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