Ashwin the white-ball genius is underrated
More than anything, it is this delivery that would’ve pleased R Ashwin a lot during the second T20I against New Zealand. It was a normal off break with no tricks or mystery. No stand-up and take note variation. Just a normal off break into the left-hander from around the wicket. If he wanted to, he could’ve attempted a big hit. But the response from Jimmy Neesham was telling.
On a day where spinners operated with a bar of soap in Ranchi, Ashwin had gone as deep as 3.5 overs into his spell giving away just 18, with a wicket. Here he was bowling the last ball of his day’s work and the 16th over of the New Zealand innings.
Given the conditions, even Ashwin was seemingly looking to just get through the over as safely as he could. He bowled a skidder down leg to Neesham, hoping to give the batter a single and be done with it, and conceded a wide. But Neesham was even more circumspect about the situation. He defended as cautiously as he could on the front foot the next ball and made sure Ashwin was played out without further damage.
Beyond the fact that the left-hander had just walked in, and the idea obviously would’ve been to target India’s seamers in the next four overs, that defensive push was a sign of resignation on his part against R Ashwin’s class and mastery.
Neesham had seen the rest of the New Zealand line-up try everything they could to disturb Ashwin but fail. They went from ultra-aggressive to overcautious from one batter to the other and yet couldn’t stop the great bowler from making an impact. It was the same in Jaipur, when he took 2/23 and restricted them to 164 despite India’s struggling pace attack. And, again in Ranchi, where he basically made it a 16-over contest for New Zealand in the toughest of conditions for a spinner to operate in.
These last two outings have only reinforced that we’re seeing an ace bowler at the highest peak of his prowess, carrying a range so wide that allows him to adapt and adjust to any surface, conditions, and opposition batting. You can’t say that about too many other spin bowlers around the world.
In T20s specifically, besides the skill factor, it is the know-how of when to bowl what to a certain batter that gives Ashwin so much of an edge. He is accused of overcomplimenting things. But if there is a bowler who gets the pulse of a T20 game better than most it is Ashwin.
Range and Intelligence make R Ashwin the T20 bowler he is
“For a lot of people who are giving expert opinions on the game, I sometimes feel sorry for them. I have been playing this format (T20s) since 2007-8, and every two years, the game leaves our realms and it teaches us something because the game is so fast-paced,” he said during the recent T20 World Cup.
“I feel the understanding of the game is still backward in so many ways. For me when you say a bowler has to pick wickets, for fast bowlers there are different plans and for spinners, there are different plans.”
“There are different lengths that you cannot afford to bowl as you do in a Test match. Wicket-taking is not something that just happens. Experts say that the game is about partnerships. Every time a bowler is picking wickets, there is an over that was bowled well before.”
“I think I expect too much from the people who watch the game. This is how I play the game and in the process if I keep taking wickets, I do that. 24 events are there when I bowl and I take them very seriously.”
The comment on length is important here, for when Ashwin addressed those with “expert opinions”, he was referring to many commentators and broadcasters who still advocate a spinner to toss the ball up, invite a batter to drive and bring the bowleds and the LBWs into play.
Not realising that, unlike a Test match, the track and the overall conditions offer a spinner next to nothing in an average T20 and that the batters are aiming to maximise each ball they face. If you float a ball up, even in the middle-overs, the batter would line you up over the deep mid-wicket boundary, not play a gentle drive through covers. That is just the nature of the format and the batters’ general approach to it.
Everything about the T20 playing conditions make it necessary for a bowler to prioritise defensive skills. Bowlers who make the biggest impact in a T20 are able deliver the most economical spells. How do they do it? By stitching together the best set of 24 defensive balls from their end. Now, that varies from batter to batter and situation to situation. But ultimately, bowlers who operate at high-risk lengths and “look for wickets”, as commentators want them to, prove costly and harmful to their team’s chances.
There is nothing that encourages Test match lines, lengths, and trajectories in T20s. You bowl the most restrictive spell that you can, and in doing so, force the opposition to take greater risks for scoring, many times it happens at the other end, which then opens up wicket-taking opportunities. In short, the safest route to a wicket in T20 cricket is the string of non-boundary balls that a bowler delivers.
R Ashwin recognised this quite early, and stuck to it. Being clear-headed, and a bowler with a variety of tricks up his sleeves, Ashwin had an excellent T20I record to his name when India dropped him in white-ball cricket. From his debut in 2010 to July 2017, Ashwin’s 52 wickets from 46 T20Is had come while maintaining an excellent economy rate of 6.97. At a minimum of 50 overs, only one Indian spinner (Yuvraj Singh 6.41 from 50.4 overs) was more economical in this time frame. But Ashwin did it across a whopping 171 overs. 1026 deliveries.
In the IPL, where he is undoubtedly one of the greats, Ashwin boasts of an economy rate of 6.91 over 167 matches with 145 wickets. Since 2018 IPL, which was his first in the league since India dropped him, his economy rate is only marginally more expensive: 7.60 across 56 innings with 45 wickets.
Playing only Tests for India in the last four years, and approaching the deeper side of thirties, Ashwin could’ve easily lost the hunger and the desire to push himself back in the reckoning. But the man with a champion mentality never gave up. At a time when there was a chance he could’ve regressed in terms of range as a T20 bowler, he has upskilled himself and reinvented the wheel.
Take the reverse carrom ball that he has been bowling for the last couple of years, for example. It is purely out of the Ashwin school of bowling. The ball does two things, it slides and skids into the batter, cramping the right-handers for room with a flatter trajectory, and because there are backward rotations involved, he finds many of them a touch too early into their stroke. It’s a ball that, despite the skidding part, is often slower and flatter than the batter anticipates.
The reverse carrom also revitalizes the normal carrom ball for him, especially against batters who aren’t picking Ashwin from the hand. The difference is the direction of the palm and the seam, and how he releases the ball. Glenn Phillips in Jaipur got out to the normal, Ajantha Mendis style carrom ball that forced him to play for the incoming ball with the bat face closed-in towards mid-wicket, only for the ball to actually turn away sharply and hit his front-pad for an LBW.
It, again, boils down to the know-how of when to bowl what and to whom. A sense of clear-headedness and flexibility, apart from the execution of the plan against batters who are on the lookout for scoring opportunities. It was evident in the T20 World Cup recently, a competition which he wouldn’t have played if not for Washington Sundar’s injury and the axing of Yuzvendra Chahal despite being India’s top bowler in the tournament’s history.
Playing Afghanistan, Scotland, and Namibia, it becomes so easy to downplay a bowler’s work for casual viewers and naysayers. But he bowled on each of those occasions with the pressure of knowing India had to win with as big an NRR boost as they can. In the backdrop of losses to Pakistan and New Zealand, India’s chances hung by a thin rope and each run that they conceded to those three oppositions, diminished their hopes by that much.
With that known, Ashwin bowled spells of 2/14, 1/29 (which could easily have been 3/20 if not for the luck that George Munsey enjoyed with his reverse sweeps and Rishabh Pant’s usual mistake off Ashwin’s bowling) and 3/20. In the same matches, Mohammad Shami, Shardul Thakur, and Hardik Pandya, only dented India’s slender chance with their waywardness and high-risk lengths.
Ashwin fights battle of perceptions with a champion streak
Ashwin also fights perceptions. There is an air of greatness about his T20I bowling but people believe he should be sidelined the moment Sundar is back and that a Chahal is more of an ideal fit for the big grounds in Australia next year. Sundar is promising but he is nowhere near the robust spin option that Ashwin still is. Besides, the presence of an experienced head and stalwart would only help the young gun take the next step with his bowling.
Chahal, such a clever bowler at his best, has a poor T20I record to his name: he has gone for 8.32 runs per over across 49 innings. Since 2019, he has been smashed for 8.94 per over with an average of 40.47. And the last time Ashwin played a set of T20Is in Australia, he was instrumental to India’s 3-0 series victory in 2016. In his five T20Is in Australia, all against Australia, he has gone for 7.40 per over. No Indian bowler could claim to be as economical in those games.
Because of the history of Australia as an anti-fingerspin country, it is mistaken that you necessarily need a wrist spinner to succeed there at the next T20 World Cup. When actually at the base of T20 as a format is one understood fact that it requires spinners to bowl the best defensive ball that he can. It doesn’t matter who is bowling it. It’s why Axar Patel is such a safe bet, safer than even Chahal, if looked at honestly.
Also, if taking wickets and bowling cheap overs in T20Is is easy as the wider public has bought the narrative around, why isn’t Chahal doing it or Shami, for that matter? It becomes a clear case of perceptions. Ashwin has been fighting such perceptions for a decade now.
Take his ODI record, for example. The lasting memory for fans and experts about Ashwin the ODI bowler would be that forgetful Champions Trophy final in 2017, a day when Fakhar Zaman played the innings of his life and smashed him and Ravindra Jadeja. This game has painted a wrong picture of the two spinners. That Ashwin and Jadeja had been letting India down through the middle-overs is the usual buy-in theory among fans now. But that is incorrect. Here is an attempt to throw a sense of perspective into the mix.
Less than a year and a half into his ODI career, in October 2011, ICC announced the introduction of two new balls at each end in 50-overs cricket. The idea, it was initially felt, is to reinvigorate the swing bowlers. But instead, the two new Kookaboora balls with a thin seam, plus flat wickets and stringent field restrictions rules, took the swing away from the game. The ball stopped reverse swinging for pacers and is never old enough for finger-spinners to enjoy the grip and turn that they once did.
Post the 2015 World Cup, when the voices against the rule that allowed only four fielders outside the 30-yard from overs 41st to 50th grew loud, the ICC gave teams an extra fielder for death-overs purpose. But that happened at the expense of spinners. An extensive powerplay between overs 11 to 40 was then introduced, where finger spinners, already fighting for survival with two new balls and flat pitches, now had to also come face to face with batters who were forced to attack them a lot more. It was easier to line-up finger spinners for them, as opposed to the wrist spinners, who turned the ball both ways.
With that backdrop in mind, Ashwin and Jadeja were always swinging against the tide. Yet, in Ashwin’s case, you look at 150 wickets from 111 matches at 32.91 and RPO of 4.91 and that doesn’t look so bad, does it? This includes 8 wickets at 22.62 per piece, with 4.41 an over in the 2013 Champions Trophy win and 13 wickets at 25.38 per piece, with 4.28 an over in the 2015 ODI World Cup semi-final run. From his overall career tally, among those with at least 50 ODIs with him, only one bowler was more miserly than Ashwin. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who went for 4.77 per over.
Back in the day, before we entered the Jasprit Bumrah era, India’s ODI team usually possessed two weak-link pace options. Gaining control and maintaining pressure was difficult. Someone like Shami took wickets but was expensive. In ODIs played with Ashwin, he had an average of 25.07 but went at 5.73 runs per over. In a set-up like this, India weren’t at all as well-placed as some of the other countries were in enabling a wrist spinner’s slot in their attack. Focusing on putting the breaks on opposition above wicket-taking was not the route that captain MS Dhoni walked out of preference. He had no choice.
This is why Ashwin and Jadeja were his saviours. Given the rules and conditions, Ashwin did remarkable well to pile on the record that he did. He and Jadeja gave Dhoni the control he and India needed. An excellent average was out of the equation, partly due to the rules, the surfaces, and the conditions, and partly the lack-of robust pace attack around him, what mattered is the economy rate. Ashwin took his 105 ODI wickets under Dhoni’s captaincy while giving away only 4.83 an over. Against traditional top 8 sides, it was 4.90 with 90 wickets and 5.19 away from home (Shami went at 6.23 an over in these games).
It is only in Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand that Ashwin somewhat struggled to play his part well. His economy rate against these three oppositions in their den on super flat decks stood at 5.60 with only 9 wickets from 16 games. But in England, when Ashwin found at least some moisture on the surface to work with, he helped India win 3-1 in the 2014 ODI series, taking his 7 wickets from 4 games at an economy rate of just 4.44 – this, a year after having played an instrumental role in winning the Champions Trophy.
The 2013 India-Australia home series is the most telling example of it all. The series is renowned for its big scores and frequent boundaries that both teams hit. A tight spell here and there made a huge difference in the end outcome. The seven-match series saw India maintain a batting average of 55.26 while scoring at 6.71 an over, while Australia went at 6.57 an over despite averaging 45.06. “A six was not an event, anymore” – as Harsha Bhogle summed it up. Only three bowlers from either side went at less than 6 an over. Those three? Mitchell Johnson: 7 wickets, ER 5.68. R Ashwin: 9 wickets, ER 5.98. Ravindra Jadeja: 8 wickets, ER 5.58. Ashwin and Jadeja made sure Australia were never out of Indian batting’s reach.
The day India found Bumrah – and could club him with Bhuvneshwar – and also found a better No.7 in Hardik Pandya, they moved past Ashwin and Jadeja and laid the foundation for Chahal and Kuldeep to maximise their honeymoon period. India won in conditions it couldn’t before when it was a side with great limitations with its lack of batting depth and pace quality, and when its finger spinners operated with their wings cut by the rules and the conditions. Ashwin became a thing of the past to the ODI side.
But it’s important that we realise now that he – and Jadeja – were not holding the Indian ODI side back. They were instead India’s strongest pillars who kept the team afloat when it could’ve easily collapsed. What R Ashwin managed to achieve as an ODI bowler despite all that was, and is, staked against bowlers of his kind, is incredible. That the Kulcha may have made India a more potent force overseas, relishing the presence of all the elements that they needed to succeed. But Ashwin and Jadeja kept India afloat when it could’ve drowned. Letdowns? No, they are saviours, heroes, and champions who should be hailed and celebrated.