Ravichandran Ashwin, the lanky Tamil Nadu bowler, possesses the kind of contradictory qualities that mark athletes for future greatness—brash confidence and a perfectly level head. It is not surprising to him that he picked up nine wickets on his Test debut at the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium in New Delhi, in the first Test against West Indies that concluded on Wednesday with a five-wicket win for India. It was the second highest wicket-haul by an Indian debutant after Narendra Hirwani’s 16 against the West Indies in 1988, but Ashwin was unmoved and underwhelmed by this achievement, and in some ways, even expecting it.
“I was hoping to get a five-wicket haul and probably some more runs as well,” Ashwin casually said at the post-match press conference. “Unfortunately, the second part did not happen.”
Forget the nervousness of the debutant, or the inexperience of the tyro. Ashwin knows he belongs. On the unresponsive Kotla wicket, captain M.S. Dhoni did not think twice before he gave Ashwin the new ball. His 6/47 in the second innings paved the way for India’s victory.
Dream debut: Bowler Ravichandran Ashwin(2nd R), is congratulated by Sachin Tendulkar(2nd L), after he claimed 6 wickets against West Indies on the third day of the first of their three cricket test match series in New Delhi on 8 November 2011.(AP)
“Honestly speaking, I have never got wickets on such a pitch. It is not my bread and butter as I need spin and bounce. There was nothing for the batsmen or the bowlers,” Ashwin said. “Today I tried to bowl a wee bit quicker and on to the stumps and it paid off.”
That Dhoni picked Ashwin to use the new ball is not surprising either. Dhoni has consistently relied on Ashwin to deliver in crunch situations, or in times that called for improvisation as captain of the Indian Premier League (IPL) team Chennai Super Kings, for whom Ashwin took 13 wickets to spearhead their victorious 2010 campaign.
The Chennai engineer says the IPL experience is what really turned things around for him as a cricketer. “This IPL has done a lot for me as a cricketer, and made me more mature,” he said.“I got the chance to work with Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan, to see how excited he was preparing for every game. He was like a child at practice. He never thought twice about his success, but was always harsh about his failures. I absorbed all these mental aspects.”
Ashwin has the variety—he can impart heavy amounts of spin in the traditional off break, bowl a straighter one, a carrom ball and a doosra—but it’s his cerebral approach to the game that makes him truly dangerous.
“On the field, I am constantly analyzing the batsmen,” he said, “and I’m always looking for their weaknesses and trying to exploit that.”
In the Kotla match, for example, he noticed that the West Indian batsman Marlon Samuels was trying to play with the turn to avoid getting an edge to short-leg.
“But if you have played in Delhi and the Kotla, you do know that it won’t go to short-leg (because of the low bounce),” Ashwin said. “Unfortunately, he did not know that and he was looking for the spin and it went straight on.”
Sunil Subramaniam, former Tamil Nadu Ranji player and Ashwin’s former coach, says Ashwin would have excelled even if he had chosen chess over cricket.
“Spin is all about using your mind,” Subramanium says, “and Ashwin has that in abundance.”
Ashwin is the right person at the right time—just when Harbhajan Singh’s career looks like it’s in a tailspin, Ashwin looks like he can effortlessly fill the rather exalted role of India’s lead spinner.