Ravichandran Ashwin, 30, and Nathan Lyon, 29, are two of contemporary cricket’s finest purveyors of off-spin bowling, although they have diametrically different bowling actions. Australia’s Lyon is classically side-on, while the Indian ace is front-on. Both have enjoyed considerable success.
Ashwin holds the record for claiming 250 Test wickets in the least number of matches (45) while Lyon has taken 241 wickets (65 Tests) after making his Test debut two months before Ashwin in 2011.
The duo’s success—in the ongoing India-Australia series, Ashwin has 15 wickets in two Tests while Lyon has 13—raises the question of whether the dynamics of spin bowling has changed with time.
“World cricket has seen bowlers with different sort of actions…side-on, chest-on…so it is difficult to say which is right or wrong, especially in the modern game,” spin great Bishan Singh Bedi says.
“As someone from the old school of cricket, and cricket being a side-on game, I would like to think that doing things side-on on a cricket field is pleasing to one’s senses, appealing to the eye,” the former left-arm spinner says.
“As a spinner, we bowl with our shoulder, and in the old school, the shoulder follows the ball, the body follows the shoulder, and that’s the follow-through. What you do with your wrists and fingers depends on how much shoulder you use,” adds Bedi.
For someone who is not in the classical mould, Ashwin has achieved some astonishing results—five-wicket hauls in an innings on 25 occasions and 10 wickets in a match seven times, all in only 47 Tests.
Lyon, who was a member of the ground staff at the Adelaide Oval in his formative years, has taken five wickets in an innings on eight occasions and 10 wickets in a match once.
However, one must take into account the fact that the challenges for a spinner are vastly different away from the spin-friendly surfaces of the subcontinent.
“A spinner with a side-on action is better placed to bowl well on any wicket as he is in a position to beat the batsman both in the air and off the wicket,” off-spin legend Erapalli Prasanna says.
“You get to impart more turn and bounce when you bring your hip and body into play. Lyon is a good example…he’s got most of his wickets on good wickets. Chest-on action limits the range in spin bowling.”
Ashwin, with 269, is already the third highest wicket-taker among Indian spinners in Tests after leg-spinner Anil Kumble (619) and off-spinner Harbhajan Singh (417).
At the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s (BCCI’s) annual awards in Bengaluru last week, Ashwin, a qualified engineer, spoke of India’s great spin tradition.
“The stories of Mr Prasanna getting the ball to hang in the air and him actually using a rope to get the ball to dip on the batsman is some sort of folklore in India. To actually carry that tradition forward is a great honour for me,” Ashwin said.
The Tamil Nadu cricketer is regarded as a thinker of the game and makes up for his technical shortfalls with that rare ability to prey on a batsman’s mind before actually challenging him on the pitch.
Ashwin’s coach Sunil Subramaniam spoke of the spinner’s ability to derive bounce despite not being side-on and his fearlessness as a bowler.
“He has the most supple wrists I have seen in a spinner. He has very large fingers. I found out how good his wrist was when he got his top-spinner, to me his most impressive variation, to bounce so much,” Subramaniam, a former Tamil Nadu left-arm spinner, told The Hindu newspaper.
“He has the mind of a captain, has great cricketing intelligence and is fearless,” he added.
Ashwin is not side-on, but his feet, hips and shoulder are aligned, which is still a good position for a bowler, former Tamil Nadu batsman and NCA (National Cricket Academy) Level 3 certified coach C.S. Suresh Kumar says.
But the aspect of guile is missing in spin bowling in the modern game, Bedi feels.
“You see, no other type of bowling requires a bowler to think out his dismissal more than a spinner needs to…the craft demands it. You got to beat the batsman in the air or you got to beat the batsman off the pitch. Although I feel a sense of mechanical monotony has crept into the art of spin bowling.”
For all his exploits, Ashwin is still yet to deliver in South Africa, England and Australia, where India are scheduled to tour in 2018-19.
Ashwin has taken only 21 wickets, is yet to register a five-wicket haul and averages 54.71—as against his career average of 24.79—in six Tests over two tours of Australia.
The spinner went wicket-less in the only Test he has played in South Africa and tallied three wickets in two innings in the last two Tests of the five-match series in England in 2014.
“Ashwin is an intelligent bowler. I would like to see him succeed in Australia, South Africa and England. I am confident he is capable of succeeding there, but that will be his litmus test,” Bedi says.
In the meanwhile, Ashwin and Lyon will continue their battle in the third Test starting in Ranchi today.
Sanjay Rajan has written on sport for over two decades. He tweets at @SeamUp.