The India offspinner's bid to master legspin, while retaining his consistency at the international level, is simply an attempt to be a complete package, according to former team-mate and now coach VRS Guru Kedarnath
The ESPNcricinfo style sheet makes a fine distinction between legbreak and legspin. Legbreak is a delivery, legspin is an art form of which legbreak is a part. Legbreak is a delivery that turns away from a right-hand batsman, legspin is the whole set: legbreaks, wrong'uns, topspinners, sliders, flippers; zooters, if you believe Shane Warne.
One April day this year, R Ashwin bumped into long-time friend, opponent, team-mate and now a coach VRS Guru Kedarnath at Gen-Next Cricket Institute, an academy Ashwin helped set up. Kedar remembers that on that day Ashwin told him he had been working on something for close to two years, and asked if Kedar could help him with it. Kedar remembers it was legspin Ashwin had been after and not just a legbreak. He wanted to go the distance: sidespin, overspin, googly, flipper.
Kedar has known Ashwin for 20 years now. A fellow offspinner, Kedar played against Ashwin in inter-school tournaments before they found themselves in the same school for two years. They have been team-mates in all age-group sides, and even in the Tamil Nadu Premier League recently. Kedar represented Tamil Nadu in one List A match. He then did his Level 2 coaching studies in Australia, and coached and played there for four summers.
Kedar knows Ashwin better than most, but he still had the question everybody might ask. Here was an offspinner at the peak of his powers, No. 1 bowler in Tests, breaking records seemingly every Test. Why did he want to learn a new kind of bowling? And the whole bag, not just one variation.
"He said he wanted to be the complete package," Kedar says. "He always wants to be ahead of the game, and he wants to be a complete bowler, who has all options. Just having everything up your sleeve. He never stops. He is always constantly working on something or the other."
Ashwin is a thinking bowler. Even before he was left out of India's limited-overs sides to accommodate wristspinners, Ashwin would have known wristspin was the way to go in limited-overs cricket. The pitches were incredibly flat, the bats were heavy and shots knew no bounds, his offspin turned the ball into the swinging arcs of a majority of batsmen - right-hand ones - and fingerspinners were being beaten into extinction in limited-overs cricket.
"I don't think limited-overs cricket is the reason," Kedar counters. "He just wants to raise the bar. From whatever I have interacted with him, he just wants to get better and better and better. He doesn't want to be stagnated."
"Since he had that control over his spin and his ability and his body, he didn't get confused. He had the confidence that he can get back to offspin whenever required. And he could do that."
VRS Guru Kedarnath on R Ashwin's efforts at learning legspin
Whatever might be the reason, what Ashwin had chosen to do involved a big risk. Bowling at the highest level is a fine art; even a small bit of tinkering can sometimes prove hazardous. What if he lost his offspin in the process? What if, as the Hindi saying goes, Trivedi - a master of three Vedas - tries to become Chaturvedi - four Vedas - and instead comes back as Dwivedi, having forgotten one and being reduced to two? This is possibly how his previous conservative coaching set-ups might have thought, but now Ashwin had earned the space through sheer weight of performance.
"He knows his game so much, he knows his body so much, he understands it so much, if you wake him up suddenly in the middle of the night, he can bowl that offspin just like that," Kedar says. "Since he had that control over his spin and his ability and his body, he didn't get confused. If he had got confused, it wouldn't have worked. Personality and mindset helps in that. He had the confidence that he can get back to offspin whenever required. And he could do that. These are not just words, he showed it to me he could do it."
Kedar says if ambidextrous bowlers can bowl equally well with different arms, this wasn't a stretch too far. The fine-tuning continued when Ashwin was with the Tamil Nadu Ranji side this year, and a team-mate makes a comparison closer home. "This is not that outlandish," the team-mate says. "Sachin Tendulkar bowled both legspin and offspin. Sometimes in the same spell he used to bowl offspin to left-hand batsmen and legspin to right-hand batsmen. And bowl well. If Sachin could, why not a specialist bowler? Of course he was a part-timer so that means Ashwin would have to work that much harder."
That is what brings us to what a difficult task Ashwin had undertaken. He was basically trying to fit two completely different bowlers with different mechanics in one body without letting one affect the other adversely. Kedar says Ashwin's mindset proved to be a big help. "One thing about Ashwin is he likes to try a lot of different things," Kedar says. "He is an amazing student of the game. He is able to grasp and take in so much information, and process it quickly and see which works for himself. He would like to try different things, see which one works, and stick with that. He doesn't rule out anything."
Kedar says by the time Ashwin came to him, he had figured out a lot by himself. Now was the time to fine-tune. To get the grip right for each delivery for example. With his long fingers, they needed to get the split between the index finger and middle finger wider than usual. They spent a session each to get the grip and the feel right for each delivery. Another session each went to just keep bowling it and see how it was working out. Kedar says he can now bowl the legbreak, wrong'un, topsinner and the slider out of the front of the hand.
Once he was confident of that, Kedar began to put him in game situations. He was asked to bowl 10-over spells to batsmen he was likely to encounter in the Champions Trophy. Ashwin would set imaginary fields and bowl. Kedar was amazed at how well he could mix offspin and legspin. This is when he was reassured that learning legspin had had no adverse effect on his offspin.
There was a reason that didn't happen. Apart from working on legspin with Kedar, Ashwin would spend an equal time bowling offspin by himself. It was double the work, but it was clearly worth it for Ashwin. He might have bowled the occasional legbreak in matches, but all his work on legspin went on behind the scenes and away from everyone's eyes. The team net sessions were reserved mainly for offspin. During Ranji matches, after the main nets were over and once his side was batting, Ashwin would go and start working on legspin. This is where a team-mate helped him work further on the action and make sure he was releasing from the highest point, just like his offspin, in order to impart the maximum revolutions and better disguise the wrong'un.
On Thursday, December 21 2017, though, Ashwin the legspinner was given a soft launch. During a club game in Chennai, with understandably not too much attention on him, Ashwin bowled six overs of legspin after three overs of offspin, taking two wickets. Kedar didn't watch the match but he had seen the legspinner in the nets. As a coach, he said he would rate Ashwin the legspinner eight on the scale of one to ten.
"This assessment is based on the work in the nets, mind you," Kedar says. "We have to see how it goes in game and then reassess. It is completely different out there but he has got all the variations. He has everything up his sleeve."
Control? "Yes he has the control but you also have to keep in mind that for a legspinner there is also going to be a slightly bigger margin for error."
Might Ashwin be close to becoming an extremely rare bowler of the Sobers variety? Kedar won't jump the gun. "Too early to say that. Offspin is natural to him. He has been bowling it for so many years. That is his stock ball. He has been doing that for so many years. It is too early to say that about legspin because game day is completely different. He is still learning that skill. Say, offspin, where he started and where he is now. He has learnt a lot and evolved a lot. So legspin can take that much game time as well or if it clicks, it can click suddenly as well."
Consider this scenario then. India are going to South Africa without any left-arm quicks who might give Ashwin rough to work with. South Africa won't give him dry pitches or left-hand batsmen - only two - to exploit. We could possibly have ourselves a situation deep into a Test where India are desperate for a wicket and there is a rough outside a right-hand batsman's leg stump. Might we see Ashwin the legspinner then? It is a tempting thought, but that is all it is right now, even for Kedar.
Whether Ashwin does use legspin in South Africa or not, or whether he ever uses it in an international match or not, or whether he is effective with it or not, his performances bowling offspin in Test matches even as he has worked on his legspin for the last two years have done enough to earn him immunity from judgements.