How Ashwin can turn his class to world-class
I saw R Ashwin for the first time in the IPL in 2008. It was easy to like him. He looked a typical Tamil Nadu spinner, one with the striking spinner's skills and a sturdy temperament. He looked like he had bowled plenty of overs in his young life and that bowling offspin was second nature to him. He had a very natural bowling action, with easy control over the ball, giving you the impression that to bowl accurately wasn't hard for him and that he was instead occupied with working out other offspin skills. What appealed most to me was his temperament. And that gets severly tested and exhibited in a tournament like the IPL. Ashwin came out with flying colours in nearly every game.
For someone that young and inexperienced at the first-class level, he looked unperturbed when batsmen went after him. The ball a spinner bowls just after he has been hit for a six tells you a lot about him. Navjot Sidhu, the former India opening batsman, who I played a lot of cricket with, had a theory he used all through his career. After running down the pitch and hitting a spinner for six, he'd stay back in the crease, waiting for the inevitable flatter, quicker ball, to square-cut off the back foot for four. If Sidhu had played against Ashwin, he would have made a mental note that here was a different spinner, for Ashwin would still toss the next delivery up after watching one disappear for six. It was incredible to see MS Dhoni give the new ball to Ashwin every time a Chris Gayle-type player took strike in the IPL, and Ashwin invariably rose to the occasion.
No bowler likes getting hit, but Ashwin's strength is that he does not mind getting hit as much as most spinners do. It's an area where he is clearly ahead of Harbhajan Singh as a lead spinner. Every time you watch Harbhajan in action, you get the feeling he loathes getting hit and gives you the impression that curbing runs is a priority for him. If you wonder why he doesn't bowl a lot fuller than he does, or why he bowls the middle- and leg-stump lines more than the outside-off-stump line, which can often be the more wicket-taking one, my guess is it's because he does not like getting tonked over midwicket or long-on for six. Ashwin doesn't mind this as much. After hitting Harbhajan for a six, Sidhu would definitely have square-cut the next ball for four.
There are, of course, some areas where Harbhajan has an advantage over Ashwin, like in the amount of overspin they generate. But this not a comparative exercise between the two, more a study of Ashwin.
I think the wonderful line that Ashwin bowls has developed naturally, without him realising how critical it is to his success. The middle-stump line that he bowls - with the carrom ball as a variation - is his insurance when in trouble. It will fetch him some easy wickets down the order, which means he can end up with three wickets even if he has bowled poorly for most of an innings. On good days that line will help him run through sides. When his tail is up, Ashwin will get you six or seven wickets, instead of three or four.
It is the line match-winning bowlers bowl which means that nine times out of ten their deliveries will go on to hit the stumps. So if a batsman misses, while the three-wicket bowler winces in disappointment that he has not got a lbw or bowled (think Ishant Sharma, here), an Ashwin or an Anil Kumble would have got the wicket instead.
However, the one thing that holds Ashwin back from being a chief contributor to India's success, especially overseas, is his physical fitness, especially strength. We have seen how his fitness affects his fielding and running between the wickets, but the critical damage it does is to his bowling. Like most Indian spinners, Ashwin failed to make a mark on Australian pitches when India toured last year. Nathan Lyon, his Australian counterpart, got more spin and bounce in Adelaide because by habit Aussie spinners bowl not just with their arms and fingers but their whole body.
With Indian pitches being "ready to spin", a spinner here does not need to make a huge effort to spin the ball; arms and fingers are enough. But you need to use your whole body to get turn and bounce from an unresponsive pitch. That is why I was very excited when I saw Anustup Majumdar, a part-time legspinner, bowl East Zone to victory in the Duleep Trophy final recently. Here was an Indian spinner using his whole body in harmony to bowl every delivery of legspin. No wonder he got the ball to spin quickly and bounce on a very slow and dry pitch. If Majumdar takes his bowling more seriously, he has a lot going for him as a legspinner.
I am not a big fan of cricketers doing too much work in the gym, but Ashwin would do well to spend more time in an air-conditioned gym than in the heat of a Chennai ground.
Mind you, Ashwin does use his body a little more than most Indian spinners do, but because his body lacks strength, he is not able to get the ball to fizz as much on unresponsive pitches.
He has had his share of international success. He has been able to keep Harbhajan out of the team since making his debut. That in itself is a great achievement. He is a star T20 bowler and a good 50-over bowler, but he will know that his real worth will be measured in Tests, where the batsman isn't necessarily trying to hit every ball for six or four.
With England and Australia touring India in the next few months, Ashwin will have a chance to enhance his reputation further as an international spinner. England may be the easier challenge of the two, but if Ashwin can get physically stronger, I believe, no one can stop him from becoming a spinner that Indian cricket will be proud of in the years to come.
Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here