T20s the mother of Ashwin's reinvention
How the offspinner has maximised his skillset to stay in contention to make India's World Cup squad
Though he was playing his very first match in St Kitts, R Ashwin knew about the wind. He went around the wicket to right-hand batters, not to stifle them, or to entice their outside edge with the angle across them. He did it so that if they had to hit with the turn, they would be going against, well, nature.
These are the kinds of little things that once made Ashwin the Mona Lisa of modern-day fingerspinners. Only there was a blemish in the picture. His batting. And, soon enough, that's all anyone ever saw. The fact that he wasn't a natural six-hitter.
Between June 2017 and the start of last year's T20 World Cup in November 2021, Ashwin played a grand total of one white-ball game for India. That is as emphatic as proof can be that two out of three formats of cricket are only willing to tolerate right-arm offbreak as a secondary skill.
Ashwin needed to find a way to fit in. So a player who has hit Test centuries relying only on touch finally gave in and embraced the cross-bat stuff.
"I've been playing the slog sweep for some time," he told Star Sports Tamil in May. "I've been trusting the sweeps more regularly since the Chennai Test match [in February 2021, when he scored a century against England]. I feel that's an important shot. I'm someone who times the ball well, so if I play the slog sweep I feel I can make the bowler bowl to my lengths. I've worked hard [on my batting]. I read the game well and I know the ebbs and flows of the game; I always back myself on that front. Unfortunately, I'm not so blessed with a lot of power. So, consciously I've worked on my batting and my technique."
T20 moves at vicious pace. It leaves people behind. Especially those with limitations. Ashwin had a big one. But he also had the will and the smarts to do something about it. That's how a player who made his IPL debut in 2009 had his best year as a batter in 2022: facing over 100 balls for the first time, scoring a half-century for the first time, and hitting almost half his career tally (21) of IPL sixes in just one season (nine).
A sizable part of that upswing is down to his hyper awareness of the conditions. A few months ago, Ashwin attempted to exploit the bounce and the small boundaries on offer at the DY Patil Stadium by crouching extra low in his stance all in effort to get under the ball and give it the required elevation. This week, in St Kitts, he knew enough about the place to realise he had an ally - the wind - which could help him be even more of a nuisance to the batter, and really, in T20s, that is all a bowler can hope for.
Ashwin had seen this coming, way back in 2016, and has since then been doing everything he can to stay ahead of the curve. The result of that is now he knows he doesn't have to be the guy who can run through a batting line-up. He can be just as effective by picking off the opposition's best player, because that one wicket can turn the whole game around.
April 18, 2022. Kolkata Knight Riders are bossing a chase of 218. Andre Russell walks in. The equation is 70 off 42. Ashwin has the ball. Only, he is doing something weird. He is bowing from wide of the crease. The ball is slanted into the batter and pitches on a length, pinning him to his crease and forcing him to play. And then it turns the wrong way and crashes into the stumps. Russell out for a duck. Ashwin sets off in celebration. Rajasthan Royals go on to win by seven runs.
"I'd only begun working on that carrom ball yesterday, to get it to turn against the angle like that," Ashwin told the broadcaster at the end of the game. "So being able to execute that in a match, it was a reaffirmation. It's just an example of the battle that I always have with myself to keep getting better."
There are other instances too - dismissing Rajat Patidar in the second qualifier, which played a huge part in Royal Challengers Bangalore making only 27 runs off the last 33 balls of a playoff game - that all add up to a delightful little stat.
Ashwin dismissed more right-hand batters (seven) than left-hand batters (five) in IPL 2022, defying the convention that spin is only effective when it turns away from the bat. In fact, in eight T20Is since his comeback to the Indian team last November, he has bowled 97 balls to right-hand batters and conceded only five boundaries. That's a ratio of one in 19.4, which is a marked improvement on what it was at the time he was dropped (one in 7.6). The man has spent half his career railing against perception in sport. Now all he has to do is point to his numbers.
Ashwin has always been willing to evolve. To do better; to be better. It's the reason he is still in contention to make India's T20 World Cup squad and while a big shiny trophy will certainly add weight to his commitment, it can still be appreciated without one.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo