R Ashwin has consciously worked on deceiving batsmen in the air over the last 18 months. He revealed this in a chat with India's bowling coach Bharat Arun on bcci.tv after picking up four wickets on the opening day of the Edgbaston Test. Varying his speeds, he observed, has also been key to his reinvention as an offspinner.
Before the start of the ongoing series, Ashwin had just three wickets in two Tests in England (both during the 2014 tour), at 33.66. Last year, Ashwin picked up 20 wickets in four matches for Worcestershire in the County Championship. He underlined the importance of this stint in understanding his bowling on slow, unresponsive English surfaces.
"When I came here for the county stint last year, the one thing I realised was the speed at which a spinner had to bowl here," Ashwin said. "The wickets are extremely slow, even on the first day. You can have a bit of bounce, but if the pace is not right the batsmen have a lot of time to play the same ball on the front and the back foot. That's something I realised very quickly when I came here."
On Wednesday, Ashwin's average speed was 88 kph. He largely varied his deliveries between 86 and 93kph. Although he fired in the odd quick delivery, the two key wickets of Alastair Cook and Jos Buttler came when he slowed them down. The speed on Cook's delivery - which drew him forward, beat him for length with dip in the air, and then spun past his outside edge - was pegged at 86kph, while Buttler's was at 85kph.
With the pitch having a brownish tinge with some dry grass, there was barely any turn barring the first hour in the morning when there was some dampness. This allowed Ashwin to get some grip and turn as he consistently landed it on the seam.
Working hard on "simplifying his action", he says, has helped bring dividends. "Even over the last 12 to 18 months back home, I've spent a lot of time playing club cricket and all that sort of stuff," he said. "I've been working on simplifying my action a bit, and making sure that I can get more body into the ball so that I can create something in the air. That's what I did, and it worked really well."
Ashwin recounted a conversation with Arun and head coach Ravi Shastri last year, when they discussed the use of the body in his action, to enable him to beat batsmen in the air. "You were of course privy to the conversation, with me, yourself and Ravi bhai," he told Arun. "We've always spoken about having to take the pitch out of the equation, especially with how good the wickets are and how the modern-day batsmen really enjoy playing on these wickets."
Incidentally, it was Arun worked with Ashwin on his load-up a few years ago to solve persistent issues with his alignment at the bowling crease. The change allowed him to be better-balanced at delivery, transfer his momentum towards the batsman, and consequently impart more spin.
Ashwin was also honest enough to point out that "bad habits" had crept into his bowling action previously, despite getting a bagful of wickets at home. "I think to a large extent that particular thing of doing batsmen in the air is something I've consciously worked upon," he said. "But what happens when you're trying to do (deceive) batsmen in the air is that the body sometimes just gives up.
"You are a touch short or a touch fuller. In one of those pursuits, I thought simplifying my action was very important. Because I went through a very good phase of bowling with a particular action, and hence a lot of bad habits had crept in with my arms coming in and all that. We spoke about it as well (he and Arun). Those are the things I've had to really work against my own will and try and tell myself that I had to work on my action again."