"Either I Take Fifers Or I Get Dropped": A Look At Ravichandran Ashwin's Career As He Scales 'Mt 500'

K Balakumar

Feb 16, 2024, 04:53 PM | Updated Feb 22, 2024, 07:12 PM IST

Ravichandran Ashwin
Ravichandran Ashwin
  • If he had the consistent backing of the powers that be, Ashwin would have been an even more sensational bowler for India.
  • That Ravichandran Ashwin has got his 500th Test wicket — only the second Indian after the great Anil Kumble (619 wickets) and the 9th over all to achieve this feat of longevity and skill — at the home ground of Ravindra Jadeja, is the kind of delicious irony that has always accompanied the off spinner's career. 

    Ashwin and Jadeja in tandem are among the most potent bowling pairs in the world, and certainly numerically the best in India.

    In the Hyderabad Test of this series against England, Ashwin and Jadeja went past Kumble-Harbhajan Singh combo. Ashwin and Jadeja got their 502nd wicket together, surpassing the previous record of Kumble and Harbhajan, who had managed 501 wickets in 54 matches.

    But Jadeja's concomitant presence has also meant that they had to sometimes fight for the lone spinner’s slot in the team, and mostly the left-armer was preferred due to his better fielding and batting skills.

    But dice it in every way possible, Ashwin's record of 500 wickets in his 98th Test is splendid and cements his position as an all-time legend in the Indian pantheon which is not exactly new to spinning greats.

    For a nation that has been souped up on the exploits of the 'quartet' — Bishen Singh Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekar, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinvasan Venkatraghavan — the spinners who have followed them have been less romanticised in the collective narrative.

    Kumble's career has been a classic case in point.

    Despite his monumental success for over a decade the man never got the due mostly because he was not classical leggie and his story did not lend itself to evocative prose like his state-mate Chandra's did.

    Similar is the predicament of Ashwin. He is surely not in the mould of both Prasanna and Venkataraghavan, who were both classical off spinners (even if they themselves were different from each other in terms of technique and talent).

    Ashwin has one thing in common with Venkat — the ability to be cerebral in cricketing thinking.

    Of course, Ashwin is accused of overdoing the thinking part. It is a criticism that is not totally without merit. Cricket, for sure, calls for intellectual rigour. But sports are about instinct that is not the progeny of long-drawn thinking. And Ashwin — only sometimes — can be guilty of taking the nerdish way. He tweaks his action from time to time and also experiments with his delivery point.

    But make no mistake about it, Ashwin's novel attempts come from a place of sporting creativity and an agreeable restless energy.

    He also does course correction based on effectiveness — his bowling style from around 2014 is a lot different from the one he started his journey with. "If your alignments are right, what happens is, there can be a lot of variation. I can bowl where I want: outside the off stump and turn, or I can turn it from the stumps — whatever I want to do, it's a lot easier if I'm pretty well aligned," Ashwin once said of his experimentations.

    Ashwin's Mind-Boggling Numbers

    The Tamil Nadu off spinner does possess the typical arsenal of a good spinner — flight, drift, spin and plenty of guile. He has a lethal leg-spinner too. Just that in Chennai cricketing lingo, it gets called sodukku ball. Ahead of this Test at Rajkot, Ashwin has a bowling average of 23.92, an economy rate of 2.78 and a strike rate of 51.5.

    The Test match strike rate list is dominated by pace bowlers. If you run your eye through it, you can hardly spot any spinner's name. Okay Axar Patel, at 46.18, has a better number, but with just 14 Tests, he has a long way to go to sustain that in a long career.

    There are many who argue that Ashwin's strike rate numbers place him among the pacers. When Ashwin scalped his 400th wicket, he was fourth fastest in terms of deliveries. He needed 21,242 balls to take 400 wickets. Only Dale Steyn, Richard Hadlee and Glenn McGrath had got to 400 wickets in fewer deliveries.

    Ashwin, the Test match great, is in itself a story of some improbability.

    Having come into the Indian reckoning in the aftermath of Kumble and Bhajji's retirement, Ashwin is one of the rare phenomenons who showed that it was not too difficult to move up from IPL to the Test arena.

    His earliest impressions were in the IPL as a CSK star from 2009 — perhaps the lone Tamil success in the annals of the Chennai franchise — and from then on he has not looked back in all the formats.

    That he was in the squad for the World Cup 2023 shows that he continues to keep himself relevant even in white-ball cricket despite getting a bit long in the tooth. 

    His early-day successes in Tests are staggering. Ashwin took nine wickets in his maiden Test, in which he was 'Player of the Match'.

    In his first 16 Tests, he collected nine five-fors, and he went on to be the fastest to 300 wickets and the second fastest to 400, behind only Muthiah Muralidaran. As of now, Ashwin is second only to Murali in terms of man of the series awards. Ashwin has 10 awards while Murali had 11 in 133 Tests.

    Ashwin is the fifth in the number of 10-fors in Tests. (He has 8 10-fors). And with the bat, as that Sunil Gavaskar cliche would have it relentlessly, 'he's no mug'.  Ashwin has performed the double feat of a century and five wickets in an innings in a Test three times. Only Ian Botham with five has done this on more occasions.

    In the last few years, his numbers have kind of tapered, but it is understandable considering the fact that he has been kept on tenterhooks due to selectoral whims.

    Even as recently as January 2024, Ashwin was controversially overlooked in South Africa for the second Test at Newlands in Cape Town. Especially away from home, in the so-called SENA countries (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia), Ashwin has got the short shrift despite clear evidence that his numbers there over the years have been improving.

    For instance, in the landmark series in Australia in 2021, Ashwin picked up 12 wickets in three matches at a good average of 28.83, given the conditions on offer, with a best of 4 for 55. His early dominance of Steven Smith — India's bug-bears in the previous series — kind of set the tone for India's mind-boggling 2-1 series triumph. Ashwin also contributed with the bat, playing that stonewalling innings of 39 not out in Sydney, which helped India save the Test. 

    In that same year, he was the best Indian bowler in the World Test Championship (WTC) final against New Zealand, by some distance, on a surface where the pacers were supposed to do the job but failed. Ashwin picked up two wickets in both innings and even contributed a few with the bat. Jadeja, who also played in the Test, had nothing to show for his efforts.

    The thing is even a small failure of Ashwin is held up against him, whereas Jadeja's tends to go under the radar for reasons that are not easy to figure.

    Outspoken Ways, His Enemy?

    In that sense, Ashwin, like his state great Venkat, who was no stranger to selection horrors (he was once removed as a captain while on flight) has been unlucky.

    Virat Kohli, under whose captaincy a bulk of Ashwin's career happened, did not treat him with the necessary assurance that someone of Ashwin's ability deserved. Contrast this with the strong support that Sourav Ganguly provided Harbhajan all through his career. Without the Prince of Kolkata, Bhajji was a lesser bowler in his chequered career. That Bhajji constantly snipes at Ashwin and throws shade at his numbers is one of the minor tragedies of the game.   

    But Ashwin, who is never short of words, once typically remarked: "Either I take fifers or I get dropped." The sardonic and sharp humour is another innate trait of Ashwin's. He uses humour effectively rather than resort to bitter, cheap shots.

    But Indian cricket never has taken kindly to those who are articulate and are known to speak their mind. 

    Gavaskar is on record saying that Ashwin often pays the price for his 'forthrightness' and 'speaking his mind at meetings' and not exactly for his cricketing performances. "For far too long Ashwin has suffered not for his bowling ability of which only the churlish will have doubts, but for his forthrightness and speaking his mind at meetings where most others just nod even if they don’t agree," Gavaskar wrote.

    Ashwin, with his experience and structured ways, is definitely captaincy material. That he may wind up his international cricket without being one is more a loss for India than himself.

    India and Tamil Nadu cricketer, the man who was the coach when Ashwin broke into the state reckoning, has this to say: "Ashwin has always been different in having the freedom of speech. He is free-spirited in terms of his actions and what he spoke and that is because he comes from a background where he is encouraged to talk. He is a bit of a seeker, be it knowledge or anything. He is not satisfied with what he has learnt today. He doesn’t have the insecurity that you normally have in cricket. That is because he has always had the confidence that if not cricket, he can do something else."

    That Ashwin has had to pay a price for his outspoken ways is a travesty. For, his articulate ways are mostly fun and mirth. His videos and tweets add to the flavour of the sport. One thing for sure is he is set for as much media greatness, if not more, in a career after cricket.

    But as of now his cricketing numbers are still speaking. Very eloquently, at that. The 500 wickets, in a sense, should be the final word in anointing his place among the cricketing greats of this country.

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.