CHENNAI: When India’s white-ball spinners were finding it tough to deal with West Indiesbatters, consequently losing the T20 series 2-3, the No. 1 spinner in the country, Ravichandran Ashwin, was playing a TNCA league match for his club at the non-descript India Pistons ground on the southern fringes of Chennai.
The offspinner, with 489 Test wickets and 151 ODI scalps, has been through a lot in the last few months. The 36-year-old was not considered for the World Test Championship final, came back strong in the West Indies Test series after that, and now he is not in India’s scheme of things for the World Cup in October-November.
But that doesn’t make Ashwin, who was part of India’s 2011 World Cup winning squad, “negative”. He follows the game with interest, continues to cheer for India and keeps himself ready for the Test series in South Africa later in the year.
On the eve of Independence Day, TOI caught up with Ashwin, as he shared his thoughts on various things — ranging from where he stands in terms of his own career to his “envy” for his new-found sporting hero Magnus Carlsen.
At a time when the entire cricket bandwagon has got into the white-ball mode, you are playing red-ball club cricket in Chennai. After achieving so much in international cricket, how do you push yourself through this grind?
There’s nothing to push, I just enjoy doing it. I am responsible for the team (MRC ‘A’) I am in charge of…I know the youngsters need a bit of guidance and I just love playing cricket. There is no sense of compulsion to it.
Despite being one of India’s greatest match-winners, you are not part of an ODI World Cup set-up that is going to be played in India. Does it affect you and why do you think you are not being considered?
I don’t think like that, because the selection of the team is not my job. I had decided long back that I would not think about stuff that is not in my hand. I am honestly in a very good space in terms of life and my cricket and I try to keep negativity away from my thought process.
You said recently that after an injury you mulled retirement. Where are you physically and mentally at the moment?
I think you are connecting two things. I did not consider retirement because of injury. That was also probably one of the reasons and I was not sure how I would be recuperating from it because I am not an expert at my body. And then there was some uncertainty around my career and I was just thinking like that. It is very easy to think negatively and that was one phase where I was probably thinking I would not be able to come back from it. It was just a thought and I just want to clarify on that.
But right now, I feel I am bowling and batting really well and I have got a lot of experience in my kitty. I am taking one day at a time. Since Covid, it has been really busy, being inside bubbles and playing continuous cricket for the past three years. But this is actually the real break that I have got and I want to be at home, playing a little more club cricket and first-class cricket and then get ready for the next match that is there. For me, it is the South Africa series in December.
Nathan Lyon played 100 Tests at a stretch before he got injured. A Warne or a Kumble never got dropped irrespective of the conditions. Why do you think it has happened with you time and again away from home, given the fact that you are probably India’s greatest-ever No. 8 batter as well…
How can I find an answer for that…It is foolish of me to try and think why it happened and how it could have been better. The other way of looking at it is ‘how many have played 94 Tests?’ I am glad that I have been able to do that. It has so happened in recent times that the two quality spinners are Ravindra Jadeja and me and fortunately or unfortunately, both can bat. Jadeja’s batting form has been very good and that is why he has got the nod.
I can’t put a finger and I don’t want to try and find out why I got dropped because that is again not in my control…Ever since 2018-19, when I went through a mental and physical switch, I tried not to sit behind negativity. I have found myself in a state of contribution when I am in the dressing room. If my ego is too high, I become the biggest white elephant in the dressing-room and I don’t want to become that. If I am playing, I am playing to win, if I am not, I cheer for India to win.
Till the 2018 Southampton Test, you were India’s No. 1 spinner in Tests abroad. It was that game where Moeen got quite a few wickets and you didn’t get as many (in the third innings). From there, the equation changed. Can you let us know what actually happened?
I don’t think so. In 2020 when I went to Australia, Ravindra Jadeja went as the No. 1 spinner but I played the first Test. It was probably the best away Test series for me in Australia. I don’t think 2018 had any repercussions on 2020.
You and Jadeja are probably two of the best three spinners playing the game. Given your quality, do you think it is really needed for India to play on pitches at home where a Todd Murphy makes Virat Kohli his bunny and the Test doesn’t come close to lasting five days?
I do not make the pitch, I do not roll the pitch and I just play on the pitch that is given to me. The decision to play on a pitch is taken by the team management in the best interest of the team. The pitch is the same for Jaddu, Nathan Lyon or me and I am the wrong person to be asked this question because I am not part of the management. I am just a player and I play on a surface that I am given to play on.
The recent talk around international cricket has been Bazball. But we saw till Nathan Lyon was in play, it wasn’t as effective (during Ashes). Do you think against your quality on Indian pitches, Bazball doesn’t stand a chance?
England are playing a very exciting brand of cricket that has excited a lot of people around the world. On the other hand, we have been extremely consistent and successful in recent years. I cannot wait for them to come here and I don’t think they are going to take one foot backward, they will continue to play the way they play. It wouldn’t be an overstatement if I say that England is possibly the team to beat at this point of time.
You have recently said that teammates have ceased to be friends and are only colleagues. Did you mean it is a product of the new-age hyper-competition and does it breed toxicity in the team environment?
What I said and what people are understanding are completely different. What I meant was that earlier, because the tours used to be long, there was more scope for friendship. But these days we are constantly playing — different formats, different teams. One thing I have always believed is that when you are playing for different teams, it is very difficult to be friends. You have to keep that competitive spirit burning to be able to compete. When you play IPL, for three months your (international) teammates end up becoming your opposition. When you play so much for different teams, I am not saying friendship doesn’t happen, but it is very difficult. But then again, that is the way of the world — the changing landscape — and I don’t think there is anything negative about it.
In recent years, it is yours and Lyon’s incredible skill that has made doosra irrelevant. When you were starting off, doosra was the go-to ball for an off-spinner, even though there was invariably a controversy around the action of the bowlers. How difficult was it not to fall for that doosra temptation early in your career?
Bowling a legal doosra is not possible, right? Most people who have bowled doosra have had issues with the action. For me, I had a slight hyper extension in my action and I did not want to try it. When we talk of bowling, we talk of variation, doosra, etc. But what bowler needs is the knack of picking wickets. Playing so much cricket, I am somehow blessed that I have that. I under batsmanship and I just know how to pick wickets — that is my greatest strength. The perception around me trying to experiment too much happened when I developed a carrom ball early on and was trying variations in the IPL. But I was always very clear in my head what I wanted to do, what to bowl in which format.
Is the beautiful loopy off-break still the most cherished delivery in your armoury?
More than anything, I believe accuracy is the most important thing. Whether I am bowling the offpsinner, sidespinner, or whatever, the ball must fall in the right place, where I want it to. Formats will change, a good ball in Test cricket may not be a good ball in T20 cricket, but even 10 years down the line, the most sought-after skill will be the ability to land the ball where you want to land it.
Unlike most Indian cricketers, you have been very active on the digital platform, making our videos, analysing games…Is this just an interest?
I started it during Covid days and I really enjoyed it. Before that, when I had to speak about cricket, I had to do it with teammates, or somebody else or parents at home. But here I end up analyzing the game not as an expert, I do it as a player. When I dissect the game, I learn more and I have realized I have become a better cricketer doing that.
Other than cricket, is there any sport that you follow and any sportsperson that you idolize?
Recently, I follow chess quite a bit, but I am getting inspired by the Indian chess contingent of Gukesh, Praggu and what they are doing.
I would say I have developed a strange love-hate relationship with Magnus Carlsen. At the same time, I can’t hate how good he is and I love how good he is. He is so good that I envy him at times when it comes to the sport.
Other than that, I love Novak Djokovic. I have followed him from his initial days — his professional attitude, his work ethic, his ability to keep himself fit — it really fascinates me.
Is there any unfinished business for you?
I live for the day and I have no unfinished business. But it’s true that I would love to see India winning the World Cup again, even if I am not playing.