For R Ashwin, 2016 was a spectacularly rewarding year, particularly when it came to Test cricket. He picked up 72 wickets to go with two hundreds, in the Caribbean, on his way to 612 runs in 12 matches, cementing his grasp on the No. 1 ranking in the International Cricket Council charts for both Test bowlers and allrounders.
To cap off a wonderful spell, so to say, Ashwin became the proud father of a second baby girl right at the end of the year, with the ICC awards for the Cricketer of the Year and the Test Cricketer of the Year being the icing on the cake. You would think he would love to freeze 2016 up, but that then can’t be R Ashwin, the pursuer of excellence, can it?
“Not really, I don’t regret that 2016 has come to an end,” said Ashwin during an interaction in Chennai on Friday (January 6), along the sidelines of an event where his association with ITW Blitz, the talent management arm of ITW, was announced. “I think I can definitely go on and better the year. That’s the crazy person inside me thinking it. But I am sure I can surprise myself. In the past, I have managed to surprise myself or supersede myself, so why not? I have maintained that I am my own benchmark, I don’t compete with anyone else. So if I have to compete with myself, I definitely have to better that year and if I stand a chance of being anything close to what I want to be in life, I must definitely exceed my expectations and better the year 2016.
“The way I bowled in Chennai (in the final Test against England when he picked up just one wicket in the game to go with 27 in the previous four) was something that I have never done before; the wickets just didn’t come, I think it was destined to not happen. That was also a learning. I think that learning was very important to cap the year off because I am someone who likes leaving behind how much ever good happens. When things don’t work, I love carrying it forward so that it’s a learning-the-trade kind of thing. What happened in Chennai was a wonderful learning; to just tell me that you can bowl really well and still be at peace with what kinds of spells you can bowl even if you don’t get wickets.”
— ITW Sports (@ITWSports) January 6, 2017
By his own admission, Ashwin has been his greatest critic, and while he is not unappreciative of the praise, the awards and the rankings, he isn’t quite driven by them. “Those are just by-products of what has happened and that’s not something that I thought about for even a second,” he insisted. “Even during the series or even during the year, I didn’t think about it. The news first came to me two-three days before it (the ICC awards) was announced officially. It was sort of a mixed bag. I shared it with my family and everybody was extremely happy. Whoever else I said this to was like it had to happen, it had to come. There was not a lot of elation as such but the way the cricket grind is right now, you don’t have a lot of time to reminisce or sit down and rest on your laurels. I am not a person of that kind either. I like leaving the good things behind and try and use it as a motivation or a learning for the future.”
The grind, as he puts is, has seen him shoulder an enormous workload. In Test cricket alone since July, he has sent down nearly 560 overs, batted for long periods and wheeled away at nets and in practice, so it is inevitable that the body will rebel at some stage. The short break between the Test and limited-overs legs against England is fairly timely in that regard, though there is the regret that he couldn’t represent Tamil Nadu in their Ranji Trophy knockout campaign.
“It has been a bit of a challenge and that is one of the reasons why I have not been able to turn up in the Ranji Trophy,” he conceded. “Knowing me, I am the kind of guy who, like as soon as the school vacations start, the next day I am out there playing for the club. It was unfortunate that my body wasn’t really coping very well, there was a lot of workload and I needed to rest up to be ready for selection for the limited-overs games. Now I have to go back and play a few games to find out how my body is coping because there have been a few niggles. Looks like it is sorted but you never know. With a long season lying ahead, you don’t want to take any chances, so I couldn’t play the Ranji Trophy.”
Ashwin on ICC honour:
“I shared it with my family and everybody was extremely happy. Whoever else I said this to was like it had to happen, it had to come. There was not a lot of elation as such but the way the cricket grind is right now, you don’t have a lot of time to reminisce or sit down and rest on your laurels. I am not a person of that kind either. I like leaving the good things behind and try and use it as a motivation or a learning for the future.”
In the last two Tests against England, India bounced back from conceding 400 each time to win by an innings. “There are two messages in that,” Ashwin observed. “Belief is one, definitely, and this team constantly definitely believes in individual improvement because if everybody improves, it contributes to the kitty in a wholesome way. But I also think that is showing the way cricket is moving forward. Runs are being scored quickly and the quality of wickets that we are providing in India and how good it is to bat, those are some things I have always felt, ever since I have started playing first-class cricket. Really flat wickets, sometimes the batsman ends up giving his wicket away. Yes, we have some turning wickets but those are also bound to happen in a career for everybody.
“The ambition is definitely there (to become the No. 1 team in the world across formats), and you can see that bleeding through everyone’s body language and skill exhibition out there. But I think we are just putting the blocks together, I think we may have to fill a couple of more puzzles and blocks when we travel abroad to get things going.”
India had a surfeit of Test cricket towards the second half of 2016, and have five Tests lined up at home in February-March, after which the focus will shift to white-ball cricket culminating in the defence of the Champions Trophy title in England in 2017. Ashwin was emphatic that the biggest shift that was needed from red-ball to white-ball cricket was more to do with the mind than anything else. “I think it is an attitude and a mental shift that we need to make,” he said. “Even when I left West Indies and went to the US where we conceded about 240 runs in the first T20I against West Indies and we chased it down almost, MS (Dhoni) was very appreciative of how I left Test cricket behind and slipped into T20 cricket, and how I bowled in both those games. He said it has been fabulous, the kind of shift you have made.
“The shift was very simple – I just didn’t want to concede runs. You have to get into that mode, you don’t have a choice. Because of the way bowlers get flogged in T20s, it is just extending into 50-over cricket now, it has just become a double T20 game when you are playing 50 overs. And with all the restrictions, you have to get into smart mode, outsmarting the batsman and trying to find ways or pockets of pressures to try and attack. It becomes more of a cat-and-mouse and the long duration haul of building a spell or bowling very well doesn’t work in this shorter format.”
Ashwin on Dhoni stepping down as captain:
“I am someone who always believes in change, nobody is permanent. I also come from that view, I will also not be permanent. There will come a time when I will also cease to exist but it is no doubt an emotional moment for our country because there are so many people who attach their lives to the kind of success and laurels that he has brought to the country. It is a landmark change and people will take a little bit of time to get used to it. But he has left enough roadmaps and enough paths for us to follow, which is what all good leaders do.”
For the first time since his India debut, Mahendra Singh Dhoni will not be Ashwin’s captain when the two step out together in India blues against England later this month. Strange feeling, would that be? “I don’t know, I am someone who always believes in change, nobody is permanent. I also come from that view, I will also not be permanent. There will come a time when I will also cease to exist but it is no doubt an emotional moment for our country because there are so many people who attach their lives to the kind of success and laurels that he has brought to the country. It is a landmark change and people will take a little bit of time to get used to it. But he has left enough roadmaps and enough paths for us to follow, which is what all good leaders do.”
Ashwin has been acknowledged as a serious student who is obsessed with cricket, but there is obviously more to his life than just cricket, and especially now that Akhira has sister Aadhya for company. “I really enjoy it (fatherhood). I kind of start missing them… every time I leave Chennai, it becomes that much more difficult to leave. I think it is only going to get tougher and tougher as they grow up and get into school, etc. But I just look forward to this,” Ashwin went on. “This is life in the larger perspective. This is what I will live for the next 20-30 years, and kind of understand the meaning of what life is. I really enjoy it and I am just so happy that I have two daughters and not sons.”
Dapper in grey, as he prepares to mingle comes one final question. What can we expect from R Ashwin in 2017? A short laugh, and then, “Expect the same kind of commitment, work ethic and, hopefully, the same kind of results.” Now, that will be quite an encore.