Geographically, the SuperSport Park in Centurion is a mere half-hour away from the Wanderers in Johannesburg. For R Ashwin, it’s been a journey that’s more than four years in the making though.
It was at the Wanderers in 2013 that Ashwin returned figures of 36-5-83-0 in the fourth innings, even as South Africa came desperately close to chasing down a target of 458, finally ending on 450 for 7 in a draw for the ages. That led to him sitting out of a bunch of overseas Tests. “The one thing I have comfortably done is conveniently forget the history about South Africa,” he said. “I am well over it and I want to put it behind me and stride ahead forward.”
But while letting the past go is the only way to move forward, learning from it is as essential. And it hurt Ashwin’s professional pride that he couldn’t deliver that day.
From the depths of that innings, to bowling 31 overs on Day 1 of a Test in Centurion, the wheel has turned. When Faf du Plessis chose to bat on Saturday (January 13) in the second Test, his top order responded brilliantly, and for a long while, it looked like India would be buried under a mountain of runs from which they could only hope to fight a holding battle. It was Ashwin who removed both openers – Dean Elgar (31) and Aiden Markram (94) – to keep India hanging on in the contest. He then nicked off Quinton de Kock first ball, not only neutralising the threat the aggressive wicketkeeper-batsman posed but hastening a collapse in which South Africa went from 246 for 3 to 251 for 6 in just over two overs.
So far on tour, Ashwin has five wickets for 114 runs in 39.1 overs. As complete an overhaul from Wanderers 2013 as there could be.
“More than having to make changes from the 2013-14 tour it was a reality check in terms of not being able to win a Test match for the country on day five when all things were actually set up for a spinner,” reflected Ashwin. “It kind of hit on my professional pride, and from there on I knew I had to work on certain things. Obviously, if you don’t take wickets you don’t get bull-headed and believe things will get better from next time. I am not made that way at least.”
A student of the game in the truest sense of the word, Ashwin went to work with a will. Until that Test, Ashwin had 104 wickets in 19 Tests at 28.50. Since then, Ashwin has 205 wickets in 38 Tests at 23.82.
“I worked on making my action a lot more repeatable. I worked on the wrist position at the time of release and also added a few things up my repertoire,” he said, while giving an insight into exactly what he did. “I used my wrist a lot more when I delivered the ball, and used my palm more when I bowl the floater. Obviously these things have combined over the last few years, and I have had a great time over the last two-three years. I am just taking the confidence forward and I am trying to get better as the day goes, and probably by the end of this series I will be a far better bowler than what I started.”
It was not even entirely certain that Ashwin would play this game, forget about bowling 31 of the 90 overs bowled on the first day of a Test match in the Highveld, the place traditionally known for its quick pitches and seam-friendly conditions.
“I mean two days from the game it looked like we are going to play an all-seam attack,” revealed Ashwin. “And then when we walked into the ground yesterday, it was white in colour, the grass was coming off. All of a sudden I really had to pull myself back and think ‘I am in the game now’. Today morning when we came to the ground, it looked like a wicket that was really flat and had to have a spinner in the game.
“Personally, from my side of it, I was very happy that the grass was taken off, if not I think it would have been an all-seam attack,” he laughed. “That’s the way it goes, right? I have seen a lot of cricket matches where people who haven’t been in contention to play the match, come in and get those wickets. So, this was one of those days.”
Even while Ashwin, the red-ball bowler, is continuing to add to his laurels, Ashwin, the white-ball bowler, finds himself superfluous to India’s requirements. What that means now, is that Ashwin is keyed up for every Test match, regardless of what has gone before. So even when it looked like spinners might have a marginal role at best in this Test, Ashwin was ready. “I was prepared to go,” he said. “I mean, I play (only) Test cricket now, get a lot of break in between, so might as well be ready when I get an opportunity! So, there is no reason to unfasten the seat belt, you are always on.”
His white-ball banishment though, resulted in a county stint with Worcestershire in the latter half of 2017. And the county stint helped him bowl on a day one pitch in Centurion.
“I like to think I have kept us in the game. It could have so easily been a game where they could have run away with it after the second session,” he said candidly. “I’d like to believe I was just dogged enough. I think my experience of going to England and playing helped because this has been a sort of wicket which you get there especially where I played, at New Road, where it’s pretty flat. One ball jumps occasionally and goes flat for a pretty long time. My first-class teammates would advise me to develop a lot of patience, and hearing those things from them was definitely a reality check for me. Yeah, I have gone through a massive ride over the last eight months and I am in phase of life where I really want to enjoy my cricket.”
If Ashwin’s words about being a better bowler at the end of the series than at the start hold, then there might just be more enjoyment for him in store.