I decided to compete against Steven Smith: Ashwin

The ace India off-spinner speaks about their duels, his match-saving Sydney innings and the remarkable series

After a successful tour of Australia, where he produced impactful performances with bat and ball, R. Ashwin relived the experience. Excerpts:

How are you shaping up for the England series?

It was looking good for the fourth Test and looked like I would play. It was a freakish injury. By day three or four I was ok to bowl. But there was some unfortunate turn of events. Even the pool access was cut. Pool is an important activity in the recovery process.  Then we had to do a plunge pool activity but it is not the same. The physio also felt if the recovery process was in place, there was a good chance to play.

What changed your role after the first Test. You were more involved and in the ear of the bowlers?

There is no considerable change. It could just be the requirement of the particular day. We had quite a bit of inexperience in the attack. Siraj was making his debut. Umesh was out for the second innings. Just the positioning of the game from where we were. We were 36 all out and we presented ourselves with a wonderful opportunity to turn things around. It is just a natural energy one brings out on the field. 

At the same time there is a sense of maturity and calm that has come about. Before, my communication might not have been in the right direction. I have not wondered about how people might receive the communication. I understand how I should be communicating such that they understand it the way it needs to be. 

These are certain changes I have definitely made. There is no larger role I am assuming for myself. It is just the positioning and importance of the game and where we placed ourselves. 

In recent times, your batting has come under criticism. How important was the Sydney knock for you personally ?

There have been questions raised over my batting since that West Indies tour. But one more thing that needs to go into consideration is I was playing all formats of the game and sometimes the roles of people just playing Test cricket alone – people don’t quite make an effort to understand how it works. I feel ever since that particular thing where I’ve just been playing Test cricket, it’s pretty much a one game here or there and I’m constantly fighting with someone else for the lone spinner spot. 

And if I have to be judged purely on my batting skills and batting averages then I think an innings or two alone to drop me out of a particular series, I felt wasn’t quite justified. 

I am looking to fight for my place and when I’m doing that I need to emphasise my primary skill which is to pick up wickets, which I think over the last two years in South Africa, England or SENA, I think I have done justice to say I was the best spinner.

Is this the best that you have bowled in Australia?

I mean looking back you can say that but I personally think that this is just another dimension of cricket that I’m seeing myself in.

I have always maintained that you cannot really say this is the best. You never know something else could lie in front of you. Like the question about my batting, equally trying to fight for your place and trying to get the continuity, you are working hard. 

The harder I worked the more unlucky I got and things weren’t happening because I knew I had to get those big wickets hauls away from home to be able stay relevant to the scheme of things. 

So whenever I did that I put myself in very innocuous positions. My workload management hasn’t been the most crisp because I would end up bowling a lot of overs on the day before I started the game. It was a case of releasing nervous energy, wanting to do well and all that so I think it cost me. 

Before Adelaide, I did go for a net practice but I limited myself to a certain number of balls, you know just to feel good about the whole thing but I had to limit myself to bowling 20-25 balls.

It didn’t look like I was going to start the series in all honesty. Because Jaddu (Jadeja) damaged his hamstring is why I got my opportunity in the first Test. For me things fell in place and I also have been feeling over the last two years I have been bowling well. Yes 2018-19 was good, but I think 2020-21 was one of the best if you compare the last three years.

Did the Aussies underestimate India’s bench strength? Did Adelaide win and Kohli’s departure make them more complacent?

I am not too sure. They were bowled out for 190 in Adelaide. With another hundred runs on the board, even that Pink ball test could have gone either way. I personally think they knew our bowling was going to challenge them all through the series.

I think it is just that the team found ways to bounce back from 36 all out. I think people rallied around really well.

One of the biggest factors I think for the resurgence is how come everybody stayed in the process because it’s very easy to start searching for answers after 36 all out. 

It’s not quite the bench strength alone that dictated the way the series went.  I think every time there was a challenge thrown somebody in the team raised their bar every single Test. 

One piece of good fortune was that there were new people and fresh legs especially in the boiling department walking in. Sometimes when you’re playing a long series, fresh legs and mind can do the trick. To compliment that all these guys have played quite a bit of cricket.

Siraj has played a lot of India A cricket and took Test cricket like fish to water. Shardul Thakur has 250 first class wickets and is fighting for a place in Tests. People don’t realise these things when they talk about bench strength. Two people who came with relative inexperience and did well are Natarajana and Washington Sunday.

Even with Washi, he practices at MRF so his batting wasn’t a surprise for me the way he batted against the quick bowlers. 

I would say skill sets along with fresh legs and fresh minds really did that trick for us and I don’t think the Aussies were complacent. They believed things would have happened but somebody showed the fight every single time.

After the Vizag Test you said, ‘it felt like a debut’. You said the same thing at the Adelaide Test. Despite being at the international stage for more than a decade, why do you still feel that you have to prove yourself in every game? Is it justified? 

I don’t know if it’s justified. Everybody walks their journey and it’s mine. I have had some wonderful interactions with batting coach Vikram Rathour (a former selector) throughout this series. He was telling me that they were looking to leave me out after the England series in 2011-12. I asked him ‘was it real?’ because I heard noises about it. He said ‘yes and we didn’t quite think that you were bowling well’. But I made close to 400 runs in that series and picked up 14-15 wickets. Is that justified for a youngster to be spoken on the same lines, I asked him. It’s a battle that I always fought. It’s not a new territory for me. My belief is that there will always be someone who will be competing with you. That’s life.  I accepted this at a young age. 

For me, the competitions have got the best out of me. I have no complaints. I feel whatever I have left ahead of me will also be on the same lines. So I have decided to play every Test like my first. If i can’t be excellent, I should just hang my head down and move on. That’s the way I played my cricket, it won’t be any different in future. 

Can you talk about the duels with Steve Smith?

There has been a lot of noise about how I am bowling, and pitting me against someone like Nathan Lyon. During the previous tour in Adelaide, I picked up six wickets and kept on bowling despite a tear in the abdomen. After the match, there was a comparison between us with suggestions of how well Lyon bowled. I felt it was extremely insensitive towards a good performance. That was the lowest I ever felt in my life after Southampton (2018). 

I feel I have been constantly put under the microscope. I did take it upon myself personally. So rather than me competing against Lyon, I thought I must be competing against Smith. Lyon is a lovely bowler and I have respect for him. But my focus was on something else. 

There were records that Smith had never got out to spinners in Australia. I wanted to turn that around. I am entitled to think I am, probably, the best in the world. I wanted to think on those lines. I thought ‘who is the best in the series?’ I can’t compete with Virat Kohli so I decided to compete against Smith.

A lot of people were talking about who will dismiss Smith. But, nobody even gave me a chance. Then, I made sure that people spoke about me at the end of the series. 

On the England series and the 400-wicket milestone?

Honestly speaking, no! Had you asked me sometime ago, I would have said yes. But not now. Once I crossed 200 wickets, I stopped looking at milestones. It just happened over a course of time. I think the England series is going to be good. They are coming with an amazing preparation in Sri Lanka where the wicket has spun over the last two Tests. Joe Root has been batting beautifully. When we beat them 4-0 last time, they played amazingly but results did not go in their favour. We were just too good on a lot of occasions. England are one of the teams who come well-prepared for a Test series.

They have got good spinners and good quicks who can reverse the ball. They have got good batting order. What else can you ask for. A hard-fought Test series is surely on the cards. 

We have never played two back-to-back Tests at a venue in India. That also gives the touring team an ample time to get used to the conditions. These are new territory that even our team would be looking forward to adapting to.

When Virat left, the captaincy was handed over to Rahane and Pujara took over the vice-captaincy which then went to Rohit Sharma. Is there a tinge of disappointment about not getting that role. In the past, bowlers like Anil Kumble, Bishen Singh Bedi and Venkataraghavan have all led the country in Tests.

I may have talked about it to a much deeper extent in the past if you had asked me this (question) whether it matters or are you a touch disappointed. 

Honestly speaking, I am not disappointed and it is irrelevant to me. I go out there and make my own plans and get my fields that I want. 

The captains and vice-captains that I have played with have been very supportive of whatever I have wanted. Leadership is just leading yourself and keeping your space upbeat for any situation that arises. If you can help another teammate that’s also leadership so it really doesn’t matter because I am lucky to have shared the dressing room with some wonderful players in the past and again sharing the dressing room with some great players like Virat Kohli, Rahane, Pujara. 

I think I am truly blessed to be playing alongside these guys and sometimes I do think that it can be a tough call on who you want to go as a vice-captain but it is extremely irrelevant to me.

In the spin department, we have you, Jadeja and Kuldeep. After that there aren’t many knocking on the doors of the Indian team. How do you see that?

Everything is a perception. Ten years ago, people were saying the same about our fast bowling department. Fifteen years ago we were talking the same about our batting department. Once the greats go, what will do for our next batting reserves? With all due respect to all the legends of the game and the great ones who are still playing in various formats, this will not be the be all and end all. 

We are a country of 1.4 billion people and when so many people are mad..there will be players who will emerge. 

I feel a lot of wickets and the way spinners are being dealt with in first-class cricket is not giving the sort of comfort to spinners. 

When I came through the first-class ranks, my first captain was Badri (S. Badrinath) and coach was W.V. Raman. The learning I had under them is not the same for spinners coming right now. I was having a chat with Wasim Jaffer and Amol Muzumdar and that’s one of the reasons. Another is the amount of grass and the number of wickets the seamers take, games that finish in the first two days with seamers taking a lot of wickets throw spinners off guard. 

Spinners are someone who emerge because they do a lot of repetition and get a lot of games in FC cricket. If you are taking that away from the spinners and look at them as a T20 commodity—that’s where you will finish them. 

I feel there is talent but the way they are dealt with in FC cricket is not the same as the privilege I had of being mentored by my captain and coach.

You had mentioned about bowling with a plan to restrict as well as take wickets. So did you buy into those straight lines with a heavy leg side field?

I was given ample freedom to implement whatever plans I had. Nobody came up to me and said what I should be doing or where I should bowl. The homework was completely done by me and before each Test I sat and watched videos for eight hours on the bounce. 

I made my own plans about where the fielders should be. For example, how Tim Paine got out in Melbourne came from what happened in Adelaide about where the short-leg fielder should be and where the ball might go. 

So these are orchestrated plans and the freedom the team management gave me on how I should be working it. And bowling middle or leg stump line or off-stump line is in my personal view is not defensive or attacking. It is just that who you are bowling to is of ample relevance. 

If you look at a lot of experts and commentators speaking about off spin bowling and bowling outside off-stump — the glory they keep talking about — is the most overrated thing in world cricket at this point of time. 

Bowling that line especially for someone who has not bowled with a left-arm seamer in my career is the most insignificant thing one can do. If Moeen Ali or Nathan Lyon is bowling outside off-stump to a glorious plan and Shane Warne is talking beautifully about it in the commentary box, it doesn’t mean I have to do the same thing and wickets will fall. Because he is bowling to Indian batsmen and I am bowling against English and Aussie batsmen. And when I look back at the Southampton Test, where I stand now, the wide off-stump line that Ali bowled, I feel a little disappointed about myself. 

I should have skinned the cat, the way I skin the cat rather than falling for the trap and monotonously bowling into the rough. Because it is just not me. As far as I’m concerned, I bowl at other team batsmen not at Indian batters. If I have to bowl at Indian batsman then I may try what Ali or Lyon does. And sometimes the comparison between Ali and Lyon and myself, I have taken way too personally and it has hurt me and it will remain a hurt as long as I live.

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