September 23, 2015

'It's not about patience, but the skill and knowledge you acquire over time'

R Ashwin talks about his growth as an offspinner, his time outside the Test team, and his habit of saying what he thinks

"From two years ago, I am far more mature, far calmer, far more knowledgeable, far more in control of what I am doing" © AFP

Was this Sri Lanka series your most complete performance? In terms of being able to do what you are trying to?
I think the most complete performance has to be the spell I bowled in Bangladesh. In Fatullah. That was one heck of a spell. Bowled over a period of two days, maybe a bit more. That was a delight. The way the ball was coming out, the way it drifted, the way it curved in so late, that made it really special. I think it was a process starting with the Test series in Australia. If I can hold on to this, this will be the best form of my life.

What is it that you want from a spell?
To access control on the batsman the way I want. In terms of aggressive control. There are some times when you can bowl flat and quick, which I have done at times, in Australia a couple of times. It has its effect. In Australia you can't be adventurous all the time. You have to be sensible about it. [But to] access control through sheer flights, lot of revs [is what you want]. When the batsman knows: "If I am defending I can still get out." That's the kind of spell I am talking about.

Would you agree it had gone missing - this control?
Yes, it definitely was missing. I wouldn't say control… I think knowledge. Knowledge about my own bowling, about bowling, about offspin bowling, about my body mechanics, about my action, all this is knowledge packed into one. The knowledge I have right now is far more than what I had a couple of years ago.

"If only patient cricketers had to be good cricketers, then only yogis could have been good cricketers"

What mistake all of us make when we are talking about a particular cricketer is that we say they are trying too much, the control is not there, there is no patience. These are clichéd terms. If only patient cricketers were good cricketers, then only yogis could have been good cricketers. It's more about skill, and the amount of knowledge you acquire over a period of time, which you can put in practice. All these things go into making a good cricketer.

From two years ago, what I am today, I am far more mature, far calmer, far more knowledgeable, far more in control of what I am doing.

I'll tell you why we sometimes make comments like, "He is trying too many variations." Because we only see what is happening on the field. We don't know what you are trying to work on. We can only try to deduce from what we see. When we see, for example, if you have somebody in trouble for three balls and then you slip in the flatter delivery to let him off the hook…
Wonderful that you have brought this up. In the past it has happened. When I played against England [at home in 2012-13], when I used to bowl at Alastair Cook, constantly I kept dropping it a little shorter. When I tried to bowl a little fuller, I bowled too full where he drove the ball, and he is not a very good driver of the ball. Nobody needs to actually tell you it is wrong. I know it is wrong.

Is it because I don't have control? Is it because I don't have patience? No. It's because I don't have enough knowledge about my own bowling. So how do I correct a mistake?

One times two is two. Two times two is four. If you teach a first-standard kid today, tomorrow he is bound to forget the multiplication table. It happens with a cricketer also. It is a completely new skill. It is an education in itself. Patience - I find it extremely clichéd. It is not pertinent to only the game.

"Very, very often people tell me, 'Your weight needs to transfer. Your leg needs to come over.' Now unless I am a disco dancer it is not possible to do it" © AFP

Of course you are not doing it on purpose.
There needs to be a more pertinent analysis. Why I bowl a bad ball is not because I mean to bowl a bad ball or I need to try something new. There have been times when I have dropped short to a left-hander and people have gone about how I have bowled a carrom ball. And slow-mo replay shows clearly it is not a carrom ball. It is a normal offbreak that has fallen short.

And why has it happened? There has never been one occasion when people have said he has not transferred the weight and the ball has fallen short. There has not been one occasion when people have said he has released the ball early, or he has looked to put more revs on the ball so he has bowled a little fuller. If these are the things a youngster hears, a learning curve of five years becomes two years, rather than listening to "patience".

So what do I do to get patience? Sit in my room and meditate? I am not being even one bit sarcastic. Genuinely, I have dug really deep to understand my own game.

But this is what we say sitting on the outside. Inside the team…
Inside the team itself the knowledge only grows when they start hearing these things. The media or the so-called analysts are so important to the game they don't themselves realise that.

"The coach we have right now is a major reason behind my resurgence. He empowers me. I have questions for which I have got answers. He gave me reading material, which is pertinent"

Does, say, the bowling coach - let's not take names here - also get affected by what is being said?
The coach we have right now is a major reason behind my resurgence. I don't like to give credit to anybody just like that. And if I don't like anybody, I will be very honest about it. If I think their opinions are not right, I will say their opinions are not right. So this coach, how is he different? He empowers me. I have questions for which I have got answers. He gave me reading material, which is pertinent.

Every single morning I have questions. Sometimes when you listen to me on the field, or when you listen to me on the morning of the game, you'd think I am an idiot. I can completely empathise with those who might think so. One fine morning during the Sri Lanka series I stepped up and asked [Bharat] Arun [India's bowling coach] if I could bowl overspin that morning. I wanted to bowl overspin and increase my run-up speed. For someone to understand that, he needs to be a proper coach. He can't be just a former player.

Since you have taken a name, can I ask you if that was not happening with the previous bowling coaches?
Why I don't want to get into names is not because I don't want controversy. I don't want to spoil someone's future.

Sometimes, when I ask questions and you don't have the answers, you either call me an idiot or you say I think too much. The fact that I have questions means I am a learner. It doesn't mean I have got attitude [problems].

This whole perspective needs to be changed. I don't know if I can be the change, but I am mad enough to think I can be the change.

"Why I played for India was because I used to put a lot of revs on the ball. And the fact that I could set my own fields, and I understood angles and I understood batsmen" © AFP

I still continue to have questions. Even somebody like Ravi Shastri is prepared to answer my questions. He might think at times that I overthink a little. There are times when he has told me to keep things simple. And he has been right on those occasions. There are times when not just me, even Sachin Tendulkar would have had somebody telling him to keep things simple, because it is a complicated game. We see failure more than success.

Can you give me one example of when Ravi told you to keep it simple and it might have worked?
Fortunately, since Ravi has taken over I have had a great time. And there is a reason behind it. The Adelaide Test that I was supposed to play - it looked like I was going to play, but I didn't. I didn't know why but I was quite happy I didn't play because during that Test I went and practised every single day in the nets. That's when I found a very, very important key to my rhythm.

He told me I was unfortunate to miss out, but he also politely told me to strive harder yet keep things simple. These are again clichéd terms. Sorry for this. To keep things simple is a clichéd term, but the larger point to that is that when I am striving for something higher, I can lose what I have. After that he keeps on reiterating that the ball is coming out right, and I don't need to do anything extra. That is the reassurance I need.

What did you do in the Adelaide nets?
I was pretty interested in the kind of balance I was managing at the crease. I felt I was not in the best balanced position to deliver the entire momentum towards the batsman. Whatever I gather as momentum of my run-up and my loading is all destined to put the ball into the batsman's half. So I will have to translate each bit of it into the ball before I deliver it. And if I dissipate any of my energy before I deliver it, I am losing out on my maximum force or maximum penetration. To be in the best balanced position is the best possible way to put the ball at the maximum penetration. I felt I was being a little imbalanced. I felt like I was falling over.

"Whatever I gather as momentum of my run-up and my loading is all destined to put the ball into the batsman's half. So I will have to translate each bit of it into the ball before I deliver it"

Very, very often people tell me, "Your weight needs to transfer. Your leg needs to come over." Now unless I am a disco dancer it is not possible to do it. How can you transfer weight just like that? If I can transfer weight just like that and if I don't transfer weight, I have got a big attitude problem. I have got a technical issue somewhere, which is not related to my legs alone.

There is a loading issue. Whatever happens in the lower body is in direct relation to what is happening in the upper body, as far as bowling is concerned. This is again what I gathered from Arun. I look at other bowlers and I ask him questions. That's how I look to learn.

In Adelaide I was playing around with my loading positions with my right hand. When that was happening I suddenly discovered something. I felt like there was more cocking to the wrist. There were revolutions on the ball. The amount of finger-split I use on the ball was completely coming into use. There was more uncoiling and coiling. When this happened, I went and asked again, I asked Ravi and Arun. I had a complete lesson for the next three days. I kept on gathering as much information as I could. From then on I haven't looked back. Not just in terms of performance but I am in a happy place with my bowling.

So it was just the loading?
Yes. Why I played for India was because I used to put a lot of revs on the ball. That was one of my biggest pluses. And the fact that I could set my own fields, and I understood angles and I understood batsmen. I wanted to increase my strengths and eliminate my limitations.

When I started playing first-class cricket, I had a very simple action. Then when I played IPL I tried a different action. That action had its advantage, served its purpose, but it had a shelf life. Over a period of time, because it was an action that was new, I started developing bad habits with that. I didn't know how to correct those bad habits. There was nobody to point out and tell me where I was going wrong. So I wanted to go back and unlearn everything and simplify it again.

Ashwin took 21 wickets in the recent series win in Sri Lanka © AFP

The action with which I am bowling now is the first one coupled with the second one. I wanted to put the advantage of the second action into the first one. I didn't want to miss out on that. That's exactly what I have done.

So this, now, is an all-format action?
I hope so. But there could be another phase when I might move on.

Did you get a feeling that within the team the coaches had an image of you in their mind that this guy thinks too much, this guy is trouble?
When things don't go right, all these things will happen. Not just in a cricket team, it is the way the world operates. There are times when people come up to me and say, "Listen, this what the world thinks about you. This is what that person thinks." I have gone past that. What happens is, you start breeding a lot of negative energy. Then every person you see seems like your enemy. When you think like that, you will never improve.

Having said that, there have been people in the past who actually misunderstood me completely and thought I am trouble. To think I am trouble, and actually think there is something wrong with me, all these things played into my hands. All these things I really enjoy and relish in my life. I live my life to prove people wrong.

Was there this culture that we want a bowler who will do what we ask him to do? "We don't need this engineer type."
I don't think so. Right from the start, when Mahi [MS Dhoni] used to be the captain, I had the freedom. He still maintains that. Even during the Bangladesh tour he told me my biggest asset was that I had variations. That I know what the game situation is and I can still bowl my variations. The fact remains: I still use my variations but in a much more concealed fashion. There was one wicket I picked up with a carrom ball, or probably two, in that one-day series, but I bowled it bang-on, picture-perfect. He asked me to bowl it and I bowled it. There was a time when he asked me to bowl it, and there was a time when I bowled it without being asked to bowl it. He said it was okay. "You need to still keep bowling it." And there are other variations that I keep adding to my arsenal.

"The way the ball was coming out in Bangladesh, the way it drifted, the way it curved in so late, that made it really special. If I can hold on to this, this will be the best form of my life"

How did the seam-up ball come about?
The seam-up ball is just the arm ball. I used to bowl it all through the IPL, when I started bowling. And again, because of the wrong loading position, I lost the swing on the ball. And when I started to load better again, the wrist became much more supple, much more stable. I started putting much more into it.

But does only the new ball swing away from the right-hand batsman?
The Kookaburra ball swings all through.

Yeah, exactly. You bowled Dimuth Karunaratne at P Sara.
Yes. It was a pretty old ball. The Kookaburra ball. It's all about maintaining the ball. I'm not sure the SG ball will go. I am going to play with SG balls after a long time.

Yeah, they don't seem to dry it properly. In domestic cricket it goes out of shape every time it hits the boundary boards.
Yeah, it goes out of shape a lot. I am going to play with SG balls after a long time. I just hope the quality is…

"When I ask questions and you don't have the answers, you either call me an idiot or you say I think too much. The fact that I have questions means I am a learner" © AFP

But it is generally good for spinners.
It has got more bounce, but the problem is, it doesn't go on the axis a lot. Just need to… Maybe there is a way to handle the new SG ball as well.

After the Johannesburg Test you had 104 wickets in 19 Tests. You were the fastest Indian to 100 wickets. From then to sit out the next six Tests - what did it do to you?
I am a very proud cricketer. I am generally a very proud person in life. My belief is like this: if I sit out, I better make people pay for sitting me out. That's how I think. If this is just said bluntly as a statement, people can think, "Oh my god, he is arrogant, over-confident, he thinks he is better than me." All these kind of things come in because we are Indians. We have a very small-shaped view of life.

I learnt my life like that. I am like this because of what I went through when I was in college. Every time I stepped back into my college after playing a game - I used to go once a week, or once in two weeks - the staff and professors, they made sure when I went back on that particular day that I struggled. I needed to really beg. I needed to run behind them for my classes, my lab, my records, everything. I had to do everything on my own. There was no spoon-feeding. Every time I went back to the field, I made sure others cried, because I was crying in college. So that's how I started in Ranji Trophy cricket. It became a sort of DNA inside me, some sort of second nature. When this attitude comes out, it can put people off, but I genuinely maintain that what others think of me is just immaterial to me.

"Every time I stepped back into my college after playing a game, the staff and professors made sure I struggled. I needed to really beg"

Even in the team?
I don't spoil anyone's party. I want everybody to do well. I don't think anybody should not do well. Because I have grown up in an era when the Indian cricket team used to lose a lot. To now be playing in an Indian team which wins more than it loses, which is expected to win away from home…

The first Test I watched was in 1992-93, Chepauk, when India played England. India now win at least 17% more matches than what the Indian team of that age used to. But to bring this Indian team to what the Australian team was for about 15 years is something I would die for. All my team-mates need to do well for that. I don't intend bad for anybody.

I definitely try and adjust, I definitely try and adapt to scenarios. I try to say things a lot more differently to people now than I used to. I used to be a lot blunter. Then I understood that I was not being received well. There was a problem in my communication, probably because I communicated the way I communicated with my friends or my parents or my family. There needs to be a lot more subtlety. These are the learnings I make. These things have rounded me off as a person. Within the team it matters honestly because my team-mates are people I live with more than I live with my family, so they mean everything to me.

Was there somebody who put an arm around you and told you, "Look, let's be a little less straightforward"?
(Laughs) It happens quite a bit. The only issue is when people come and tell me, "You don't have to be so straightforward. People don't need to listen to your opinions." There have been people who have told me this.

Actually speaking, I have not been giving my opinion [of late]. I have definitely corrected that a little bit. Because opinions, everybody has one. Unless you are part of a leadership group, your opinions need not be listened to. I won't avoid contributing to a bowlers' meeting, for example. But what happens is, if I am not straightforward, I lose happiness in life. So what is the point? It keeps eating you up. So what is the risk I am taking by being straightforward? By being straightforward I am being mistaken for being a person that I am not. On the other hand, if I am not straightforward, I lose happiness. What is more important? My happiness is more important.

"To bring this Indian team to what the Australian team was for about 15 years is something I would die for. All my team-mates need to do well for that. I don't intend bad for anybody" © AFP

How did you manage when you lost your place in England?
In England I had made a transition into a far better bowler than I was in Johannesburg. I climbed through it. Sometimes people cannot fathom the fact that in two-three months you can make fast strides. In one day you can make a fast stride if your absorption skills are good. From this aspect, in England it was a little frustrating. But I knew I had to bide my time. I had lost my place to a spinner who had got six wickets in his first performance abroad. And I needed to pay that respect. He achieved what I couldn't, so I needed to pay respect, wait my turn, and I was very sure I would get my turn.

Now this is a healthy rivalry where you are thinking you want to be the No. 1 spinner, that you should be playing the Tests abroad. Was that also misunderstood?
I actually don't think abroad or India.

As in, the sign of a No. 1 spinner is he is the only spinner playing when there is room for only one in away Tests.
I don't think like that. I don't strive to be indispensable. I strive to be exceptional. There is a difference between the two. I want to be excellent, I don't want to be indispensable. Indispensable is holding on to something.

In England, when you didn't play in the first three Tests, a lot of practice was at just a stump. Why?
It sometimes helps. Sometimes you don't want the batsman. When you are trying to do something [new], especially, there are chances the ball will fall a little too full or too short. The frequency of bad balls is much higher because you are looking to do something different. When that happens and if a batsman is batting, he will smack you all the time. Which is a big dent on your confidence. Bowling without a batsman helps.

"Whatever I did in first-class cricket, I tried to do in Test cricket. Because people told me at that time, 'You don't have to change anything'"

I don't know if I read too much into it, but I thought I noticed you trying to bowl wider of off to right-hand batsmen. Was that something you identified as needing to do?
It is a result of getting a bit of drift, a bit of curvature. If you can do that, then you can bowl wider. It is just not bowling wide; you have to bowl wide with a drift. Unless it has got revolutions it won't drift. If it has got revolutions and if it has drifted, it has got all the chances of turning back in. And again, it depends on the wicket. On a first-day wicket, which has got a bit of grass on it, you don't bowl that wide. You have to straighten the line.

In the home series against England, when you were not able to impart all those revs on the ball, was that because of some bad habits you might have got into in T20 cricket, where wickets come easy because batsmen are playing all sorts of adventurous shots?
Actually, I am aware of my bowling. I am very aware of what I'm doing. It does happen some times when you take a bit of time, but more often than not the error I commit is mental and not physical. Because I try to be as aware as possible when I'm trying to make the shift. The error was there in terms of my body alignment. The loading was a bad habit that had crept into me. To identify that and correct it we needed someone.

You said this after the Sri Lanka series: "The last ten to 12 months I have been more focused on Test cricket. I came to terms with the fact that Test cricket is no child's play. I wanted to be serious about every aspect of the game and be as focused as possible." Was there a time when you might have thought Test cricket was child's play?
Not exactly. I never thought it was child's play. Sometimes I took it as an extension of first-class cricket. Whatever I did in first-class cricket, I tried to do in Test cricket. I attached a lot of importance with first-class cricket. So I thought this is exactly what I required in Test cricket. Because people told me at that time, "You don't have to change anything." So I kept it going.

"From 19 today I am 28, there is a big difference in my body. Not that it's getting very old, but it is overused. It recovers, but it is playing lot more games than it used to" © Associated Press

What I realised over a period of time was that it was a change in lifestyle. In first-class cricket you went home, you went back, you had good food to eat. You didn't have times when you were down and you didn't get good food or family members to talk to. It is a total change in lifestyle. When I was playing first-class cricket, sometimes I used to go to sleep at 11.30 in the night. And wake up at 6.30. Not exactly have my box of nuts. Not exactly drink my water. And honestly speaking, from 19 today I am 28, there is a big difference in my body. Not that it's getting very old, but it is overused. It recovers, but it is playing lot more games than it used to. Test match cricket, as far as I can see, is a lifestyle. Nothing else to it.

Do you ever look at your home and away stats and think there is a big hole there?
Let's talk about this when I am done with cricket. Until then you never know. I don't know. All the greats - be it Bishan Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh - that have played for India, I have never had the time to sit and dissect how many wickets they have taken in Johannesburg, Centurion, Durban, Melbourne, Sydney. You can never do that. Even when these people write articles, I read with so much attention, because you can pick up something. Whenever Anil Kumble writes an article I am on to it in a flash. Some of these articles help you to learn, but I'm not so sure about all the criticism that comes my way. Some of the criticism seems like they don't want me to do well. If there is genuine interest in me doing well, it needs to be over the phone.

Do you make that attempt of getting on the phone?
I am thinking so much as it is. Do I want to think more by getting more opinion in my life? I am not sure.

If I know I will get right answers, if I am not being criticised for the questions I asked, I will be more than happy to call.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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