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Ashwin: '500 done and dusted, now got a game hanging in the balance'

At 98 Tests, he also becomes the second-fastest to the landmark in Test cricket

Note: This article was published before R Ashwin withdrew from the Rajkot Test for personal reasons.
R Ashwin has become the ninth man, and only the second Indian, to reach the landmark of 500 Test wickets. The 37-year-old offspinner got there on the second day in Rajkot, dismissing England's Zak Crawley in the final session. He is also the second-fastest bowler to achieve the feat, getting there in his 98th Test.
"I would like to dedicate this to my father, he's responsible for everything I've done in my life. He's lived it through, had heart attacks every time I've played. I think his health has gone for a toss because he's watched games of mine on TV and been a constant support for me," Ashwin said in an interview with the host broadcaster at the end of the day's play. "I'm sure he will be very happy today. But yeah, 500 wickets done and dusted now, and we've got a game hanging in the balance."
Ashwin's career has been a story of constant tinkering driven by the desire to evolve as a cricketer. When asked what had not not changed, he said it was his "desire to excel".
"The desire to excel hasn't changed, wanting to keep on evolving as a cricketer, that's something that's been organic to me right from my club cricket days in Chennai," he said. "Ever since I picked up the red ball, the first question that hung in front of me was whether I was a good enough red-ball bowler. A lot of people perceive that I've come through the IPL but the hard yards I put in [in] club and first-class cricket in Chennai made a lot of difference to me as a Test bowler."
Nonetheless, Ashwin credited his early years in the IPL with Chennai Super Kings, where he became known for his ability to bowl in the powerplay, for bringing him into the limelight.
"I'm not someone who is fazed by the downs in life … when I'm down I don't get beaten by it, I think about it, I want to come out of it, there's always something to learn from bad days. But that was a really dark tunnel for me and I don't know what hit me and how I got placed there."
Ashwin on his low phase in 2018-19
"It's been a very long journey," he said in the press conference at the end of the day's play. "I don't exactly know where to begin because I was an accidental spinner. I wanted to be a batter all along. Life gave me a chance, and when I walked into the CSK dressing room, Muthiah Muralidaran didn't want to bowl with the new ball, and eventually I got tossed the new ball. I had a reasonable first-class start to my life. First-class career was pretty good, but nevertheless, the stage in the IPL made me visible to a lot of people, and I eventually got my Test debut. People doubted whether I could be a Test bowler, and yeah, 10-13 years later, not bad. Not a bad achievement, so I'm pretty glad."
Ashwin identified the period from 2018 to 2019, when he lost his place in the Indian team away from home, as the most challenging phase of his career, describing it as a "bottomless pit" before the Covid-19 pandemic gave him perspective.
"Life has had its ups and downs and for me the lowest part for me was that 2018-2019 period," he said. "I was the ICC cricketer of the year and on top of the world and from there to actually go to a really bottomless pit was a very dark time in my life. Generally, I'm not someone who is fazed by the downs in life … when I'm down I don't get beaten by it, I think about it, I want to come out of it, there's always something to learn from bad days. But that was a really dark tunnel for me and I don't know what hit me and how I got placed there. Injuries followed, I had a couple of injures as a bowler, the adductor strain and all that.
"And when I thought it was all almost done, was when the world got hit by a pandemic and that gave me a really good reflection of where I stood in life, what I wanted to play for, and to find new meaning of what this game stood for me. This game is all I love and I think I had lost some of that love before that and I managed to discover it.
"I'd be lying if I said 500 doesn't mean anything. It probably does. At the moment, it hasn't sunk in, but like I said 2020 onwards the way I look at the game, my life, has been different to before. I've rediscovered the joy of playing the sport again. I'm sure a lot of cricketers who have played the sport for a long time can vouch for what I am saying. You do have phases where you lose the love for the game a bit and you look at it as a job, a profession, the moment that happens it can get monotonous and lonely. So for me the rediscovery of the joy of playing the game is the highest point for me."
All through his career, Ashwin's critics have tended to view his constant experimentation as a sign of overthinking the game, and he spoke of having had to fight that perception.
"I'm really happy where I am in life. Forget it as just being in cricket. [I get told] that you 'intellectualise bowling', or whatever. I don't know where that came from, but if that's how people want to perceive me, great. I mean, I've always fought a level of perception in my life. About what people think of me, but definitely in the last six 5-6 years, I've actually not cared about it. I can't keep proving everybody wrong or I can't prove everybody right. Somebody is happy and somebody is not, but I need to be happy.
"I am in a really, really good space in my life and I want this to continue, and I don't want to let go of the love for the game. At one point in my life, I was in a really dark space, and I didn't want to watch the game, and that's not where I want to go in my life ever again. I am happy to watch the game: last night I watched Afghanistan-Sri Lanka play in the third ODI highlights, I watched live New Zealand versus South Africa. So I mean, this is who I want to be and I'm glad."
Ashwin, who made his debut for India in November 2011, has been key to the home dominance that they've shown for the last decade. Overall, he has picked up 34 five-wicket hauls and eight match hauls of ten or more. Only Anil Kumble, who has 619 wickets, is ahead of Ashwin among Indians on the wicket-takers' tally in Tests. He is also only the third offspinner to the mark, alongside Muralidaran and Nathan Lyon.