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'More than the hours I trained, I improved the quality of my practice and analysis'

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WATCH - M Ashwin gets big names (1:56)

Murugan Ashwin has a habit of picking up wickets and he is Rising Pune Supergiants' highest wicket-taker in IPL 2016 so far (1:56)

Before this IPL not many may have seen much of M Ashwin, who played all three of his first-class matches so far in 2012. He didn't get to bowl in his debut game, a rain-hit affair, and took only one wicket from the 67 overs he bowled in the next two. While he remained active on the Chennai league circuit, he didn't resurface on the Ranji scene till the end of 2015.

Given his scant visibility at the domestic level, with only two List A and six T20 games, he had to take the unconventional route to the IPL. Ashwin attended selection trials for Kings XI Punjab, Delhi Daredevils and Royal Challengers Bangalore, but in the end it was Rising Pune Supergiants who picked him up for Rs 4.5 crore (US$668,000 approx) at auction.

Unbeknownst to him, his actual audition had probably taken place when he was called to bowl in the Chennai Super Kings nets during the 2015 IPL. Stephen Fleming and MS Dhoni, coach and captain at Super Kings, and later at Supergiants, were impressed with what they then saw of Ashwin, who further boosted his chances by taking ten wickets at less than six an over from six Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 matches in January this year.

Having registered figures of 4-0-16-1 in the opening game of the IPL, Ashwin went on to play nine more before he suffered a side strain, which, along with the rise of Adam Zampa, played a part in ruling him out. He finished with seven wickets at 8.45 an over, but he thinks he did better than those numbers suggest.

"For a first IPL it was a good learning experience, and I think I did fairly well," he says. "I didn't think about the price I was bought for. From a team point of view, though, it would have been good had we qualified for the playoffs."

"During the Delhi Daredevils game I had a long chat with Imran Tahir, and I asked him how he bowls the flipper and the slider. He is very generous. He doesn't mind sharing his tricks"

He says the only brief he was given was to take wickets and he tailored his preparation to suit. Since there was no designated phase of play where he would be introduced, he learned to enjoy the dynamism that came with bowling at different stages.

"At practice, I was working on my variations and was planning which lines to bowl, which lines to bowl in the slog [overs]. I bowled in the Powerplay in one match, and I also bowled in the 18th over in another game. I felt they used me whenever they needed a wicket." So much so that he was often brought into the attack ahead of his more famous namesake, R Ashwin.

The similarities between them piqued interest, especially among headline-writers and meme-creators looking for wacky puns and trivia. The Ashwins went to the same engineering college, spoke the same language, Tamil, played for the same state, and were now turning out for the same IPL franchise.

M Ashwin, however, doesn't think Dhoni preferred bowling him over the other Ashwin, and calls it a "legspinner-offspinner, horses for courses kind of decision". He talks of the example of the game against Sunrisers Hyderabad where he bowled only one over as opposed to the offspinner, who bowled four.

What M Ashwin cherishes most are his off-field conversations with R Ashwin, who had praised his younger team-mate's ability to spin the ball appreciably both ways.

"This is the first time I had the opportunity to have a lot of conversation with him," M Ashwin says. "We used to have breakfast together, and we would watch other games together during dinner. I was lucky to have actually watched the game with him, and discuss other teams - why a bowler was successful, what length and line he was bowling. We used to talk cricket like how people would normally discuss stuff over the dinner table."

Having never played in Pune or at the Wankhede or Eden Gardens before the IPL, M Ashwin received valuable input from his senior colleague on how the pitches behaved there, and on the overall dynamics of the grounds. "He would also tell me about the preferred hitting areas of guys like Brendon McCullum and Dwayne Smith.

"It's not like we always discuss [plans] for every batsman. I do my own homework. With aggressive batsmen like McCullum or Smith, I generally bowl a wider line so that they don't reach for the ball. But you can't go in with fixed ideas. I can't simply keep bowling wider lines to all batsmen at all times."

Ashwin, however, admits to having made mistakes under pressure on occasion, recalling in particular the game against Kolkata Knight Riders where Yusuf Pathan lined him up for two sixes over long-on in successive overs. In hindsight, he says bowling full to Pathan was an "executional error".

"He is a very strong player, and I knew I shouldn't bowl there," he says. "Execution comes with experience, but at this stage you have to absorb that pressure and perform."

Ashwin quickly learnt to insulate himself from the pressure and to instead focus on putting into practice the plans he had drawn up. Suryakumar Yadav's dismissal in the same game - Ashwin's favourite moment in the tournament - is a perfect illustration of his preparation and his awareness of his strengths.

In the 16th over, after Yadav misread a googly that spat past the inside edge, Ashwin beat the batsman with a legbreak and then bowled another googly to nail him in front. This strategy of sandwiching a legbreak between googlies, Ashwin says, has been one of his key wicket-taking set pieces at the domestic level.

"He [Suryakumar] wasn't able to pick my googly," he says. "If you see, he missed the googly the first time I bowled it, went for the cut and it almost hit the stumps. Since my googly is good, I think I used it well, and I was fortunate it came out well."

That googly has a fan in South Africa legspinner Imran Tahir, who bowls a mean one himself. Ashwin first met Tahir during the India-South Africa ODI in Chennai last year, where Ashwin was a net bowler, and they continued to swap notes during this year's IPL.

"At practice, I was working on my variations. I bowled in the Powerplay in one match, and I also bowled in the 18th over in another game. I felt they used me whenever they needed a wicket"

"During the Delhi Daredevils game I had a long chat with Imran Tahir, and I asked him how he bowls the flipper and the slider," he says. "He is very generous. He doesn't mind sharing his tricks. During the net session in Chennai he had asked me how I bowled my googly. He gave me feedback this time, saying he tried it and it didn't work for him."

Ashwin has also benefited from inputs from the likes of Dhoni in the nets. "If I bowled too slow, Dhoni would come and ask me to vary my speeds. He would also tell me which line worked better - outside off or at the stumps.

"Of course, everyone told me it was my googly that troubled them the most. But the ideal wicket-taking line would be [the ball spinning away] from the stumps off a good length. Looking back, I feel I should have probably done that a lot more."

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Ashwin's arrival on the Tamil Nadu scene in 2012 was greeted with mild excitement, given the side had lacked a legspinner for quite some time. But that first coming didn't last longer than a month, during which he conceded 176 runs in 48 overs and bowled 14 no-balls in his second game, where Karnataka easily went past Tamil Nadu's first-innings total of 538.

The Ashwin of three years ago was, in his own words, a diffident character prone to nervousness. But he retraced his steps, identified the problem and found a solution. He realised his head was falling away in his action and he wasn't using his non-bowling arm optimally.

He bowled at a single stump for several net sessions and then to a batsman. He mostly worked alone and made mistakes along the way, occasionally seeking advice from coaches at the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association academy. It took him a long time to settle on a stable, rhythmic action. The three years on the periphery became an attritional cycle of spotting mistakes, unlearning the routines that led to them, and learning the right technique.

Ashwin speaks matter-of-factly about the inevitable frustrations that crop up during such a phase. "I think every cricketer has to deal with such frustrations," he says. "Unless you taste success, whatever you do you are bound to be irritated."

It helped to have a supportive wife and father. In 2014, he married Aishwarya after five years of courtship, and he believes marriage has made him a more composed individual. He discussed his practice sessions with her every day to gain perspective on the "incremental improvements" he was making.

"She is a much more positive person than I am, so I think that has rubbed on to me," he says.

His father, Era Murugan, is a popular novelist and a writer of dialogue for Tamil films. "Although I don't read my father's books, I have always been inspired by his ability to work tirelessly. He does not watch cricket, but during this IPL he watched all the games, not just the ones Supergiants played."

Ashwin believes making qualitative changes to his cricket without worrying about the result helped him. "When I say negative mindset, it is more nervousness. At a young age, every cricketer has it. But if you are prepared then you can go to a game with confidence. I just changed the way I think.

"Probably I improved my practice ethics, and I think that helped my confidence. I wasn't consciously trying to be positive. I worked a lot on my bowling, which made me confident in return. More than the number of hours I trained, I improved the quality of my practice and my analysis."

Ashwin, who has an excellent academic record, also thinks his engineering background brought intangible benefits to his bowling. "Even Anil Kumble has said engineering helped him. I don't know in exactly what way, but subconsciously it maybe has helped me - probably in being analytical."

He says the IPL has provided him a window on the standard of cricket played at the international level. "Bowling in the CSK nets last year was a trial for the IPL. It gave me a lot of confidence," he says. "[This year] I was able to gauge myself at the international level. Now I have a better idea of where I could go wrong and how I could possibly rectify [those errors].

"If I go to the nets and practice, I know the results I can achieve by bowling in a certain manner. The quality of batsmanship in the IPL is much better, so you need to up your level to succeed."