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England’s tale: Ash to Ash, dust to dust

The Indian Express logoThe Indian Express 13-12-2016
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Rajkot. Day 4. First Test. Flat pitch. R Ashwin has started slinging the ball. The wrist is loose, it twists and twirls, and the ball catapults out from a slingy release. Even the load-up is different. He changes his lines to Alastair Cook, getting it wider outside leg stump, at times outside off. With Ben Stokes, he shortens the length and forces him to get back. The plan isn’t clear, there is no visual drama, and both batsmen tackle it without great fuss. There is no drift in the air, there isn’t much turn, and you wonder what’s happening, why this persistence with lines, lengths and trajectories that don’t really seem to be working out. But Ashwin’s brain is scrambling inside. “I wanted to see how Stokes plays from behind.” A pre-innings chat with Anil Kumble had revolved around that – try out a different line for Cook and push Stokes back. Early on Day 3, when India are batting, Ashwin and Kumble are in the nets outside the arena, twirling away in anonymity. Mental notes taken for future, filed away in that cricket-tragic brain.

Day 1, Mumbai. Red soil. Wankhede means more bounce than turn. The bounce has to be utilised. More top spin than side, the release is higher – the trap is set. Moeen Ali falls sweeping. So does Johnny Bairstow. The lines are leg and middle, and the two love the sweep shot. Ashwin repeatedly tempts them and they take the bait. Top-edges are swallowed by the fielders and Ashwin’s clasped right fist shoots up. Stokes is drawn forward in both innings, the fatal edges arrive soon.

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“I have seen a few cricketers who try (experiment) in the nets but don’t have the stomach to do it in the middle. I am the other way around. Unless you do it in the middle under pressure, you never know what is going to be beneficial to you. I would much rather try it in the game directly. That’s when you are under pressure, under the kosh. I think all great men do it under pressure when it matters rather than doing it when it doesn’t.” That’s Ashwin straight-talking about his slingy action at Rajkot on Sky Sports.

Walking the talk

He walks the talk on the field in Wankhede. Red soil means bounce — and so top-spinners have to be tried out. He hasn’t bowled them all series. Jake Ball is doing a great job as a nightwatchman, using his height to smother. Ashwin goes round the stumps and reels out the off-spinners. Tuk, tuk. Then comes the delivery with Ball’s name on it. The fingers relax, they don’t squeeze out the turn but the thumb is working overtime, and it pushes the ball from down to up — the seam top-spins over straight but Ball hasn’t read it yet. He is on the front foot to defend but the ball wasn’t going to curl back in. It wasn’t designed to. It keeps rolling on and kisses the edge.

Bairstow is up next on the final day. It isn’t the Bairstow we saw briefly in 2011 during the ODI series where he provided us the English imagery of the tour – a perplexed stunned face after a Ravindra Jadeja delivery tore away rapidly from the middle stump line to fall on the off stump. Here, now, he is a changed batsman. From the way he holds the bat high, in the way he sweeps, and most importantly in the mind, how he keeps trying to attack and look positive.

Ashwin is ready with a plan, though. The sweep shot did him in the first innings but he is more careful in the second – the bat coming down on top of the ball rather than a horizontal swipe. Ashwin suddenly slips in a carrom ball and it’s not clear whether Bairstow picked it but he played it as if he hadn’t. He is squared up, and the bat seems to be in the next gully, covering for an offbreak. Game over.

“Trying it out in the middle is all about the stomach to do it. I love to be in the middle of the action and like to win the games for the team rather than be in the back door, take couple of wickets and score 30.”

It’s this attitude that has now got him the vice-captaincy of the team in the absence of Ajinkya Rahane. A formal announcement was made at the end of the game and it would mean a lot to him. He is that kind of a cricketer. Not a surprise, then, to see him raise his game to reach where he is now. The overseas failures at the start of the career was, he believes, due to him being inexperienced. “I was very raw. All I knew then was to put a lot of revs (revolutions) on the ball and whenever I was in a corner, or under pressure, that’s what I tried to do. Just revv it up. I hadn’t really thought beyond that. Would just try to spin the ball hard.” 

Since then, he has changed his over-reliance on fingers – and reloaded the entire bowling machinery. The run-up, the load-up, the various points and styles of release, a lot more body has come into the action now, and above all – that aggressive mind has been constantly ticking over. “I have been craving to bat up the order and I have grabbed it recently,” he said at the start of the series.

The craving has been there for a while now. In fact, in 2012, when he wasn’t really in his element as a bowler, yet to find himself out there at the highest level, it would have been understandable if he was sweating, even a bit tensed, about his bowling. Not him, though. He would talk about how he thinks he can bat higher in the order and meanwhile, he wasn’t all that flash with the ball in the games.

There was this evening in Perth, when one told him, “Time to focus on your bowling, na?” The reply came swift. “That I am always doing. Just wait and watch, I would bat up the order one day and do both well.” The waiting has been over for a while, the whole cricketing world is watching him in admiration.

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