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Revs on the ball, and a revolution in spin stocks

Wisden India logo Wisden India 24-11-2016
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It’s eerily coincidental how similar R Ashwin is to Anil Kumble. Both are engineers by education, spin bowlers by choice, match-winners by right and intense students of the game by design and acumen.

Both also could point to tours of Australia as significant outings in their career paths.

For Kumble, it was the tour of 2003-04, on which he went as the second-choice spinner, behind Harbhajan Singh. Overlooked for the first Test, he snaffled 24 wickets in the next three to signal a second coming that eventually catapulted him to a massive 619 Test wickets.

For Ashwin, the fateful tour came in 2014-15. Strangely overlooked for the first Test in Adelaide by the new management combine of Virat Kohli (standing in as captain for the injured Mahendra Singh Dhoni), Ravi Shastri (who had taken charge as team director), and Duncan Fletcher, the coach, Ashwin was brought back post-haste for the next Test in Brisbane after the hopeful experiment with Karn Sharma’s legspin fell flat on its face.

Ashwin didn’t set the Yarra or any other river afire, but returned decent numbers of 12 wickets from the next three Tests. The wickets column doesn’t always do justice to the quality of the bowling, and that was true in Ashwin’s case then. But with his confidence back and his repertoire enhanced, Ashwin has since been unstoppable.

At the end of that Australian tour, Ashwin had 119 wickets in 24 Tests at 30.67, pretty impressive numbers on their own any which way you look at it. Since then, in 17 further Tests, he has picked up an astonishing 112 wickets at 18.24. Australia 2014-15 has to be a definitive turning point, even though he had already had excellent success leading into that tour.

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The Ashwin of today is a walking demolition man who is a far more rounded bowler than he was a couple of years back. He is more patient, he places a lot more emphasis on the stock delivery which is his offspinner, and he has developed more than one way of taking wickets. It wasn’t as if he was entirely dependent on the surface for previous successes, but now, by using the air as his trusted ally, he has become doubly dangerous.

That’s something L Sivaramakrishnan, the former India legspinner who mesmerised the world for a year and a half between the end of 1984 and the middle of 1986, agrees with. “He has put in a lot of hard work over the last year and a half, if not more, and the results are there for all to see,” points out Siva. “And I am not using the hard work phrase as a cliché, I have seen how much thought and effort and bowling in the nets has gone into making him the bowler he is today.

“Even good spinners obviously look for some kind of help from the pitch, but the really good ones make their own luck. If the pitch is helpful, so be it. If it is not, then let me take it out of the equation. That’s what Ashwin’s thinking has been in the period of time that I spoke about. He has done everything and more to translate that thinking into practice.”

When Siva talks about drift, Ashwin’s wondrous recent ally, he launches into a master-class in the art of spin bowling. “Drift stems not just from revolutions, but also from locking the wrist and undercutting the ball with the index finger. In spinning parlance, we refer to it as the doorknob manoeuvre. It’s not dissimilar to turning the doorknob; bowling from close to the stumps, with his right hand in line with the stump at the point of delivery, will not just get the ball to drift away from the right-hand batsman and create the angle, it will also necessitate a second movement from the batsman. The initial movement is a forward press; when the batsman sees the ball angling away from him in the air, he then has to also make a sideways movement in order to get to the pitch of the ball. If he reaches out without getting to the pitch of the ball, that’s when the gap between the pad and the bat – what we call the gate – opens up. And then, when the ball turns back in on pitching because you have used the index finger to not just undercut but also to run over the ball, the chances of getting a batsman bowled or caught close-in on the leg-side become greater.

“Drift is almost the spinner’s equivalent of reverse-swing. When you deliver the ball, be it to the right-hander or the left-hander, the shiny side is facing the batsman and the other side is facing the bowler. You could argue that the batsman has enough of a sighter and therefore should be well prepared, but that’s where Ashwin’s guile comes into play. He can control the amount of drift, and he also varies both his pace and his angles of release. He isn’t afraid to change things up because he doesn’t want to be predictable. And because he has worked so hard on his offspin, especially in Test cricket, he doesn’t feel the need to use the carrom ball or some of his other variations as often as he used to earlier.”

Iterating Ashwin’s intelligence, Siva points to two classic cases in point: the setting up of Tom Latham more than once in the New Zealand series, and the dismissal of Joe Root in the first innings in Visakhapatnam, caught at a deepish mid-off while attempting to hit in the air down the ground. “To Latham, he bowled a series of offbreaks outside off, lulling him into a false sense of security. He kept drawing Latham to the off-stump, and then bowled the quicker one which meant Latham had to play around his pad, and therefore was a sitting duck for a leg-before decision.

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“As for Root, the drift took the ball away from him, but he also dropped his pace, which was the logical thing to do on a slowish surface. The ball was farther away from Root than he had imagined. Root had moved beautifully forward and across to drive him through the covers in the Rajkot Test. But here, the lack of pace at the time of the delivery and the slowness of the track combined to trigger the miscue along with the wider arc created by the drift. I enjoyed that dismissal as much as I am sure Ashwin must have.”

The key to success, Siva insists, is enjoying one’s bowling. “I watched him on television during the away tours, and I have seen him in action from the ground in the last five games. I think apart from Rajkot, and I am not saying this because he didn’t have great success in that match, he has thoroughly enjoyed the way he has bowled. When you enjoy your bowling, the wickets are an inevitable outcome.”

Siva is also very impressed with Jayant Yadav, the offspinner who took four wickets on debut in Visakhapatnam. “He is a different kind of offie from Ashwin, and it always helps to have a second offie when there are seven left-handers in the opposition,” Siva offers. “The ball with which he got Ben Stokes in the second innings is testament to his craft. Stokes played Ashwin better than any of the other left-handers because while he got his right foot out to counter the drift, his left foot moved across to offer a second line of defence. Jayant bowled his fastest ball of the match, 90.4 kph, to push Stokes back, and defeat him with drift and turn to hit off-stump. Brilliant stuff! He has a very promising future, and he is one of the few spinners who drives through the crease, who transfers his weight from back foot to front in his delivery stride. Because of that, he can be a successful day-one spinner too.

“And then there is Ravindra Jadeja, restrictive in the first innings, but lethal in the third or fourth when there is help from the pitch. He is as clever and street-smart as they come, and I have seen a conscious effort from him in Visakhapatnam to get the weight transfer going. It shows that like Ashwin, he is constantly looking to improve and get better. India’s spin stocks are in trustworthy hands for now. I couldn’t be happier.”

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