A couple of years ago, Ravichandran Ashwin featured on the excellent Cricket Couch podcast to discuss the nature of spin bowling in the brutal world of T20. The headline quote was his assertion that that “six well-constructed bad balls could be the way forward”, suggesting a mixture of “short, wide and sh*t” deliveries might be the best way to outfox batsmen. Despite the inadvertent efforts of some bowlers, this particular idea has yet to be fully tested.
But what’s also noticeable about the interview were Ashwin’s comments on whether the type of spin bowling mattered in terms of containment and wicket-taking: “This is not about finger spinner or wrist spinner. What is going to be important is the kind of versatility and adaptability one shows,” he said. “It doesn't matter if you are a finger spinner, wrist spinner, fast bowler. What will matter is how much you can adapt to the changing pace of the game, how much you can understand the game, how much you live and thrive in the pressure the game is going to throw on you.”
With his announcement last week that he intends to bowl leg breaks in this year’s IPL, it seems finger spinner Ashwin has changed his mind to some degree, but this is not entirely surprising. With a brain that whirls as intensely as his deliveries, Ashwin has made a calculated if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them move to try to enter the ranks of the wrist spinners who now dominate in limited overs cricket.
Explaining his decision, the rumoured new Kings XI Punjab captain simply put it down to being a matter of resources: "I am just trying to build my armoury. I used to bowl good leg breaks with my off-spin action when I was playing league cricket in Chennai. Over a period of time, in a search to get my stock ball right, I obviously had to cut out a lot of those things. I had possessed a lot more variations. Having bowled off-break as the stock ball for almost 10 years, trying to change things around is challenging. But I don't really settle for anything.”
This is certainly true.
Despite a miserly series against a weak West Indies six months ago, Ashwin’s economy rate has crept up in ODIs over the years and he hasn’t featured in any white ball cricket for India since that tour. The rise of both Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadev make his position in India’s limited overs plans very vulnerable. Yet it is not just these two wrist-spinning torturers of South Africa (Heinrich Klaasen apart) that are currently tearing up white ball cricket, particularly T20s, across the world. Samuel Badree, Imran Tahir and, perhaps most excitingly of all, Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan, are all regarded as highly sought-after commodities.
Perhaps the most iconic off-spinner in T20s is Sunil Narine. While the West Indian may have had a few of his wicket-taking mysteries decoded, in the recent Bangladesh Premier League he remained as stingy as ever, even against Chris Gayle’s onslaught in the final.
Ashwin himself perhaps feels he can no longer function effectively even in this more traditionally conserving role of the finger spinner. He might feel attack is currently the best form of defence, as ironically it was when he used to open the bowling for CSK. His wristy counterparts are now seen as the aggressors in white ball cricket, hoping batsmen take them on and, in the case of both Tahir and particularly Rashid, devastating right-handers with googlies that make good batsmen look bad and moderate ones at times very silly. They are the current world bosses of T20.
Ashwin actually spoke of his plan to bowl leg spin before India set off for their tour of South Africa, but only now has he confirmed he will actually implement it in a tournament as big as the IPL. Besides the domestic league cricket he mentioned, he actually attempted a bit of leg spin during his county stint at Worcestershire last year, the footage suggesting getting turn won’t be his biggest problem. Both Daniel Vettori and Monty Panesar have also given their vote of confidence that Ashwin can pull off his audacious move. “See, I studied maths, Ashwin studied engineering,” Panesar said. “Cricket is about angles, he is always going to look for those angles… and I am sure he is thinking probably leg-spin, carrom ball,” said the former England left-arm orthodox bowler.
How Ashwin chooses to construct his leg-spin action now and in future will be intriguing. Off-spinners are generally held to bowl with a high delivery point — as Ashwin does — and leg-spinners with slightly lower one. So having said he previously used his upright off-spin action to bowl leg-breaks, Ashwin may follow in the footsteps of his former national coach, Anil Kumble, who fired off his bouncy, spitty deliveries with a high arm. Reports from last week’s Vijay Hazare Trophy state that Ashwin tried out his leg spinners with some success for Tamil Nadu against Gujarat. Ashwin may even be replicating Kumble’s frenetic zoom to the crease.
Kumble’s economy rate and average from his 54 T20s stack up pretty well, and his unusually high 90 kph+ speed for a spinner is currently aped with great success by Rashid. There is also another one of his weapons that Ashwin might have in mind for himself. Although technically a wrist spinner, one of the weapons Kumble had was the use of his thumb, not least in his variations such as the flipper and his ubiquitous googly. Ashwin also favours a bit of extra digital assistance in his bowling, with his carrom ball flicked with his middle finger being one of his great boons. It might be a bit early to speculate on what tricks he attempts in the leg-spin discipline, but he will without doubt be aware of Kumble’s thumb theatrics.
So assuming he does master the art to his sufficient satisfaction, it will be fascinating to see how he goes about using his leg spinner. In the same match as his off spinners? In the same spell? In the same over even? It might not be six bad balls he is after but six completely different ones: stock off spinner, googly, flipper, stock leg spinner, carrom, top spinner perhaps.
Throw in Glenn Maxwell facing for Delhi Daredevils and attempting a couple of switch hits and you would be watching the cricketing equivalent of Kandinsky’s Composition 8.
It would be either farcical or utterly compelling, and possibly a mixture of both. Such a combination of balls would run counter to everything held dear to spinners about control being derived from repetition and rhythm, but perhaps it’s not the quality of them which would matter. Six bad balls of six different varieties might not be aesthetically pleasing for the viewer, but it might instill a certain bemused inertia in some batsmen. It’s fanciful, but never forget that T20 is a format which is so constantly innovating that even language struggles to keep up with it.
A hotch-potch of bowling styles in one player is no stranger to anyone who has played club cricket. A hotch-potch of styles is not even unheard of within international cricket with Mark Waugh, Andrew Symonds and, of course, Sachin Tendulkar all mixing pace and spin as the conditions dictated, with the latter also bowling both finger and wrist.
Sydney Barnes, the great England bowler of the early twentieth century, was also famous for mixing up his styles, bowling fast off breaks and then later a weirdly reverse carromesque leg spinner. Chuck Fleetwood-Smith could even switch the arm he bowled with as a youth. Yet for Ashwin to attempt what he is doing, Ashwin with his engineering head and cyborg ballet of an action, seems a particularly exciting development to watch being unveiled. For once, the Dalai Lama might not be the most exotic draw in Dharamsala.