else can be offered. I don't know who decides all these things, but I definitely think there is something that can be done to try restoring the balance between bat and ball. But as an existing cricketer I will definitely say that we better start finding ways.

"If I finish four overs for 25 to 26 [runs], it is supposed to be very good in itself, but I am always pushing myself" © AFP

A Test match is a sport for specialists. There are statistics that show that as the length of the game reduces, more and more part-timers bowl. What does it say about the cricketing contest within T20?
Obviously batting and bowling and all these things are cricketing contests. I am just saying the sport is a different one. The parameters that are addressed in [T20] are completely different to what is addressed in a one-dayer or a Test match. A good Test match player can convert himself into a good T20 player, but a good T20 player cannot convert himself into a good Test match player, because there is not enough skills being addressed in T20 to play well in a Test match. They can come in and give a good golf swing and hit the ball out of the ground, but can never play a good Test match innings. You don't do a lot of things that you do in a T20 game in a Test. The wicket conditions are very different. You can't just keep slogging your way through a Test game or even a one-day game.

Let's say you are running a team. Would you choose a specialist bowler who can bat a bit, or a specialist batsman who can bowl a bit because of how the game is structured in T20s?
That's exactly what I am saying. Every cricketer in this format needs be able to add value in the other zone. If you are a bowler, you will have to strike the ball out of the ground. If you are a batsman, you will have to roll your arm over. That is the kind of adaptability I am talking about. If you are a bowler, can you strike it out of the ground? If yes, I would have you in my team.

If a couple of batsmen have batted together in a T20 game for a few overs, with wickets in store and given the shortness of the format, they would be foolish to not try and hit every single ball for a six. How do you approach that situation as a bowler?
The best way to look at it from a bowler's point of view is to dismiss the batsman. That is the only way you can get a small window of relief. If you just give a single, you will have to live with [the fact] that he will come back to try and tonk you again.

To what extent can I use the lengths on both sides of the wickets, to what extent can I drag the batsman out, what width of the crease can I use before I am being wided - all these things are getting to a stage where millimetres are being used by the bowlers in attempts to find any kind of advantage.

In a Test, as a spinner you bowl eight-to-12-over spells. In T20s it is just a one- or two-over spell if you are lucky. How do you go about it?
It is very simple. You will have to construct every single ball of your spell. You need to expect to be charged at, to be slogged at every possible opportunity. You have to be on your guard. Giving just a single is gold, dot ball is platinum. That is as good as it gets.

I think T20 is here to stay. As much as there are challenges for the bowlers, I am sure they will find ways to adapt. I think T20 cricket is a completely different sport. The people and teams that realise and move in that direction will find early success in this game. I think we are in a transition phase.

Do you see that beyond the teams and franchises, the people who observe cricket - fans, writers and commentators - see T20 cricket a [different] sport, or are they still in the old mindset?
I don't know. I haven't had the opportunity to chat with people. It is just my belief that it is a completely different sport, and you will find people fitting into certain parameters and man-to-man markings, like in EPL, and T20 cricket will kick on from there. I am pretty sure that is the way it is going to be. Some people can choose to be blindfolded to it.

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