When England take the field again on Friday for the second Test, there is little doubt that they will be worried most about India’s new spin pair. Lanky and wily off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin and left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha accounted for 13 English batsmen in the recently concluded first Test in Ahmedabad, which England lost by a massive nine wickets.
Not only have the predatory pair tasted blood, India’s captain M.S. Dhoni has asked for pitches with bigger turn and bounce, all the better to befuddle the English, who have a historical weakness when it comes to the turning ball. Ojha and Ashwin can’t wait to spin their web again.
In a conversation right before the start of the series, the spin duo spoke about their developing partnership, their expectations from the series, and what it is like to be successors of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. Edited excerpts:
There’s a lot of buzz about “revenge”. India lost 4-0 in their Test series away to England. Do you see this series as a way to put things right?
Ashwin: It has been a motivation for everybody inside the team. It’s nice to know that people are excited about the series because how you are going to deliver, a lot of the commitment and energy and motivation comes from the people outside.
Ojha: For me, England is the No. 2 Test side in the world, so it’s the kind of exciting series you wait for.
One particular English batsman you fancy your chances against?
Ojha: When you play against a team like England every wicket you take is important and I haven’t thought of one player in particular. For me it’s about taking on every single English batsman. That’s how I am going to go about it.
Kevin Pietersen is back in the side after much controversy. Do you view him as one of the key men?
Ashwin: He is most definitely an impact player and that is why England is quite the formidable side. I think he is a key player for this particular tour. But they have quite an experienced line-up. They have got some quality players and I am sure they have got their plans prepared for this particular tour in advance.
The spinners will obviously play a key role in this series. Do you feel more responsible now that you two will clearly be leading the attack?
Ojha: When you are playing for Team India, there is a lot of responsibility. So yes, it’s always there, but I am really enjoying my responsibilities and I am sure Ash (Ashwin) is also doing the same because you can see he is enjoying his cricket. He’s been the man of the series in both the tournaments that we have played previously. So I feel we are confident enough to do well against England.
How is it like bowling in tandem and playing together?
Ashwin: We’ve gotten to really enjoy each other’s company on the field over the last one year. I know what Pragyan is all about—he is there, he is nagging all the time, not just on the field, off the field as well (laughs, and Ojha pretends to strangle him). He is a very good partner to have from the other side. He knows his job and he is very accurate. He can really trouble the batsman all day long with the same line and length. These are the attributes he has. I think he complements me really well because I can get really funky trying one or two different things here and there. It works out pretty well because it’s a team game and we perform well in tandem.
Pragyan, there’s always a lot of buzz about Ashwin’s unpredictable variety—the flick ball, the carrom ball. Do you like being the conventional one, or are you working on something new?
Ashwin: Sure he tries (laughs). I am sure he does.
Ojha (smiling): I have been trying a few things but right now my focus is on my strength, which is consistency. I believe that if I back myself and get the basics right, I think everything will fall into place.
How do you see your spin counterpart Graeme Swann performing? How do you think he is going to fare against the Indian squad?
Ashwin: He is a wonderful bowler. There is no doubting it and he is one of my inspirations actually. He does a lot of work in the air, he has got some variations in flight, variations in pace. It’ll be lovely to see what he does but having said that, if we (Ojha and him) believe this series to be challenging, I think it is going to be even more challenging for him.
The two of you are the successors of one of the world’s most celebrated spin duos, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. Does that add more pressure on you?
Ashwin: We play a lot of cricket and there is no time to even think about all these things. We just get on with it and keep moving and keep doing what we do best. I started playing cricket when I was 8 so it has already been about 18 years. If I go back home and tell my mom that I was under pressure, she will not buy it.
Playing for India, turning up for so many people, that’s a lot of pleasure rather than pressure. So I’d rather enjoy it.
There are so many Twenty20 matches and One Day Internationals being played now, how difficult or easy is it for someone like you to adjust to the longer-format Tests?
Ashwin: Adaptation is key to this particular game, not just the formats, but in general, adaptation is a key factor that a cricketer needs to develop. The change in format is definitely difficult, I would be lying if I said it’s not or it’s easy. But in a series like this we have got some time off from T20s and we played a first-class game as well. We also got some practice with the Ranji Trophy sides.
Rupha Ramani is a senior sports correspondent with CNN-IBN.