Even though it has triggered mutterings, R Ashwin’s presence in the World T20 squad is one selection where Rohit Sharma and co. have shown a rare consistency. At the start of his tenure, Rohit talked about how he values Ashwin and though he didn’t get to play many games, he is now in.
The mutterings are more interesting and understandable. Best captured by Gautam Gambhir on air during the Asia Cup game against Sri Lanka. Which Ashwin will we see, he pondered, the attacking one or the defending. There is no point if he defends, was Gambhir’s refrain.
And though Gambhir didn’t spell it out, it translates to the big question asked about Ashwin: Why doesn’t the off spinner Ashwin bowl the offspin more in T20s?
Here is a plausible scenario in the World T20. When a batsman is piling on the pressure with big hits, and no other bowler is able to take his wicket – the only thing that might win India the game, can Ashwin be relied to take his wicket or should the captain Rohit Sharma be turning to Yuzvendra Chahal or Jasprit Bumrah?
It’s a tricky question as it assumes Ashwin’s method won’t yield a wicket in such a scenario. Or that by bowling a slew of off breaks, he can prise out a wicket. When Kuldeep Yadav fired a ball quick, Rohit yelled out from the slips: Agar aisey daalna hai toh, I won’t bowl you (if you want to bowl like this …).” It’s unlikely he will say that to Ashwin when he keeps bowling the carrom ball. But will he, like Sangakkara, think that?
Why doesn’t the off spinner Ashwin bowl the offspin more in T20s? Against Sri Lanka, he bowled more off breaks, but the recent past has thrown up that question. It’s a puzzle that didn’t present itself as a probability a decade back and yet its winking at us now: as a statement about modern-day cricket, as a reflection of the most quirkiest headspace in a cricketer today, and as a question, whose existence severely tests our understanding of the game as a watcher. It’s something Ashwin obviously doesn’t ask of himself anymore.
All through IPL, he kept rolling out the carrom balls. Flick, flick, flick. The lengths and lines varied, some spun, some skidded on, some came in, some went out, but largely they were the carrom balls and other variations. At the dugout, the head coach Kumar Sangakkara kept watching game after game. Suddenly, at the end of the very last game when the team bowed out of the competition, Sangakkara would offer this: “Even for him [Ashwin] there will be lots of thinking and improvements to do especially with his off-spin and bowl more of it”. He means rethink.
For, clearly, Ashwin has thoughtfully arrived at this decision: I shall bowl more skidding carrom balls than off spin the ball I use in Tests. The off spin that he has sought to perfect from his teenage years will be the variation here. It’s not a withholding or concealing to make the batsmen think and sweat on the wait. It’s out there in plain sight, now.
The bewilderment at what he is doing comes because we know what he has done with that off break. Even in T20s, in IPL, he has harassed the likes of Rohit Sharma with his off breaks. These days, he seems to be choosing batsmen to unleash his offspin. Left-handers get it more. Perhaps, if he faces Rohit, he might still bowl that weapon or a similar batsman he thinks could be vulnerable against that conventional turn; else it’s just an odd ball that he uses.
He has often talked about his T20 approach on his YouTube channel. How he likes to create pressure through tight lines. The variations aren’t used to lure a batsman into a big shot but to defeat an intended big shot. Or ‘defensive’ in other words. For the majority, he will flick, side-arm, squeeze out between the forefinger and the thumb, or skim his fingers on the belly of the ball to undercut, create angles by jumping to the sides of the crease. And use his reverse carrom ball that he has now tamed.
We shall come to that reverse version and how that allows Ashwin to be more complete than before, but the question still burns: what makes a bowler who has made his name with his off breaks so mercilessly abandon it in a particular format? Especially, when he has thoughtfully layered that weapon with so many little tweaks over the years.
It’s not a simple turn in from outside off to a right-hander, that Ashwin does. Ashwin, the tinkerman, has tweaked his release positions, the way he loads up – at times from front of his face to stay upright at release when he wants more over-spin. Or get it upto his right shoulder when he wants more side spin. In the way he arches his upper body after loading at times when he seeks more dip and turn. In the way, he presses on the front foot, weight leaning forward, when he wants the ball to go slower without changing his arm speeds.
The extent which his front leg lifts or extends also changes depending how much he wants to pivot. He has corrected the flaw in his early years of over-relying on fingers, and has got his body more into the action. Circa 2012 and 2013, the late Australian off spinner Ashley Mallett and Ashwin’s then coach Sunil Subramaniam had talked about how “there was no body in the action”, and an over-reliance on “clever fingers” (as Mallett termed it). From about 2015 or thereabouts, Ashwin has been a bowler on the ascent. So, why does he then have not as much trust on a ball that he has so assiduously worked on to perfect?
It doesn’t fit in with his philosophy of strangling the runs. In T20, without the luxury of a spell to work on, and drawn in to bowl an over here or there, Ashwin’s way is to squeeze in the pressure through restricting. From the outside, we seem to expect him to bowl as if he is in the 5th over of a long Test spell – loop it, tantalise them, have them jab forward unconvincingly. He is more self-aware than that, even if it suggests he is under-estimating his own art. Some would say, too self aware.
Once, the late Martin Crowe had condescendingly dismissed the off spinners, while talking about his methods against spin. “I never really rated the offspinners. They just came into the hitting zone, which was leg side for me.” Perhaps, the harsh comment reveals something about the off spinners he came across during his career but in theory, as a general perception about spin, Crowe’s professional assessment comes close to the gully-cricket theory about offspin, doesn’t it?
The way Ashwin is currently bowling in the T20s, it seems he buys into that theory, not as a reflection about his skills, but its inherent effectiveness in the frenetic T20 format.
The reverse carrom helps compensate for the decrease in off breaks
Here is the thing. The disappointment of a Sangakkara or in us about him not using more off spin stems from the way we perceive him. What if the man with the most experimental headspace in world cricket (forget his bowling, just check the numerous bat-swings and slight tweaks in his batting stance, depending on the condition, the pitch, the bowler, the bounce, the swing – here is a professional to be relished for his sheer thought even if it doesn’t work out at times) doesn’t want to be labelled as an offspin bowler at all in T20?
In one of those promotional introductory pieces to the camera that the broadcasters have the players do, and use it when they come to bat or bowl, Ashwin should say “I am Ashwin and I bowl spin”. No need to label it all. Now, we come to that reverse carrom that has probably allowed him to turn away the off break. Without it, perhaps, he might have been forced to rely more on off breaks.
It drifts in sharply to the right-hander and veers away from the left-hander.
Ashwin started to use it because he felt the batsmen were picking his finger-flicking carrom balls. “Usually seeing the way it comes out of my hand the (right-handed) batsman started to set up to play it to the off side. But now I have tried to get the ball to drift into the batsmen,” he had once told Sky Sports, and dated its origin to 2019. Ashwin has brought in his own little tweaks into the delivery that Sri Lanka’s Suchitra Senanayake used to deploy to great effect. Senanayake’s delivery was the benchmark for this. With his crooked action, which eventually got him banned from bowling, the swerve in the air was more pronounced.
Contrary to the regular away-going carrom ball, this is flicked underneath, imparting backspin. The same mechanics that swing bowlers use. “It goes underneath. It’s more of a backflipper that gives me drift away from the left-hander and into the right-hander,” he explained. “I also go under the seam for it to straighten at times.” Ashwin has said that it took him a year to tame it. Depending on the seam position, he obtains a different degree of inward movement. At times, it’s towards legslip, and sometimes he scrambles the seam more when he wants the ball to skid on quicker. And as he says, he deliberately tries to straighten it at times.
Pakistan’s left-arm spinner Imaad Wasim has a deadly in-swinger to the right-hand batsmen but that’s delivered with the fore-finger on the seam, and the back-spin kicking in. Wasim often uses it in the Powerplay overs. Wasim’s swing kicks in appreciatively with that wide left-armer’s angle and since it’s propelled with decent pace too, not many batsmen have attacked it. Ashwin tries that ball too but it seems inherently a better ball when it comes from the left-armer. Daniel Vettori used that to great effect. Ashwin compensates it with his reverse carrom ball, which is probably one of the reasons for his comeback into the Indian team. So in his mind, it’s not “defensive” by any stretch. He is still doing lots of little tweaks – from grip, loading, flicking, to the angles , that possibly satisfies his creative soul and achieving his end result of strangling runs and defeating the big swings.
Can Rohit turn to Ashwin to claim a wicket?
In his polemical Authority and Freedom, the art critic Jed Perl has this nugget:
“At the heart of every encounter with a work of art—whether sacred or secular, public or private, mass-market or avant-garde—there’s the enigma of the work itself, which, even when designed to serve some apparently cut-and-dried purpose, only really succeeds when the artist or artists involved are driven by an imaginative imperative.”
Ashwin scores on that scale, all right. For the cut-and-dried purpose of saving-runs-and-ratcheting-up-the-pressure role, he seems to see himself in, Ashwin’s driven by an imaginative imperative.
When nothing else but a wicket is needed, can Rohit turn to Ashwin? That question presupposes that Ashwin is underselling himself by the carrom ball-flicking avatar though it’s what got him back into the team. What we are essentially saying is should Ashwin liberate himself from that constriction and demand more of himself. He would perhaps say it’s a wrong question for he has tried all that in the past and found himself out of the white-ball game. The current carefully thought-out philosophy is what has given him a go at another white-ball world cup. That may be so, but until he goes through the T20 world cup and remains successful with this approach, the world of Sangas will still wonder. Until then, they will continue to ponder whether R Ashwin has undersold himself.