R Ashwin hardly looks like a modern athlete. No gel in his hair, no studied stubble, no gymnasium-sculpted body. In today's world of micro-managed and personalised diets and training schedules, it is hard to imagine a sportsman as portly as Ashwin. Then again, cricket is one of the few sports - not including darts or chess here - that can accommodate players of this build. Cricket even celebrates such oddities. Ashwin is, in fact, the fastest Indian to 100 Test wickets, and the fifth-fastest overall.
Ashwin's batting, too, is almost from an era gone by. Not one for the stolen singles, he relies on timing, feel and touch. He is one of the few modern Indian cricketers whose autograph is legible. An autograph enthusiast at Eden Gardens once sulked to me how most of the players nowadays just scratch out gibberish for autographs. "Ashwin," he said, "takes the time and effort. Two months later, you can tell only Ashwin's autograph; others are just circles and underlines."
There is, by all accounts, something nice about Ashwin. Something old-fashioned. Something of the '70s. Most of all, though, we love that he bowls offspin wearing half sleeves. Even when it is cold enough to wear a sweater, Ashwin bowls in half sleeves. It makes you root for the guy in a world full of full-sleeved offspinners. You like that he is flexing that poor finger of his and not the elbow for the variety an offspinner badly needs in today's cricket.
There are two kinds of bowlers in cricket. Those who bowl in half sleeves, and the rest. The latter are a minority. Even allrounders who like wearing full sleeves when batting switch to halves when they are bowling. Even on the bitterest of cold days, most bowlers either roll their sleeves up when bowling or reveal half sleeves when they hand over their jumper to the umpire at the start of an over.
There is a legendary photograph of Michael Holding kicking the stumps, unhappy with a decision, during a Test in Dunedin. It was a cold day. The batsman who survived the appeal, John Parker, wore a full-sleeved sweater. Wicketkeeper Deryck Murray had a full-sleeved sweater on. The short leg, still appealing, wore a sleeveless sweater and a full-sleeved shirt. Holding, he wore the old cable-knit sleeveless sweater and a half-sleeved shirt. Bowling was meant to be done in half sleeves, not just because it is a summer game. It is natural to bowl in half sleeves. Full sleeves are clumsy, they restrict the arm movement. Apart from a few exceptions - Wasim Akram didn't mind full sleeves, for example - there aren't many bowlers who don't prefer half sleeves all other things being equal.
Modern cricket, though, has introduced longer sleeves to bowling. Call it the bowlers' response to counter the imbalance of modern cricket towards the bat, call it impure, but there are many today who prefer bowling in full sleeves. These bowlers' actions are mostly legal in the eye of the law, but they also know that their actions don't look pretty when in half sleeves. The straightening of the elbow, although permissible by the ICC at most times, is accentuated to the naked eye when not covered by their shirts. Bowlers have been reported for suspect actions in recent times - Shane Shillingford and Marlon Samuels being the latest - all wear full sleeves.
These bowlers bowl the doosra, something the offspinners of previous eras didn't try because they knew they wouldn't be allowed to. The modern offspinners also bowl the quicker deliveries, and not the topspinners. Sometimes they clock 120kmph from two steps. These are possibly their way to counter heavy bats and shorter outfields. These are all legal until they are sent to Perth for examination. It is open to argument whether the game is richer or poorer for it.
Cricket moves on as it has shown with the influx of long sleeves, but it also celebrates the Ashwins of the world a little more; while winning matters more than anything else, the perception - to be seen to be fair - also matters. Ashwin is the only one left to those who like their offspinners in half sleeves.
All of a sudden, though, on February 26, in an Asia Cup match against Bangladesh in Fatullah, Ashwin came on to bowl in the 13th over wearing full sleeves. The cricketing world, especially those who rooted for him because of the disadvantage they thought the half sleeves had put him at, groaned in unison. Ashwin was now bowling like Sunil Narine, and felt it necessary, for possibly the first time in his career, to take the field in full sleeves. There is, at least, no photographic evidence of his having bowled in full sleeves before.
It is worth trying to empathise with the state of mind Ashwin would have been. Despite his sensational march to 100 Test wickets, Ashwin had been dropped for the last three Tests India had played, in Durban, Auckland and Wellington. Even in the ODIs, he had taken just two wickets in his last eight matches. His childhood coach, Sunil Subramaniam, had recently said in a published interview that Ashwin was losing his way without proper support, and not putting enough body into the ball. The shoulder and hip into the ball, the pivot on the front foot, the follow-through, and all that, you know.
Possibly down on confidence, possibly bereft of ideas, Ashwin chose to try the easy way out. It brought him two Bangladesh wickets, including one first ball, and his first maiden in 10 ODIs. It also made him a little less likable. Then again, why just me, he asks, and rightly. I am not holier than the next offspinner, he says. At the Asia Cup, Sri Lanka had one full-sleeved bowler, Pakistan three, and almost every Bangladesh spinner wears full sleeves. Ashwin has turned around and said he plays to win matches, and cannot be expected to stay disadvantaged when almost every spinner in the world has gone long-sleeved. He can even point towards the IPL, which hasn't a paisa for the offspinner who wears half sleeves.
"I'd never bowled in full sleeves before, so I wanted to see how it would feel to bowl in full sleeves," Ashwin says. "That's point number one. And I just wanted to see if I can get more revs on the ball if I could do little bit with my elbow - as much as there is. That's what it was all about. I don't know, you can tend to get a lot of advantage doing all these things. So why should I lag behind in the advantage when somebody else is getting a competitive edge?"
You can't really question Ashwin's words here. These are honest words that we all secretly agree with, but cannot speak in a politically correct world. These are words that make us question our attitude towards him and other bowlers. We like him more when he bowls in half sleeves, but he says he is exploring possibilities because it is not always possible to keep up with where the game is headed bowling as he does. In a world that has time only for winners, and the bottom lines, isn't it nice about our game that we still care a little more about bowlers that don't have to hide how their action looks?