When India’s opening Test against Sri Lanka gets underway in Galle on Wednesday (July 26), it will mark a mini personal accomplishment for R Ashwin. The Galle opener will be the Tamil Nadu offspinner’s 50th Test appearance, a journey that has taken him just under six years, and that has also taken him through a few lows and more regular towering highs, especially in the last 24 months.
Ashwin, 30, picked up a whopping 99 wickets in 17 Tests in the last 12 months, and stands at a fairly staggering 275 wickets in just 49 Tests. Midway through that stirring home season that brought him 82 wickets in 13 games, he became the quickest to 250 Test wickets. While these are all impressive numbers, this isn’t exactly the legacy he wants to leave behind, Ashwin tells Wisden India ahead of the milestone match. Excerpts:
Fifty Test matches for India, is this something you even thought about when you made your Test debut in November 2013?
No, definitely not. I think I am very lucky and I feel blessed to have played so many Test matches, to be honest. At one stage, people were labelling me as not good enough to play Test cricket, as just a T20 specialist and all that. So it was like a barrier-breaking moment for me to play my first Test and become the man of the match in that game. Time has gone by and several events have happened. People have doubted different credentials of mine – travelling, touring, it’s just that he can perform only against the lesser nations, so to say. I broke one barrier or the other day in and day out, year after year. I am very proud of the journey I have travelled so far. And it has just gone by trying to prove how good I am every single day. That’s how it has been.
Prove to whom — to yourself or to the people at large?
I have always had a very, very high sense of self-confidence and pride about my own self, about me as a cricketer. I’ve stayed border-line on the tendency of arrogance at many times. To put it correctly, I have not been on the borderlines of arrogance on most occasions, but you don’t know what people can perceive of you. To me, it’s always about restoring the pride every single time I went out on to the park. If at all I felt something was agenda-driven and not very constructive, I always sort of tried to break the opinions of those people who came with an agenda on their mind. I would say it has been all been proving my worth to the so-called sporting community.
During this ride, did you have any self-doubts from time to time?
I have obviously not had doubts throughout my journey at all. If at all I had doubts at any stage of my career, I think I might have succumbed to it. It’s a little difficult to fathom things like knowing in front of your eyes that you are very good and probably someone not as good as you is taking your spot. Or probably someone you think you is always better than or you can definitely be better than out there playing is a hard pill to swallow. I had to go through that many an occasion in my career but I am sure that like in any other career or walks of life or any profession, this is bound to happen in any professional’s career.
How did you reconcile to that phase?
I don’t think that phase ever has a shelf life. I think it is a thought that keeps getting put it in me all the time. I am sure there are going to be challenges that I am going to be put through all my career. Whatever I am going to embark on for the next few years, I am also going to have such phases in my career but one thing for constant and one thing for sure is that I will try and achieve the standards of excellence that I have set for myself. The things that I would like to achieve will always stand me in good stead and it will definitely break barriers for people to follow. I want to leave a legacy behind. Not some sort of a number for people to follow. I just want to leave a legacy in terms of leading the pathway as far as what bowlers can achieve. And how bowlers are actually the real heroes and they are match-winners, contrary to the beliefs that exist among the common man.
This golden phase of yours, 151 wickets in 24 Tests in the last 24 months, started in Sri Lanka in 2015. Does returning to Sri Lanka now herald the completion of a circle of sorts?
I would like to think so. From 2011 to 2017, it has been six years now, I will complete six years in Test cricket in a few months from now. You can say that the first half of the circle has come to an end and this is the start of the second half. Once I complete the second half, once I get to the fag end, I can decide which one was the better half of the circle. As far as I am concerned, Sri Lanka is a place where I created some lovely memories. I would definitely go in there now – the Sri Lankan team finds itself in a challenging phase, they are rebuilding now and stuff – knowing what to expect. At least going to a place where you have happy memories or happy hunting, it is always going to be pleasing to go there.
On breaking barriers:
At one stage, people were labelling me as not good enough to play Test cricket, as just a T20 specialist and all that. So it was like a barrier-breaking moment for me to play my first Test and become the man of the match in that game. People have doubted different credentials of mine – travelling, touring, it’s just that he can perform only against the lesser nations, so to say. I broke one barrier or the other day in and day out, year after year.
Interesting that you speak of challenging times with regard to Sri Lanka, but isn’t it also challenging times for India, with a new head coach in place?
Ravi (Shastri) bhai has been team director in the past and he has filled that role on more than one occasion. Even during the 2015 World Cup, he filled those boots. He is now coming back after one year. It’s a kind of a tricky situation because it has put a lot of people under immense pressure. I am sure it has not been easy on Anil (Kumble) bhai, and I am sure it has not been easy on Virat (Kohli). I think everybody is going through a hard phase in their life but it is also a time where we can put all these things behind us and get together as a team and try and put results on the board. The only thing that will get us back on the road and get some momentum back is try and create some lovely memories and victories which will try and so to say relegate things that have happened to the background.
Purely from a spin bowling perspective, what were your personal experiences like with Anil Kumble?
As a spin bowler, I feel he was very, very good in terms of bouncing ideas off and he definitely obviously brought a lot to the table in terms of showing us the pitch maps and trying and replicating those pitch maps before the game or every single day of the Test match. There were some different attempts made as a coach. If at all there was one thing I constantly had to challenge and battle against him, it was his idea-speed – the speed at which he brought ideas to the table, the speed at which he wanted you to change plans. All those things are experiences that come wrapped in a gift hamper, if you know what I mean. He pushes at a pace which is a champion’s speed, and the problem is that that can sometimes come across as a pushy methodology, but I quite enjoyed his company. On occasions, we had disagreements, but one thing about Anil bhai is that he never shied away from anything. It is a working style of every single individual in the team and I think for me, he was a great help as a spin bowler, personally.
What’s the one thing you have picked up from him as a result of your numerous interactions?
We are pretty similar in terms of how we prepare for a game. We strike a similarity there. The other thing is that we are thinking similarly during game time as well in terms of how we react when we have not taken a wicket in a session or when the team is in a spot of bother, how we change plans. He is also someone who wants to make things happen but I would like to think that I am a little more composed than Anil bhai is! Anil bhai is far more expressive than I am. These are the things that are common to us and because we are on the same page, we could strike up conversations at different stages of the game.
If at all there was one thing I constantly had to challenge and battle against him, it was his idea-speed – the speed at which he brought ideas to the table, the speed at which he wanted you to change plans. All those things are experiences that come wrapped in a gift hamper, if you know what I mean. He pushes at a pace which is a champion’s speed, and the problem is that that can sometimes come across as a pushy methodology, but I quite enjoyed his company.
You spoke earlier of first half of the circle coming to an end. What has that first half taught you?
I think every single day of your Test career is very, very important because this first semi-circle, before I could complete the first half of this semi-circle, I figured out a lot of things in terms of how Test match cricket can be very, very cruel to someone or how one or two bad days can mean that you actually sit outside. I am sure you have followed my graph pretty well to know that because most of the time when I have found myself out of the team, it has been because of one bad day or one bad Test match. I am not sure how many people sit out on the back of one bad Test match. For me, it’s always been standing on a knife’s edge but I have also come to terms with the fact that some people get two games, some people three, some people probably get five games or ten and probably some people more. I am just destined to have just one game at a time and I feel very lucky and blessed to have that opportunity to go and play that one Test match. I go out there and try my best, and that’s probably one reason why I try one too many things than another cricketer does.
You say that matter of factly, without any bitterness.
What’s there to feel bitter about? It is just the facts out there. I don’t have to present my case and say I am bitter about it. Anybody who is going to chalk out my career graph will agree with what I am saying. We don’t need to discuss the emotional aspect of it, that’s pretty much how it has been. How you have been shown the door or how you have been treated with respect to a team environment or a member gives you an idea about how you need to go about your game. For me, it has always been standing on my two feet and trying to get as many wickets in every single innings as possible. I feel if I get a five-for, I get one more Test match; if I get a 10-for, I probably get another one and a half Test matches. There is no bitter-sweet to it. Maybe when you write it out and it comes across as an article or an interview, it might sound like it is bitter, but I am far from bitter. It’s just the truth as I see it. Absolutely.
Since India’s last Test series in March, you haven’t played a lot of competitive cricket. Where do you think you are with regards to preparedness for Test cricket?
I think to be able to manage pressure situations is not something that I need to train for because that has always been my forte. So that shouldn’t be an issue. But I get what you are saying. If you see, I was sitting out a couple of games initially in the Champions Trophy. And when it came to a high-profile do-or-die game, I was drafted back in. Straightaway I slotted right in and did pretty well. I would think I am in good space. Even in the West Indies, in the last innings that I bowled, I got 3 for 25 and probably dictated the course of the game. I am trying a few new things as well but as I told you, that has been my forte. If I don’t try those things, then I will stay irrelevant or might be just losing out on an advantage that I might have. I have put in a lot of hours on my bowling, so that’s one thing that I will trust in going in there.
On how Test cricket can be cruel:
I am not sure how many people sit out on the back of one bad Test match. For me, it’s always been standing on a knife’s edge and but I have also come to terms with the fact that some people get two games, some people three, some people probably get five games or ten and probably some people more. I am just destined to have just one game at a time and I feel very lucky and blessed to have that opportunity to go and play that one Test match.
We saw a different loading style prior to delivery from you in the Caribbean…
I actually wanted to do that in the Champions Trophy itself because I had practised that for over six weeks when I was training for my rehab (during the IPL which he missed on account of a sports hernia). I used to bowl about 18 balls, 24 balls, increased it gradually as my workload came down. And that’s pretty much what I was doing for those six weeks. When I couldn’t get the first couple of games in the Champions Trophy, I pretty much shied away from doing that in a high-profile game or a high-profile tournament because I couldn’t afford to take that sort of a chance. And when I got an opportunity in the West Indies, I definitely tried to put into practice what I had worked on in Chennai. That’s something I am not going to shy away from but I think those are attempts I made in trying to achieve excellence in how the game is asking everybody to adapt because as a bowler today, you should be able to do more than just one thing, given how the limited-overs format is asking you to cope with it.
Will we see that style in Test cricket as well, or is it just a limited-overs innovation?
In terms of the action, I have worked on that a little bit. So you can expect me to try and stay on those lines in Sri Lanka. But I will definitely have a chat with the bowling coach, have a chat around in the dressing room and also see how my practice games go and then take a call.
This is the start of another frenetic season, including an overseas tour of South Africa coming up. The same excitement as always, fair to say?
Motivation will definitely not be a factor, especially for someone like me, because it is going to my 50th Test. And as you rightly said, I haven’t had a lot of competitive cricket over the last four months, so what other motivation would I need? Just go out there and try and bowl at my best abilities and probably enjoy myself and try and win another series for India. Along the way, if possible, try and achieve something glorious – that’s the goal for now.