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Vol. XXXIV No. 2, May 1-15, 2024

Ravichandran Ashwin: Is he Tamil Nadu’s best cricketer ever?

-- by V. Ramnarayan

Ravichandran Ashwin has scaled peaks that may not soon be attained by another bowler anywhere – reaching his 500th Test match victim in his 98th match, setting near impossible standards in such purely statistical terms as bowling averages, strike rates and number of matches won for his team. His 100th Test match brought him nine wickets taking his tally to 516.

More important than the number of his victims, Ashwin’s brilliant display brought India a thumping innings victory and series whitewash of impressive proportions. In sharp contrast, two major landmarks by his rivals from England – Jonathan Bairstow’s 100th Test match appearance and James Anderson’s 700th Test wicket – could not prevent abject surrender by their teams.

That has been a recurring theme in Ashwin’s career, his bowling exploits invariably producing victory for India. Most of India’s successive series wins at home have owed much to Ashwin’s complete dominance over opposition batsmen in Indian conditions. His record of 350 plus wickets in India is mind boggling, while his success rate overseas has been steadily improving, and could have been even better had he not been dropped from the playing eleven so often of late, with Ravindra Jadeja the preferred sole spinner in the side.

Ravichandran Ashwin. Picture Courtesy: The Hindu.

His worst critics cannot deny that Ashwin has been the number one spinner in the world for a while – proof the ICC rankings if proof were indeed needed. He certainly brings a greater variety to his bowling arsenal than Nathan Lyon, the Australian off spinner, Ashwin’s nearest rival to that top spot in the spin ecosystem of the cricket world. It is quite another matter that neither finger spin great can continue to enjoy that billing if the wrist spin magic of Kuldeep Yadav keeps improving at the rate of knots as it has been over the last year or so.

Ashwin first captured the imagination of fans and critics when he responded to a call from CSK in 2009, thanks, according to Ashwin himself, to a timely nudge from franchise owner N. Srinivasan to skipper M.S. Dhoni. Very soon, he was to make everyone sit up when Dhoni gave him the new ball and he got the better of Universe Boss Chris Gayle. That was no flash in the pan, with the off spinner’s tricks never quite unraveled by the big left hander. This has been a recurring theme with Ashwin, as he has troubled almost every leading batsman in the world throughout his career, with his domination of left-handers near-complete.

For someone plying such a seemingly innocuous trade as off spin bowling, Ashwin has always been a rebel – one without a cause, it seemed, at a time when skeptics tended to dismiss his experimental variations such as the carrom ball as fanciful and doomed to be of short-lived success. I was one of those skeptics, an off spinner groomed on the fundamentals practised and preached by some of the greats of the time renowned for the craft that has now fetched Ashwin unprecedented success – albeit far removed in grammar from the way his illustrious predecessors purveyed their wares. The coin will drop soon, we thought, but that was not to be. He can only perform on the subcontinent’s dusty tracks, we smirked, but though he proved us partially right, destroying all comers in a manner so complete that the carnage he wrought was even more devastating than what the fabled Quartet had achieved under identical circumstances. Yes, he was a rebel in the manner he defied, nay, rewrote the textbooks, tending to attempt more variations in a single over than the traditionalist would dare in a whole session. Sometimes the result was not pretty. “Far too many bad balls,” we clucked, but did Ashwin even notice these admonitions, leave alone care? By the time we counted the number of long hops on offer, he often ran through a whole innings or two, denying India’s cricket-crazy fans a day or two of entertainment, pushing five-day Tests towards extinction, and driving match organisers mad with the chaos of flight and hotel rebookings.

From the on-field evidence his deeds have produced over the years, and his occasional utterances to the media, Ashwin comes through as a lateral thinker who has always had the courage of his convictions to defy conventional wisdom with his innovations and working hard at perfecting those. “Not for me the tried and tested route of bowling a persistent line and length over after over, day after day,” or words to the effect he was heard telling an interviewer long ago. To him, successful bowling is all about deceiving the batsman with his bewildering variations rather than wearing him down with unerring accuracy. And who can argue with this line of thinking when we look at his extraordinary record?

For someone who has been prowling around the top half of ICC’s bowler rankings and finishing at the very top on numerous occasions, Ashwin is an unusually prolific batsman. He has five Test match hundreds to his credit, three of them coming on top of innings hauls of five wickets, a record that would have made Vinoo Mankad, India’s first genuine all-rounder, proud. To add a fairytale touch to his exploits, Ashwin bats with such lazy elegance, that he even reminds you of the Hyderabadi stylist VVS Laxman. A personal favourite of mine among his numerous batting contributions was however his fighting partnership with another gritty performer, Hanuma Vihari, to save the 2021 Sydney Test for India – which was in dire straits – with both of them battling injury and excruciating pain. One cannot help the feeling that Ashwin would be one of India’s leading batsmen, had he not chosen to try and become its best bowler. Sadly, he often doesn’t make it to the playing eleven overseas, with India going in with a solitary spinner in the side, and Ravindra Jadeja scoring over him with his consistent batting and his ability to win matches with his fielding and catching. This is the only area in which Ashwin could be said to be lacking. Granted he is not the most natural athlete in the team, but he does his best to overcome this handicap often bringing off superb catches and diving, sliding stops that can shame his younger teammates. And his superior bowling skills should in all fairness guarantee him a place in the eleven, at the expense of a pace bowler if need be. His absence invariably tends to cost India dearly. And rarely has India seen a player who bounces back every time he returns from rejection in the nonchalant manner Ashwin does.

A cerebral cricketer like Ashwin who revels in plotting the dismissals of the world’s leading batsmen with the prescience and planning of a chess master should have made the transition from player to captain, shouldn’t he? Why has he never been in the running for the top job in Indian cricket? Are his intelligence and fearless articulation found intimidating by those who decide such matters?

Tamil Nadu has produced some outstanding cricketers through the decades. It offers arguably the best infrastructure and rewards in India for its cricketers. It hosts the best league in the country to which cricketers flock from all over India. Yet there is a gaping hole in the state’s cricket history: a poor record in the national championship for the Ranji Trophy – a mere two titles in ninety years. It will be a proud addition to Ashwin’s bulging collection of trophies if he manages to lead Tamil Nadu to its third triumph. Surely it will give him as much satisfaction as the many Tests he has helped India win?

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  1. K.GOPAL says:

    He deserved to lead india,and just like jaisimha never got it.

  2. Nagarajan S says:

    Superb off spinner, albeit not in the traditional mould. Doesn’t get the credit he merits and the chances also. He would be a permanent fixture in any other international team.

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