Despite leading Tamil Nadu to a domestic limited-overs title as a young captain in 2009, Ravichandran Ashwin never came close to India’s captaincy in any format during his run as one of the team’s premier match-winners.

With Mahendra Singh Dhoni leading Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League (IPL) since 2008, it was unthinkable that Ashwin would get an opportunity to lead that side. Now, the 31-year-old spinner has finally got an opportunity to prove his leadership credentials in IPL 2018, as captain of Kings XI Punjab (KXIP).

Apart from being runners-up in 2014 and making the semi-finals in the inaugural season, KXIP have been one of the most underperforming teams in the league. By appointing Ashwin as their new captain, the franchise has taken a gamble on someone who is inherently unconventional.

For the record, Ashwin is the only bowler who is leading a team in this competition, in his first season with KXIP.

“Why does cricket underrate a bowler’s potential to lead? I don’t have an answer, but, for me, it’s a responsibility and it’s important to be relaxed. That can sound contrasting since they don’t go hand in hand but I will try to build a good team culture," says Ashwin.

Spinners like Shane Warne and Anil Kumble have in the past impressed with their leadership in the few opportunities they got, and Ashwin feels inspired by them. However, it is difficult to fathom why somebody who has over 500 international wickets, and has always been perceived as a thoughtful cricketer, was never considered for captaincy—he has not even been appointed vice-captain—while Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma have led national teams in different formats.

Ashwin admits that there is a conventional fear, of a bowler as captain either over-bowling or under-bowling in a Test. He adds that bowlers in general tend to get overlooked for such roles.

“A batsman can make a hundred, a double or a triple. Numbers are large (to make an impact), while a bowler can at best take 10 wickets. Sometimes, it’s difficult to put a value to each wicket you pick, but, for some reason, nobody comes to watch bowlers," he says.

In his first game as captain against Delhi Daredevils on Sunday, Ashwin chose three spinners, going against conventional wisdom, and made a winning start (Punjab next play Royal Challengers Bangalore on Friday).

“It’s a huge plus for bowlers to have a bowling captain. No one understands the psyche of a bowler better than a bowling captain and Ashwin is one of the sharpest brains in cricket," says Mohit Sharma, a KXIP teammate who has also played with Ashwin for India.

Ashwin’s role as captain can have a big impact on the results for Punjab. If all goes well, can it also open up the possibility of leading India?

“I have never thought about it," says Ashwin, smiling. “Leadership is not only based on results. If you are just result-centric, it can put a lot of pressure. For me, it’s the environment you are able to create. In this format, it’s a bit of a lottery, so, for me, it’s process-driven.

“People should be happy and smiling every time they go for practice. We want to make some great friends, and then, hopefully, on the way, win a few trophies," says Ashwin.

The Tamil Nadu spinner knows that people will always talk about the influences of Dhoni and Virat Kohli on his captaincy. He admits that it’s only fair since both are strong leaders and anyone who has played under them is bound to have been influenced by their leadership styles.

While Dhoni has always been diplomatic, Kohli too avoids talking on socially sensitive topics. Ashwin, however, is the rare modern Indian cricketer who doesn’t mind expressing himself on topics like Supreme Court judgements, racism, and the ball-tampering incident involving Australia. Doesn’t he fear that too much frankness could land him in trouble?

“Speaking my mind keeps my heart clean," he says, laughing. “It doesn’t clutter my mind. I am not somebody who can hold (back) and react later. It comes from my father, and it has always kept my conscience free.

“I do agree that (as a celebrity) I need to act in a certain fashion. Sometimes, I might have overstepped or hurt the sentiments of a few people, but I have learnt," he adds.

Ashwin missed the 10th season of the IPL due to injury, and, since then, has lost his place in the Indian One Day International and Twenty20 teams owing to the emergence of wrist spinners like Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav.

With another talented spinner emerging from Chennai in Washington Sundar, perhaps only an impressive show in the IPL as captain and bowler could revive his chances of a comeback in limited-overs cricket for India.

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