November 11, 2015

Why Ashwin could be exceptional for India

He is unlike his spin predecessors in a few ways, and though he hasn't impressed overseas, that seems likely to change

Ashwin is in a different mould from the likes of Mishra and Jadeja © AFP

India got the pitch they wanted in Mohali and made short work of the opposition. This was in keeping with their recent record: in their last four Test matches at home they have beaten their opponents inside three days each time.

The scenario in Mohali was typical of home Test matches for India in the last 25 years or so. The pitch was dry, turning, and with no help for seamers. All India have to do in situations like this is play three spinners and bat reasonably well; that is enough to win matches. Surprises, like against England in 2012, are uncommon.

This article is about Indian spinners, not pitches. About Indian spinners in general, and how R Ashwin can be different from those who have gone before him.

An exceptional bowler or a batsman is one who is versatile and is successful in all conditions. I am not talking about all-time greats here, batsmen and bowlers who have excellent averages home and away. I am referring to slightly lesser players, who I am going to call exceptional Test players.

In my book, exceptional Test players are those who have the least disparity between their home and overseas records. These players are adaptable, and thus effective in varying conditions around the world: they have global value as players.

These are the kind of players India desperately needs, because they will help ensure that, like with their own performances, there will not be a big disparity between the team's home and away records. India's win percentage at home since 1990 is 54, while overseas it is 21.

Spinners generally win matches for India at home, but barring a few instances they have mostly been the support cast overseas; India have won overseas mostly through the efforts of their seamers. Going forward, to address this imbalance, India must get more help from their spinners.

That Indian spinners have rarely won games overseas is reflected in their career records. Here are the records at home (Asia) and overseas (in England, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) of some spinners who have played for India in the last 30 years or so.

Narendra Hirwani: 16.62 (home), 59.66 (away)
Venkatapathy Raju: 25, 46.80
Ravindra Jadeja: 17.48, 46.16
Amit Mishra: 31.75, 106.66
Anil Kumble: 27, 37.04
Harbhajan Singh: 32.01, 39.93
R Ashwin: 22.14, 56.58

Indian spinners are products of Indian pitches, in that their bowling style is shaped by the fact that they are largely dependent on the pitch to get wickets. Indian pitches have "readymade spin" for them, so they do not generally feel the need to add nuances to their art. They learnt early that all they had to do was bowl ball after ball in one place and let the pitch do the rest. Even the two modern stalwarts, Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble, were from this mould.

Ashwin is noticeably more patient now. He does not bowl four different balls an over as he used to; he tries to make his offspin his main weapon and is putting more work into doing so

Kumble, the great match-winner and fighter that he was, added a few facets to his bowling in his later years so that he could be a match-winner overseas too, and bowled some decisive spells, but he remained more a match-winner at home than overseas. His bowling averages home and away are testimony to that.

Harbhajan Singh, who interestingly has the smallest difference between his home and away averages among the spinners mentioned above, burst onto the scene in that 2001 series against Australia, taking 32 wickets in three Tests, which I think was one of the finest performances by an Indian spinner. I say this because the pitches in that series were not rank turners; they were just Indian pitches.

But Harbhajan has not been able to equal or better that performance over his now 14-year career. He has taken 417 Test wickets, which is absolutely brilliant, but he too, like most other Indian spinners, has been dependent on turners to win matches.

Harbhajan also had another limitation that stopped him from becoming a global match-winner. For some reason, he never had a Plan B. He was almost obsessed with trying to get batsmen out caught bat-pad at forward short leg or silly point while defending on the front foot. On foreign pitches, he just could not produce enough spiteful deliveries to get batsmen out that way, and this is reflected in his figures.

Ashwin, I believe, can be the exception among Indian spinners here. To start with, he is not like most Indian spinners - the likes of Jadeja or Mishra, his spin partners in the Mohali Test, both of whom usually need help from the pitch to take wickets. Ashwin looks to deceive batsmen in the air as much as off the wicket. Why, he had Hashim Amla stumped in the first innings in Mohali, on a rank turner, by deceit in the air.

Harbhajan Singh, like most Indian spinners, has depended on helpful home conditions © Associated Press

Ashwin is by nature a studious man, and he does not live in a bubble. He is not going to get too carried away by his success at home. He will know that to be respected by his peers and to be rated highly by the world (and not just his country), he needs to be a bowling force overseas too.

Until now his record has been like those of his predecessors, but from what I am seeing these days, that looks set to change. Ashwin is not the same bowler we last saw overseas. He is noticeably more patient. He does not bowl four different balls an over as he used to; he tries to make his offspin his main weapon and is putting more work into doing so.

His wrist is in a better position now, directed towards fine leg, and the fingers are running over the seam (as opposed to before, when they were slightly under and to the side). This is giving him more bounce. It is impressive that even when playing T20s and 50-overs cricket, Ashwin is not willing to bowl too differently from how he bowls in Tests these days.

Ashwin bowls a line that Harbhajan never bowled in his career - the line outside the off stump. This opens up more ways for him to get batsmen out, and his success rate against right-hand batsmen, which at the moment is much lower than that against left-handers, is bound to improve with this line.

The Indian spinners mentioned here, barring Kumble, rarely used their whole body while bowling; they let their arms do most of the work. This is an area where Ashwin needs to do a little more: develop a stronger body and use it fully every ball.

In Australia this aspect was clearly seen in the way Nathan Lyon bowled vis a vis the old Ashwin. Lyon extracted more turn and bounce out of those pitches than Ashwin did. A strong body with strong wrists and fingers helps a spinner achieve his ultimate goal: to be tantalisingly slow in the air and get the ball to fizz off the pitch.

Ashwin's journey to becoming an exceptional Test player seems to have started.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here

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