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Unbridled perseverance

India’s second-leading wicket-taker in Test cricket, Ravichandran Aswin, through his formidable bowling skills and exemplary consistency, has carved out a space of his own within India’s extraordinarily rich legacy of spin bowling

Unbridled perseverance

Success and stardom do not always accompany each other in sport. There are some who get recognised more than what they deserve. And there are also a few, who despite being consistent performers, are still under-rated.

A classic case in point is Ravichandran Ashwin, the cerebral off-spinner who now has 442 Test wickets from 86 matches. When the 35-year-old Ashwin had sneaked past legend Kapil Dev's Test tally of 432 wickets, in the series against Sri Lanka, he reached a major milestone. Ashwin shone further, like a beacon, in the second Test against Sri Lanka at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, capturing the imagination of one and all with a lovely four-wicket haul in the second innings.

The second Test was getting hyped for various reasons. There was anticipation in the air because of the Pink Ball Test being played under the arc lights. In a match where the quality of pitch produced by the curators came in for copious criticism, right from Day One, Ashwin was the one to hog the limelight on the deciding day.

For a man who has been a silent destroyer with the ball, this record of overtaking Kapil Dev and now being India's second highest wicket-taker behind Anil Kumble (619 wickets), deserves encomium. Call it Ashwin's persona or mannerism, he has not been the sort of guy craving for adulation and flattery praises from his fans. He has been one of India's most devoted bowlers and a team-man to the core.

Off-spin is an art and science. And this is where Ashwin has shown he is the master and the student, displaying stunning wares. For a country which has produced three great off-spinners — Erapalli Prasanna, S Venkataraghavan and Harbhajan Singh — comparisons will be made.

For this generation of cricket fans — at home and abroad — names of Prasanna and Venkataraghavan may not really ring a bell. Yet, when it comes to talking of bowlers who have been dangerous off-spinners, Ashwin has created a name for himself in many ways. If Prasanna was the wily fox whose flight and loop was enchanting, Venkat was accurate to a point of being nagging, and a brilliant slip fielder. He also went on to lead India.

Harbhajan Singh, too, served Indian cricket with flourish, though he has spoken in recent times about his hurt at not being told why he was dropped by the selectors. Bhajji, as he is popularly known, has been daring as a cricketer in Tests and also adapted well to the needs of Indian Premier League cricket. Of course, there will always be critics who will rake up the controversial point of his bowling action, which came under scrutiny almost a decade ago.

To be sure, Indian cricket has been blessed with quality spinners for decades. In fact, the real-life stories of spin bowlers like Paddy Shivalkar and Rajinder Goel not getting to play Test cricket despite terrific performances in domestic cricket in an altogether different era can make you cry. Shivalkar, a left-arm spinner in the classic mould, played first class cricket till almost the age of 50 but never got a chance in Tests. The same goes for Goel, who took 637 wickets in Ranji Trophy but got to play only one unofficial Test against Ceylon.

In an era when India's spin quartet — Bishan Bedi, Prasanna, Venkataraghavan and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar — mesmerised batsmen the world over in the 70s, other Indian performers with matching skills in bowling spin had to miss out, totally.

In Ashwin's case, he and Bhajji took over after the legacy left behind by Anil Kumble, a leg-spinner who was so difficult for the batsmen to read. There were jokes that Kumble hardly turned the ball but given his acumen, accuracy and ability to psyche out batsmen, he was lethal. The variety came in many forms, with some deliveries as fast as that bowled by a medium pacer.

Where does all this compare with what Ashwin has achieved. Born in Chennai, Ashwin had a mix of skills in cricket as well as education. Like Kumble, Ashwin is also an engineer. Yet, when you go out on the cricket field, to engineer a collapse with the ball is not a task as simple as taking exams in a branch of engineering.

For all those who feel Ashwin has performed only on tracks at home which offer help, that is an uncharitable remark. The quintessential Tam Bram has worked hard for success, and shown that one can learn a lot by playing in the ruthless IPL. He has been with different teams, from Chennai Super Kings to the Delhi franchise and now with Rajasthan Royals.

Bowling off-spin in Test cricket and bowling off-spin in white-ball cricket is very different. If Sri Lanka had one Ajantha Mendis who foxed batsmen with his unplayable deliveries, notably the carrom ball, Ashwin has also mastered it. This is where the real value of Ashwin comes out for the connoisseurs. He can bowl the carrom ball with beauty and there is so much more variation.

Spin bowling can be tricky when batsmen are in an offensive mood. Ashwin has persevered and penetrated as he has kept innovating. Sitting inside the stadium, one may not get to see what all Ashwin does with the ball. Yet, when you see on screen how Ashwin bowls, there is so much to learn.

Variety is of essence and accuracy is a key factor. Yet, spinners have to work hard to set-up a batsman and plan his dismissal in Test cricket. To say that Ashwin has been a tormentor only on the doctored pitches at home is incorrect. He slogs like crazy and has been distinctly unlucky not to have played more Test matches.

In recent times, Ravindra Jadeja has been preferred ahead of Ashwin by former India captain Virat Kohli. Yet, Ashwin never sulked. If he was not picked for a Test, he would go to nets and again work on his bowling. In a six-ball over, Ashwin can come up with more variety than imaginable, and that's what makes him so special.

For someone who has also been unlucky not to play too many ODIs, Ashwin's role in T20 cricket is defining. He had been out in the cold but came back in contention last year in the ICC World T20 in the United Arab Emirates. Such is Ashwin's persona, he has never blamed anyone for being meted out unfair treatment many times. Not being picked has only acted as a catalyst for him to work harder.

Off-spin is elegant when the bowler is on song. And off-spin is painful when batsmen turn marauders. Ashwin has been rewarded for his constant slogging, a trait which is inborn. None told him to do all this. It's passion and love for the game which has catapulted him to being India's second-best bowler in terms of wickets taken.

With the bat, Ashwin has repeatedly shown he is highly dependable. His five centuries in Test cricket are proof he has not only stood but also scored when India has needed runs from his blade.

Is he the fittest player? The answer is maybe not. Ashwin has worked hard on fitness. At six feet and two inches he has dealt with injuries and bounced back with proper rehab. That explains his longevity in Indian cricket and how he has survived the rigours of playing the IPL.

Does a man with such a creditable record not deserve to lead India?

This is a question which the Indian cricket board needs to answer. At a time when vice captaincy has been doled out to so many players recently in India, Ashwin has been very unlucky. He is a thinking cricketer. Surely, it is Indian cricket's loss that he did not go on to lead India at least in the Test format, the one which has been defining in his career.

Views expressed are personal

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