June 5, 2011

The spinner who thrives on pressure

R Ashwin, India's offspinner, is making a name for himself by taking on responsibility when the stakes are high

On a chilly, drizzly night in Port Elizabeth, Chennai Super Kings were locked in a Super-Over battle against Victoria in the 2010 Champions League Twenty20. Stephen Fleming, Chennai's coach, wanted to bowl Doug Bollinger, but R Ashwin went up to his captain MS Dhoni and asked for the responsibility. Dhoni, who later said he admires Ashwin for taking up a challenge, threw the ball to him. Ashwin conceded 23, Chennai lost the game.

That failure could have broken his spirit. Instead, in the next game, Ashwin wrote his redemption song. Warriors needed 32 off 18 balls to eliminate Chennai from the competition but Ashwin dismissed the in-form Mark Boucher and Justin Kreusch, in an over that cost only seven, to win the game for his team.

"That over, with those two wickets, is the most memorable moment on a cricket field for me," Ashwin told ESPNcricinfo before the World Cup. "I am grateful to Dhoni for giving me the opportunity to bowl the Super Over. It didn't go well but I learnt the most important lesson that night: never panic again."

And he has never panicked since. Now Ashwin is at another crossroad, after finally being anointed India's second ODI spinner, behind Harbhajan Singh. His fans are more ambitious. They reckon Ashwin can even push out Harbhajan, if India play on pitches that merit only one spinner. He isn't there just yet, but this tour of the West Indies and the immediate beyond is a pivotal moment in Ashwin's life. He knows it, too.

"Harbhajan is one of my childhood heroes, if the captain thinks I am good enough to partner him, I would grab it," Ashwin says. "It's just a stereotype, a pre-conceived notion that two offspinners can't play. We are different type of bowlers and I guess it will also come down to the opponents and the pitch that we play."

They are different. Ashwin has refused to conform to the offspinner tag, constantly evolving his art. He even cannibalises the men he initially apes. It was Ajantha Mendis who inspired Ashwin to develop the carom ball. He remembers the day, three and a half years ago.

"I saw Mendis bowl at Chepauk. This was before he went on to play for Sri Lanka. I went home that day and told my father that I saw someone who was flicking the leather ball with his fingers like how we do in tennis-ball cricket." The carom ball is called the soduku ball in Chennai's gully cricket. Inspired, Ashwin set about trying to replicate it. "Nothing went right. It would land short and I was thrashed in the nets."

WV Raman, his Tamil Nadu coach at the time, showed him the path. "I told him you can't give up easily," Raman said. "You need to devote entire sessions to hone the skill. Have one stump and keep bowling at it."

Raman believes Ashwin is an ambitious individual who has constantly improved in every season. "He made a paradigm shift early in his career from an opening batsman at junior level to a bowler. He is a guy who looks forward to challenges and someone who doesn't like to be in a comfort zone. Mentally he is pretty much up there. He has the qualities to become a good leader."

Ashwin appropriated elements of Mendis that he wanted, made them his own and honed his own style. His carom balls now have more venom than those of Mendis: they break away more. The cannibalisation was complete. He then looked for more variations and recently added legbreaks to his arsenal.

Raman pointed out potential pitfalls and areas of improvement. "He used to be impatient in the early years. He thought he can get wickets with every other ball. He has since realised that he can't be trying to get wickets quickly always, as it affected his consistency. He would either give too many runs or start trying too many things in an effort to bowl the wicket-taking ball.

"It took him two-three years to mature and develop good control over his stock delivery. He has learnt to vary his length; that's why people are finding it difficult to go after him. I still think he still needs to keep reminding himself that a hallmark of a good bowler is to bowl a good line and length consistently for the entire duration of the game."

There is a perception, accentuated by his stellar new-ball spells in the IPL, that Ashwin isn't as good in the middle overs. He doesn't agree. "I am as good as any other spinner in the middle overs. I bowl two or three dot balls, build pressure and get a couple of wickets. I enjoy bowling in Powerplays because I am confident about the challenge. Something is going to happen every other ball. And I am probably more ready to get hit than anybody else."

He then adds, summarising his mindset best, "unless you lose some, you don't win most."

In his last three IPL games, Ashwin took on the rampaging Chris Gayle in the Powerplay. He gave only 16 in four overs in the first, trapped Gayle lbw in the next, and had him caught behind in the final. It's stunning that in his brief career - let's not forget that he is just a novice - Ashwin has already made a name as a bowler who thrives under pressure and against tough opposition.

He now has five ODIs to bowl alongside Harbhajan and sees himself as an attacking option. "I probably will settle for giving 5.5 runs [an over] or 6 in ODIs and taking three wickets. Since I am going to bowl in Powerplays, I will go for the odd boundary, but I will pick up wickets. It's a combination of guts and bowling skill which makes you feel you want to give it all in pressure situations, and do well.

"When I started to bowl with the new ball in IPL, people said 'he is a new-ball specialist and doesn't do as well in middle overs.' When I bowled well in middle overs, they then said, 'he doesn't bowl in death.' I know that these are part and parcel of a cricketer's life. I just have to focus on consistently honing my art."

The desire to keep improving is burning inside Ashwin. The one area of his cricket that disappoints him is his batting. "I cannot deny the fact that I have under achieved as a batsman. I would love to turn it around. If I am not an asset to the team, I would rather not be in the team."

Sriram Veera is a staff writer at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • mo on June 6, 2011, 19:29 GMT

    well, bhajji has never really scaled the heights of the 2001 AUS tour of IND, and in that way, and specifically by not being as attacking a bowler for reasons known only to him, bhajji has disappointed me. but let us not be quick to write his cricket obituary! people, do you realize IND has not yet played a test series after the last one against SA in SA? let us not forget that bhajji won us the second test, and bowled pretty well on the remaining two unhelpful (to spinners) pitches that SA had prepared. i like what i have seen of ashwin, but he is not even a test debutant yet! test cricket spin bowling on unfriendly foreign pitches with the kookabara ball over 5 days is an entirely different kettle of fish than the IPL or even the ODIs, and even kumble struggled outside IND, and not only relative to bhajji! so i am not yet ready to crown ashwin, though he seems promising, because i still haven't seen him play a single test match yet! ... and people want bhajji to retire already?!? :)

  • prabhakar on June 6, 2011, 19:03 GMT

    hi friends, i would like to discuss abt rohith sharma place in the team.....he is such a great talented batsman, but look at his body language when he came to bad or field....i never seen such a lazy fellow in cricket...wat the hell s doing these coaches ,....y cant they find out these prob with players , and to rectify those...i would like to name some players like rohit, munaf,....

  • Dummy4 on June 6, 2011, 14:03 GMT

    Aswin is young..and Harbajan is old. let the old guy retire.

  • Adhir on June 6, 2011, 13:47 GMT

    really guys...comparing Harbhajan with Ashwin...come on guys... Harbhajan is an experienced cricketer who has proved he can also wield his willow when the need arises. Ashwin will learn from Harbhajan and who will be groomed into leading the attack.... But seriously, unfair to Young Ashwin to be compared to the Great Harbhajan Singh

  • Dummy4 on June 6, 2011, 13:36 GMT

    I dont Ashwin will be a wicket taker in ODI and TEST.....he gets wicket in t20 because the batsman always go after him...that create chances

    You talking about mendis???? Indians Have researched with mendis that they now can play mendis without closing their eyes......:P yes thats true....

  • Ratan Kumar on June 6, 2011, 12:27 GMT

    NumberXI i wish your name could be NumberXII. You shouldn't be XIth one.Comparing Ashwin with Iqubal & Bhatt? In what term? They are different type of bowler (off & leg spinners), no comparison of experience, no comparisson of matches won for their team. Mean it is comparisson of NumberXI and XIIth player, possibly tommorow XIIth player could become NumberXI but not today.

  • Dummy4 on June 6, 2011, 12:14 GMT

    It is certain than inclusion and emergence of R Ashwin has given pressure on Bhajji to perform better. He has been above average bowler since past few years.WC has been a nice outcome but single match performance of Ashwin has also made noise. hajji has failed to repeat his best performance and has been defensive bowler as he has emphasized quick and flat bowl and has almost forgotten his dusra. Ashwin in other hand bowls flighted left spin and follows carom bowl which creates doubt in batsman mind. He along with unlucky amit Mishra looks more attacking than ordinary Bhajji. Now either Bhajji will uplift his performance or these blowers will replace him. anything will be good for Indian cricket.

  • Arulprakash on June 6, 2011, 12:07 GMT

    @From-Chennai dharmasena, arvinda de silva and muralidharan played together in WC 1996 to get SRILANKA their world cup

  • Hariharan on June 6, 2011, 11:27 GMT

    I can see some people here developing hatred towards Ashwin.Guys please stop it for he is a special talent who renovates himself each and every match.Weren't you amazed at his exquisite magic of merciless killing of batsmen right after he has been hit for a six?For sure he has everything in him to become a great legend like Kumble and i am not exaggerating here..So stop berating him and respect his 'I would rather not be in the team' attitude.FYI, I am not a Chennaite or CSK fanatic.

  • Dummy4 on June 6, 2011, 11:23 GMT

    Ashwin Bowling average in ODI Mat Inns Balls Runs Wkts BBI BBM Ave Econ SR 4w 5w 10 ODIs 9 9 516 418 18 3/24 3/24 23.22 4.86 28.6 0 0 0

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