'If someone gets a 15-degree advantage, why should I lag behind?'
After a hectic few months on the road, R Ashwin is enjoying a well-deserved rest. The 28-year-old has just completed five years in international cricket and is now established as India's leading spinner across all formats. In this interview at his academy in Chennai, Ashwin reflects on the journey so far, his challenges, targets and ambitions going forward.
We are sitting at your academy. Cricketers who aren't yet 30 don't get into areas of this kind. What made you do this so early?
It is not a post-retirement plan. I wanted to do something and give something back to the game. Not in terms of coaching - I have no plans of threatening anyone! Having said that, my coach Sunil Subramaniam was very involved when we started this academy. He has now moved to the TNCA academy. He does not spend as much time here any more but we have also moved on. I firmly believe that in entrepreneurship the company must stay on even if people come and go. He is still involved on a consultancy basis. I run an academy and a few club teams. I want to provide the best facilities possible in the city and try and bring the best cricketers from the interiors of Tamil Nadu, which I firmly believe have a lot of talent. It is not like I am going to go and get them here, but in terms of the offer here, they can get more and more funding and try and be self-sustainable.
Is it odd to watch the Indian team play on television?
It is different. My wife was asking me how it felt. I completely enjoyed it because I haven't done it for a long time. From watching myself on the highlights and people reviewing my performance to watching a game live and listening to the commentary was a very different experience. I wouldn't say it was awkward. I really enjoyed watching my team-mates play. I thought that Zimbabwe would give us a good run because every team is getting stronger and stronger in their home conditions, and Zimbabwe did play well. I think we did really well to hold on.
It has been five years since your international debut. What do you think about where you have reached? Are you satisfied?
I can't really say I'm satisfied in terms of where I have reached. I think all the way in your life, until you reach 60, you are creating memories for yourself. So one fine day when I'm 60 and when I'm not very mobile, maybe at 70 as well, I will sit back and think about my past and if I can really give myself a smile, I think I will have done well in my life. To me the process is very important. It may sound clichéd but what I mean to say is that I should be proud of myself for the way I played cricket and for my work ethic, because even with certain limitations I have been very successful. I have always been under pressure to do something extraordinary or do something really good and that has pushed me to get better as a cricketer. The last five years have thrown me into the deep sea and helped me rediscover myself and tell myself that I have to keep improving every day. I have become a better person and a wiser person.
Tell us about your journey as a spinner. There has been a lot of talk about using unorthodox methods - you have gone down that route sometimes. Was there a point where you thought: I do certain things well, let me not change them?
I think over a period of time you like to stick to things you find success with. I found weird ways of finding success. I'd attribute it to the way I think, the way I execute my skills and go about my cricket. I have been very fortunate that it has worked and I have no regrets. If I believe in a methodology and it works for me, there is no reason to change it, but if tomorrow someone tells me this could work a little better, it could be annoying for me. If somebody rubbishes me and says that it is not good, you might have to do this, what you are doing is not right, nobody accepts that. You come up to me and say that, I'm someone who will take that and go back to the room and think hard about it. Once I have given it a hard thought and feel it is right, I will give it a try. If it goes well, you stick on.
What is the thought process when something doesn't work out and you realise that you are better off being an orthodox spinner? Is that too simplistic a view?
It is too simplistic a view because it doesn't really work that way. There are times when I go to the nets and bowl but don't find the rhythm for four-five days and it is very disturbing for the mind and the heart to accept. If I think or visualise something, the immediate realities I leave to the ground, especially when I'm home in Chennai. I just walk to the ground, give it a try and see if I'm comfortable with it. If I am convinced that it will work and I will be able to execute it for a span of time, I'll definitely give it everything, irrespective of what people think of it.
There is a lot of talk about offspinners needing to use variations to succeed. Was there a time when you thought you got caught in this trap and then you think, "I'll do it the way I've always done it"?
People say that over a period of time spinners get caught in a trap where they start trying too much, when the batsmen are getting sucked into weaknesses. That's been the traditional school of thought in Indian cricket and in world cricket, that if someone is not performing well - I'm talking from a bowler's perspective here - people tend to say he is trying too much, the variations are not coming right, but I think the underlying fact is that people boil it down to a particular reason - this is the bad one, you are making an error because of that.
As much as it is a problem for people to identify the issue, as a cricketer I'm no coach, and I haven't studied for being a coach. It was hard on occasions to identify what the problem was. If I was not able to land the ball on a particular length, it meant there was something technically wrong, and I did struggle in between when people could not point out what it was. I started going through coaching manuals because that is how I studied for my engineering - if I didn't understand, I would ask people. B Arun came in, and he is a very knowledgeable coach, so I started raising questions.
Some people don't like being questioned and that was a lesson for me. When I started asking questions, they felt threatened because they felt I was threatening their job. That was not what it was. I was actually trying to learn and become a better cricketer.
There has been a long-running debate on offspinners and chucking, and a school of thought says that offspinners should be allowed a certain leeway. Where do you stand on this?
Let's put this into perspective. A batsman gets a good willow to bat. That's a hazard modern-day cricket carries. Very good batting wickets are another occupational hazard. When it comes to bowling, if you put ten offspinners on the same pedestal, there is a 15-degree leeway for someone. I am not here to contest the rules; it is not my job. But when I put it into perspective, one person uses the 15-degree rule to 15 degrees, another one to 13, another one to 11. I was taught to bowl with a straight arm. We all turn out on the same platform. So if somebody else gets a competitive edge and if I get to play that team, it is a problem. It is a proper occupational hazard. I am going to compete with a person who has an advantage over me, not because of skill but because of something that is not essentially skill. So what do I do? Do I go back and take a two-year hiatus and make sure I bowl with a 15-degree flex? I can't factor that and if that is how the system is going to be, it comes to taking advantage.
There was a time in Bangladesh when you bowled with long sleeves. What was that about? You spoke about it in detail in the press conference, where you spoke about comparative advantage. Was that about utilising the 15-degree allowance? As I said, forming rules is not my job; playing is. If there is a 15-degree rule to be used as an advantage, why should I lag behind? There is a precise advantage that I wanted to use. People started thinking I had gone mad but I did not take offence. I felt only mad people succeed in life and if you're mad about something and believe in something, you will come out on top. I felt to a greater degree that I did come out on top. If I hadn't ventured into those things, I would not have learned as much as I did.
As a conventional offspinner, are you happy with the clampdown identifying bowlers going past the 15-degree limit and putting them out of the game?
It is a very hard thing because somebody who has trained to be an offspinner, made a career out of it, is suddenly being reprimanded for it - it is hard. On a personal level, I feel sad for the guy, but the game evens out that way. I love listening to a lot of experts and commentators around the world, like Ian Chappell. I listen to what these people have to say and there is a lot of importance to what they speak, because they have come through the era where cricket was a gentleman's game. It was played in an artistic fashion. Power was not a big part of the game. When they speak, it is for the love of the game and they mean a lot to me.
I think when it is an even platform it is a much better game. When a conventional offspinner is doing well from one side, the other conventional offspinner has to do a really good job to restrict the opposition.
The other question you might be commonly asked is about Harbhajan Singh, a man with more than 400 Test wickets, who has been on the outside because you have emerged. Is that a difficult relationship, a relationship where you work together if you are in the same team?
I wish I could go on talking about this topic. I think he was one of my role models when I started bowling offspin. I was an opening batsman who used to bowl fast-medium with the new ball. Then an injury prompted me to stay away from the game. I started bowling offspin after seeing what he did in 2001 [against Australia] and that is where it began. India needed a role model like Harbhajan Singh back then, somebody who could start winning games for India with the ball. That is where my love for offspin began.
That's long ago but once I broke into the team and replaced him, I didn't think of it as though I had stepped in to a legend's shoes. It was the way I stepped into first-class cricket, replacing Aashish Kapoor, who was in that job for a long time and was a very senior bowler, and I did my hard yards to get into his shoes. So I thought it was a transition phase. I never thought I was getting into big shoes and being questioned about him.
As soon as I started performing, I was getting into the zone. Initially people talked about it and I felt: what have I done wrong , have I turned people off, why are people talking more about him rather than my performances? But it took me only two months before I said, "Okay, people are going to keep talking in a competitive world." That is what I was taught and it used to happen during my engineering days. I decided to keep getting better every day and not look at others. That's my thought process till today and I have never been bothered about anyone else.
The question is asked out of curiosity, as he has now made it back into the Test team, and though both of you bowled together in Bangladesh, there might be a situation where there is space for only one of you two. Does that change the equation between you as team-mates and rivals?
My take is very simple on this and I have kept repeating this throughout my career. If you are stagnating at a particular point and the other person is catching up, you might like to move forward again. That is pretty much how life has to be. I live my professional life in similar fashion.
There are two kinds of people in this world - one who gets threatened by competition and the other who starts getting better. Ten years down the line, I'd like to be remembered as someone who started getting better rather than feeling threatened. Competition will exist and it is a country where a billion people live, and I'm very lucky to be a part of the Indian team. Tomorrow if I am not able to compete with another person, I should be able to walk away in very proud fashion.
When you've batted, a couple of commentators have gone: "VVS Ashwin". How much time do you spend thinking about your batting and being a part of the team contributing as a batsman as well?
There are two dimensions to my batting. One is that I would not like to give my wicket away. The other aspect is that I can bat, so, why should I throw my wicket away? I was an opener before. So I have a decent idea of how to score runs against the second new ball. I love my batting. The faster the bowler bowls, I really enjoy it. I'm good at playing spinners because I grew up in Chennai, where we get good turning wickets.
I spend a lot of time on my batting. I hate batting after I finish my bowling. So I go 20 minutes early. I get someone to throw balls to me. I love facing a lot of balls in the nets. I had a 15-yard net in my house. My friends loved hitting me in the nets. They would bombard me for one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening.
The reason this question is asked is because there is a lot of talk of India playing five bowlers, and your batting is beautiful to watch.
I used to play club cricket regularly and bat in the top order. However, I have not batted in the top five yet for Tamil Nadu. We have had S Badrinath, M Vijay, Abhinav Mukund and Dinesh Karthik batting in the top four. So there was no place. I used to bat at No. 4 in club cricket. I used to make lots of hundreds in club cricket. I think batting is a lot easier when you bat in the top order. It gets tougher as you move down, because there is a lot of pressure or there is nothing at stake. So, there are only two scenarios that you go into. Whenever there is pressure, I enjoy batting and there is that greedy batsman inside me who says that one day I should bat at No. 4 for India. I want to get better and aspire to be a No. 4 batsman. It gives me the steel to bat well wherever I bat and that is what helps me get better.
MS Dhoni has been your captain in international and franchise cricket and suddenly he is not your captain for one format? Is that odd? As a bowler, what is it like to have someone else as captain?
India is a very emotional country. If I say it was hard, people will go gaga over it. If I say no, they will say: he is not faithful. I think whoever is captain, I would treat it the same way. As long as I can offer what I want to the team. The team going forward is very important, the team is the top priority, and to me Virat [Kohli] is a great individual - someone in the team who always thinks aggressively and thinks for the team. If there is a question as to who would bat at No. 6, Virat is the kind of individual who would put his hand up. He thinks about the team first. For someone like that, the bare minimum you can give is 100%.
So the split captaincy doesn't worry you?
We talk so much about professionalism today. Every cricketer you talk to will tell you that he is a professional. Professionalism means that the leader who has been appointed there has to be respected. It doesn't matter who he is. He has been appointed and you have to give your best services.
You have a big season coming up. What's your thought process going into it? And have you set goals for yourself?
No goals as such. The way I bowled in Bangladesh is where I would like to be all through my career, however long I continue to play. I hope to play a few more years. If I can replicate what I did in Bangladesh, it should not matter a great deal. Sri Lanka is not very familiar as there is not much more bounce when compared to India. The wickets are much truer and have something in them for the fast bowlers. It is not easy but we have to go there and acclimatise and play some good cricket. Sri Lanka is going to be a very tricky destination.
What's life like outside of cricket in your free time? You have a lot of interests like football and tennis.
I feel 24 hours is not enough. I was telling my wife yesterday that I feel tired despite not doing anything. I don't know how to split my time. I love to chat with my parents, and I go and see my wife. I was with my kid the last three days. I come to the academy and help these boys out, see how they are progressing, check the facilities. I love a round of golf, playing tennis and catching up with my friends. I would love to play football but Chennai does not have a football culture. I like to do some yoga as well. I train in the mornings. It is lovely.
Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. @gauravkalra75