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Watching Ravichandran Ashwin bowl is one of the more pleasing sights in cricket. Forever thinking and forever trying, Ashwin is a riveting embodiment of how you can ably fuse skill with effort. And, for the longest time, he was a nonpareil spinner who ruled the world with a unique incisiveness and patience otherwise rare to find. Along the way, he was, obviously, helped by a frightening repertoire of variations he had so remarkably built to compensate for the somewhat vapid trajectories of off-spin.
Don’t let the slightly alarmist tone of it all sway you; Ashwin, at least for now, remains India’s premier spinner in the longest format. Just that in T20 cricket, he is playing catch up to a species that has become hugely popular – the wrist spinner. So much so that he has decided to become one himself. On Sunday, in Kings XI Punjab’s opening game against Delhi Daredevils, Ashwin bowled a fair bit of — among other stuff — leg-spin. He first introduced us to his latest bit of expertise three weeks ago in the Irani Cup. But that was in a five-day game played in front of an empty stadium and against an imperturbable Wasim Jaffer; the match in Mohali had a significantly larger audience and the batsmen seemed in no mood to block. Yet, Ashwin never looked out of his depth.
He bowled with reasonable control and the kind of fortitude that makes him such a compelling specimen. On one occasion, he followed up a wide with a sharp leg-break to Vijay Shankar that had the batsman scrambling. Also on display was the flipper, delivered with an action that had shades of Anil Kumble in it. Although his sole wicket came from an angled off-break; this was a stupendous rendition of an art that bowlers spend a lifetime perfecting. It might have been just four overs, but Ashwin didn’t have the look of someone who was doing this just for the second time in a high-class competitive game.
Undoubtedly, there is a hint of desperation to what Ashwin is trying. The need to add to his already formidable bag of tricks has been fuelled more by the rise of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, two young, vastly talented wrist spinners who have sent Ashwin packing from the national limited-overs sides. The use of wrist spinners is, in fact, now an omnipresent trend — almost every team has one. Captains like them for valid reasons: They are difficult to go after, extract more from unhelpful pitches, and pose a far greater wicket-taking threat than your traditional finger spinner. They are erratic and expensive at times, but that’s a risk now teams seem to be willing to take.
It would be, however, unjust to look at this as merely an attempt by Ashwin to get back into the Indian team. That he can conjure up such sorcerous feats, even at 31, is proof of the unfathomable levels of skill and inventiveness he possesses. A young Ashwin was guilty of trying too much, often striving to reach a level that cruelly took away from his core craft of off-spin. The latest addition, though, is different. This is him thinking more like a batsman – that he can practise and play the reverse sweep without compromising on his trademark cover drive, for instance. The cover drive, in his case the regular off-spinner, is a delivery he clearly feels he has mastered.
Moreover, this switch is a reflection of the brutal nature the game has acquired. The fact that Ashwin, despite picking up hundreds of international wickets, has to come up with something different to stay relevant demonstrates how arduous the job of a modern-day bowler has become. It points to a larger point as well: For a bowler mainly tasked with damage control, it is all about innovate or perish. It, of course, remains to be seen if Virat Kohli develops a liking for Ashwin’s leg-spin — not in the batting sense — and offers him his place back in the Indian limited-overs teams. But one thing is amply clear: the conventional is no longer good enough in cricket.