What a difference a year can make. In December, 2014, India was on the cusp of a gruelling tour of Australia, and offspinner Ravichandran Ashwin was not a happy camper. Wickets, especially in tests, had been hard to come by, he had been labelled a spin-track bully, murmurs over why he was being persisted with despite repeated failures overseas were doing the rounds and, even though he had become the fastest Indian bowler to 100 Test wickets, he had to suffer the ignominy of being in and out of the side on the preceding tours to South Africa, New Zealand and England. The unkindest cut came when rookie leg spinner Karn Sharma was picked over him for the first Test against Australia in Adelaide.
One year later and it’s back Down Under. India are all set to begin a ODI tour of Australia, but this time there is no cloud of uncertainty hanging over Ashwin’s head. He had a staggeringly successful 2015, with wickets by the bucketload and the awards to match; he’s also the No. 1 bowler and all-rounder in the ICC test cricket rankings, his undisputed place as the leader of the India’s bowling attack now firmly set in stone. To say that Ashwin has been on a roll in the last one year would be an understatement. First, the cold, hard facts, because statistics don’t lie. In 2015, Ashwin picked up 62 Test wickets at an average of 17.20, with seven five-wicket hauls and two 10-wicket hauls. Compare this with his record over 2013 and 2014 — 51 wickets at 26.68, four five-wicket hauls and no 10-wicket hauls. To put his performance into perspective, the legendary Shane Warne never managed more than six five-fors in one calendar year. Ashwin also enjoyed his second-best career bowling average in ODIs, apart from bagging two Man of the Series and one Man of the Match award during this period.
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While most of Ashwin’s recent successes have been achieved on the subcontinent, it was overseas, in Australia and New Zealand during the 2015 World Cup, that the seeds of his resurrection were sown. Even though the likes of Mohammad Shami (17) and Umesh Yadav (18) had more wickets than Ashwin (13), he ended up with a better economy rate than the pacemen, no mean achievement on pitches that were tilted in favour of the fast bowlers. The Ireland captain William Porterfield lauded Ashwin for his pace variations in their World Cup encounter, and perhaps the best testimony to the growing confidence over his craft was in India’s high-profile opening game against Pakistan, where he bowled three maiden overs — a remarkable feat in a ODI.
So what is it that has brought about this transformation in Ashwin? One of the criticisms often levelled against him during his lean patch was his tendency to focus too much on the carrom ball, and to try and add one too many a string to his bowling repertoire, thereby diluting his consistency. Consequently, the main reasons for his recent success have been two-fold: trusting the offspinning delivery more, and making a concerted attempt to bowl slower through the air, especially in Test cricket.
“I am confident and I am a little more rounded in terms of the knowledge I have than what I had before,” Ashwin told cricket website Wisden India, on his improved ability to focus on the offspinner as his stock ball. “The amount of knowledge and the amount of confidence and the grip that I have over my skill now is something that is definitely a marked difference from what I had some years ago. The major reason I have to attribute that to is Bharat Arun (the Indian team’s bowling coach), because the amount of questions I had, he had all the answers for it. When you have answers and when you have someone who is empowering you to do all these things, it makes my job a lot easier.”
According to Arun, being dropped for the Adelaide Test was the biggest turning point in Ashwin’s career. “Sitting out of the first match of such a big series made him more determined to get back to the basics, and he put in tons of work,” Arun told the Indian Express newspaper. “The results are there to see. He bowled well in the Tests, but the real Ashwin we see today started from the first practice match of the World Cup. He has a lot of variety, of course. But he now believes that he wants to be the best bowler in the world by bowling the best offspinner. That has really helped him evolve. He realised that if you want to be the best offspin bowler in the world, you have to be absolutely consistent with your offbreak. You should be able to trouble the best of batsmen consistently with your offspin. He said ‘Yes, I can do that’.”
Ashwin has definitely managed to make the lives of the best opposition batsmen difficult. Whether it has been the likes of AB deVilliers or Kumar Sangakkara, few have had answers to the questions posed by him. In the recently concluded Test series against South Africa, Ashwin was the leading wicket-taker with 31 scalps, consistently accounting for the top-order batsmen. None of their batsmen looked comfortable when Ashwin was on, regularly failing to read him, including deVilliers, who is easily the most complete all-round batsman in the world right now. Ashwin was also the tormenter-in-chief during the Test series in Sri Lanka, with 21 wickets. The first two Tests of the series were the last of legendary batsman Sangakkara’s career, and Ashwin completely rained on his parade by accounting for him in both the Tests. “I just couldn’t see the ball that Ashwin bowled me four times in a row,” Sangakkara said, after his last game. “Every other ball, I saw pretty well.”
It is perhaps the realisation of the virtues of old-fashioned patience that has helped Ashwin to bide his time and set the batsman up for a wicket, rather than rushing to try different things when he doesn’t get his man right away. He has moved on from the urge to indulge in a game of oneupmanship with the batsman to focussing more on setting up his dismissal. “It’s very important to control over-spin, side-spin and your under-cutters,” Ashwin explained to Wisden India. “If you can stock these up and actually build a spell of 3-4 overs, where you bring control, not just in terms of runs but also in terms of the way the batsman is batting, then you can start building on getting wickets. Only when you restore control in pockets of the game are you able to bowl that good ball that gets a batsman out. That is the change from the past to now.” His dismissal of JP Duminy, in the second Test against South Africa in Bangalore in October last year, perfectly illustrates this facet of his bowling. He pegged away at Duminy, making him play on the front foot. He then slightly brought his length back, and Duminy stretched forward by instinct but wasn’t entirely to the pitch of the ball, which turned and caught the edge — that was the end of Duminy.
It is no surprise that Ashwin has become the go-to man for his captains, be it MS Dhoni or Virat Kohli. “Ashwin is someone I have always loved to have in my side,” said Dhoni during the World Cup. And why not? Having firmly established himself as the leader of India’s bowling attack, a role he seems to revel in, his captains will not shy of throwing the ball to him in the coming year. The opposition batsmen, on the other hand, will be dreading the sight. What a difference a year can make.