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Cheteshwar Pujara on R Ashwin: brilliant, relentless, always learning

The India batter pays tribute to his offspinner team-mate, who stands on the verge of his 100th Test

Cheteshwar Pujara
04-Mar-2024
Ashwin and Pujara have a kick-about in Pujara's last Test series, against Australia at home in 2023  •  Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Ashwin and Pujara have a kick-about in Pujara's last Test series, against Australia at home in 2023  •  Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Imagine you are facing R Ashwin.
As a batter, the basic challenge begins with his high-arm action, which creates a bit more bounce than spinners who are not tall do. The key to defending any good spinner is to get on top of the ball, especially when you are looking to defend on the front foot, otherwise you end up allowing the spinner room to trick you and dominate. The challenge most batters face against Ash is, when you feel like you are getting on top of the ball, he bowls that in-between length where you are not sure whether to play on the front foot or back. And then you end up not picking the right length. And even if you step out of the crease, he will pitch it on a length where you are not able to drive easily.
With the loop and the drift Ash can generate, you have the task of overcoming an opponent whose mission is to scramble your mind and make you commit mistakes.
There's no respite. If you're comfortable batting against him from over the stumps, he will change to round the stumps, from where he is able to create that angle where, if the ball goes straight, there's an edge in play even if you are looking to defend.
He puts a lot of effort into each delivery. He's not just looking to pitch it; he is putting his body behind the ball. Because of that he gets those revs, and on some pitches, because of those revs, even if the ball doesn't spin, it goes away from the right-hander, but it goes at a speed where, if you are slightly late on it, you pay the price.
I wish I had his incredible memory. His mind is always ticking. Away from cricket, he is a voracious reader, enjoys chess online, and is open to learning new things
Reading batters has always been a key part of what Ash does. He is always one step ahead, alert to the smallest cues. He is constantly observing the batter, his trigger, where the backlift is coming from, which stump he is on. So if a batter is looking to sweep, Ash will go a little fuller and try and block him by bowling the quicker delivery, almost a yorker length, and get an lbw. Ideally as a batter you will read the ball once the bowler has released it and then determine your shot, but not many batters have the ability to do so.
No detail is too small for his sharp mind. He has spoken previously about how he obsessively pored over videos of Steve Smith several months before India's tour of Australia in 2020-21. Before the Melbourne Test, I remember we chalked out the plan of having a leg gully against Smith because there was a bit of moisture, which made the ball hold a bit. And that is the reason Ash ended up bowling with the new ball. Part of the plan was also that he would come round the stumps to create the angle. And the plan worked - I caught Smith at leg gully.
I have also been privileged to enjoy from up close Ash's duels against Joe Root, another fine player of spin. If you look at his record, Root has always been a proactive batter - he will either try to play the sweep or reverse sweep, or try to rotate the strike so he doesn't have to face six balls off any particular bowler. I'm not saying that Root doesn't defend well, but overall, his game plan is to put bowlers under pressure.
To counter that, Ashwin's tactic has been to keep Root on strike by taking out the short leg or other close-in fielders, leaving just one slip, and placing a fielder at square leg to prevent the single. It doesn't matter whether you are playing on a flat pitch or on a turner, Ash wants Root to defend those six balls and see how he reacts. Even on a slow pitch, where the ball might not carry to slip, I have seen Ash keep a short third and a deep point just to block Root - or any other batter who plays the reverse sweep. It is a battle of wills between two top players, which makes for an engrossing contest.
When you are playing the longer format, bowling fitness is the most important thing, and Ash is probably one of the fittest I have known. If he ends up bowling 30, 35, 40 overs in a day, when he bowls again the next morning, his body might be a little fatigued, but he still has the stamina to carry on. He has the hunger to wake up and do it again and again.
That doesn't happen without hard work or without bowling countless balls in practice. Ash is very sharp at that. He knows how to prepare before a series, whether it's in India or overseas.
We became close friends by talking cricket. Most times we are on the same side, but you can never win an argument against him. He is very smart, and his vocabulary is probably among the best in the cricketing fraternity. (I know he says the same about me: that I am someone who will never give up in an argument.)
But Ash is not a bad loser. We play table tennis and tennis - two things in which I enjoy having an edge over him! - and he is a good sport.
It is easy to presume that as the lead spinner, especially on home pitches, Ash will deliver most times. But the pressure of that expectation can be immense
I wish I had his incredible memory. That is probably because he has a mind that is always ticking. Away from cricket, he is a voracious reader, enjoys chess online, and is open to learning new things. He has evolved and survived for a long time despite playing multiple formats, and that is mainly because of his innovative mind: he is not afraid or shy to try out new things, even at the cost of failing in the process.
The first time I saw him was, if memory serves me right, in an Under-17 tournament organised by the National Cricket Academy, where he was playing along with Anirudh Srikanth [the former Tamil Nadu batter]. Both were playing as opening batters then. As we know now, Ash is a very capable batter. No doubt his match-winning knock and spell at Chepauk in 2021 are to be cherished, but his heroics in the Sydney Test in 2021, where he batted with a bad back, will be talked about for a long time. He replaced me following the first drinks break after tea on the fifth day as India battled for a draw. I remember him telling me at tea not to be worried and that he would bat despite his back.
When your back hurts, it is very tough to leave the ball, especially the bouncer, because you can't duck properly. Sometimes even to defend against spinners is more challenging, because you have to have a big stride. But he batted admirably once Hanuma [Vihari], who had torn his hamstring, battled through the initial period of their partnership.
More than making individual runs, he has contributed to valuable partnerships. Take our stand in the first innings in 2018 in Adelaide, which was crucial to our win in that Test, which set up the series.
When it comes to my favourite Test involving Ash, there are too many to just single one out. There's Bangalore 2017. Adelaide 2018. Sydney 2021. All these were against Australia. Overall, and Ash would agree, those of us who played the Bangalore Test believe it ranks high among the most memorable ones.
Australia were 1-0 coming into the game, and India fell behind immediately after Nathan Lyon ran through our first innings with an eight-wicket haul. It was not the typical Chinnaswamy pitch that usually tends to be on the flatter side, at least in the first innings. In that Test there was variable bounce and the pitch was helpful to spinners from day one. Australia held the upper hand for most of the Test, though we pulled it back in the second innings to set a target of 188.
The pressure was on Ash to deliver in that fourth innings. It is never easy when you know that you have a very small total to defend. And while every bowler stepped up, it was his spell that proved crucial. He picked up six wickets. It is easy to presume that as the lead spinner, especially on home pitches, in favourable conditions, he will deliver most times. But the pressure of that expectation can be immense.
Having just become the second quickest bowler to 500 Test wickets, Ash now deserves another equally significant landmark - of 100 Tests. He's probably a little late getting there for various reasons. But I am really happy for him. He is someone who has always been ready to take the challenge on and do the hard yards for the team. He deserves it the most.

As told to Nagraj Gollapudi, ESPNcricinfo's news editor. Cheteshwar Pujara played alongside Ashwin in 78 of Ashwin's 99 Tests