Cricket

Ravichandran Ashwin and the perils of over-experimentation: To improve game, bowler must re-invent, refocus

  • Austin Coutinho
  • March 14th, 2020
  • 9:58:50 IST

In a newspaper interview last week, Dilip Doshi, India’s left-arm spinner of the 1980s, said that Ravichandran Ashwin had failed to impress him with the progress he had made, in terms of upgrading his skills over the last decade. Despite Ashwin's 362 Test scalps, 150 one-day international wickets, and 52 T20 international wickets to boot, Doshi believed that the India offie hadn’t scaled the heights he should have by now.

Doshi had made his India debut at the ripe old age of 32 only after the legendary Bishan Singh Bedi had called it a day in the late 1970s. He had still managed to pick 114 Test wickets @ 30.71 before being replaced by Ravi Shastri, a few years before Ashwin was born. Ashwin, 33, who believes that he is constantly ‘evolving’ and has gone on the record to say that he is a ‘leader without a title’ in the Indian team, would therefore have reasons to be displeased with the former spinner’s views. What perhaps could be more irksome for the ‘thinking’ off-spinner is Doshi’s ranking of Ravindra Jadeja as the Number One slow bowler in the country.

Jadeja hails from Saurashtra. Doshi was born in Rajkot, Saurashtra, too, but played all his life for Bengal, besides wearing the Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire colours in county cricket between 1973 and 1980. Ashwin’s fans could believe that there was a bit of bias in the former star’s elevation of Jadeja as India’s top spinner. Be that as it may, the star offie would do well to ponder over Doshi’s remarks, react positively to his criticism and find his way back to where he belonged not too long ago.

Ashwin, it is said, started off as an opening batsman, even playing for India Under-17s in that role. He was also a new ball bowler who turned to bowling off-breaks at the insistence of his school coach. He is someone who has kept growing, in every sense of the word. His mindset — that of making the most of emergent situations — however, has been a boon as well as a bane. He has a penchant for changing his bowling action at the drop of a hat.

Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Skill-wise, Ashwin is way ahead of Jadeja. The difference is, while the latter bowls within his limitations, the former tries too many experiments. Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Over nearly 150 years of cricket, top spin bowlers have always spoken about the advantages of mastering the ‘stock-ball’, in all its variations of flight, pace, turn, drift and bounce. Jim Laker, considered by many as the greatest spin bowler ever, relied on his off-breaks to pick 19 wickets in that 1956 Test at Old Trafford. Muralitharan (800 Test wickets), too, bowled the away going delivery sparingly, and Shane Warne (708 Test wickets) has gone on record to state that he would bowl one of his several variations once every three overs or more. The leg-break was his wicket-taking delivery. Ashwin, it is often said in jest, tries to cram in a dozen variations into one legitimate over.

Doshi, like most of the star exponents of the art of spin bowling, opined that the stock ball should be bowled 98 percent of the time. “Get the ‘pehela’ right,” he said in the newspaper interview, adding that good spin bowling required muscle memory. Getting into the groove and bowling by instinct – shutting off the conscious mind – was the secret that great spells of bowling were made up of; too many variations are the cause of confusion in muscle memory and are therefore detrimental to good bowling.

Padmakar Shivalkar, the great former Mumbai left-arm spinner possessed what we, at that time, termed a ‘cyclostyling machine’ action. With a short, rhythmic run up and set action, he could bowl on a Re 1 coin placed on the good length spot, in line with the off stump, for hours on end. Without the slightest hint of a change in action, he could bowl the arm ball too. Five hundred and eighty nine first-class wickets were his reward, and he never got a look-in at the Test level only because there was somebody better there, named Bedi. Jadeja is a bowler with a mindset that is somewhat similar to that of Shivalkar.

Ashwin possesses a beautiful off-break — a ball that he bowls with a lot of dexterity. He also bowls the top spinner, the quicker one/slider and the carrom-ball, released with a bent finger. When some frustration creeps in, he even bowls the leg-break. With the mindset of a grandmaster in chess, he usually plots the downfall of a batsman a few deliveries, often, even a few overs in advance. It is probably here that Doshi’s advice could help him progress: Focus on getting wickets with his stock delivery and use variations sparingly – without causing muscle memory perplexity, just to keep the batsmen guessing.

On turning wickets, in India, Ashwin can win matches on his own. He can be almost unplayable when there is turn and bounce in the track. However, it is on flat or green foreign tracks that he usually comes a cropper. It is in such situations that Doshi’s advice (or criticism, if you choose to call it that) would again help the Indian offie. Bowling a nagging line and length, and sticking to basics – bowling his stock deliveries – would perhaps help him pick wickets. Skill-wise, Ashwin is way ahead of Jadeja. The difference is, while the latter bowls within his limitations, the former tries too many experiments.

It is focus that will get Ashwin back his numero uno status among Indian spinners. As Steve Jobs once said, “Focus doesn’t mean saying ‘yes’ to the thing you need to focus on. It means saying ‘no’ to the hundred other good ideas that are there. You need to pick carefully.” Batsmen of international fame know that Ashwin possesses the carrom-ball, the top-spinner and the slider. It is, however, the off-break that will get past their defence every time, again and again.

Ashwin has what is known as cricketing intelligence. He is creative. He doesn’t have to prove either Dilip Doshi or anyone else wrong. He needs to focus all his attention at getting better; even reinventing himself, if required. Wasn’t it Ayn Rand who said, “A creative man has to be motivated by the desire to achieve, not the desire to beat others?”

The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he believes in calling a spade a spade.

Updated Date: March 14, 2020 09:58:50 IST

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