During the coronavirus-forced lockdown, Ashwin Ravichandran transformed himself into a YouTube star. While international cricket stopped and restarted, as the Indian Premier League moved to the UAE, the off-spinner slipped into the role of an interviewer and a storyteller.

He devised his own way of keeping the negativity out by getting Ranji Trophy winners, ace spinners and other cricketers to speak about their success mantras. In these shows, he would explore the mindset of a champion.

And mind you, he is a champion himself.

With 10 wickets in two Tests thus far in Australia, the 34-year-old now has 375 wickets to his name. The only Indians ahead of him in the most Test wickets ladder are Anil Kumble, Kapil Dev and Harbhajan Singh. In any other cricketing nation, he would have been called a legend now.

But in India, Ashwin has struggled to win the battle of perception; the perception that he doesn’t bowl well outside Asia and that his fitness is not up to the mark. There is some truth in both arguments.

There was a time when he was averaging 64.50 outside Asia and that led Virat Kohli to consign him to water boy duties during the first Test of the 2014-’15 series in Australia. But that average now stands at 35.28.

Ashwin – in Tests outside Asia

Matches played Inns Wkts Average SR Economy
Till Jan 2015 14 24 56.58 104.2 3.25
Current 23 39 78 35.28 74.2 2.85

Fitness concerns meant that Ashwin played just one Test during India’s last tour Down Under in 2018-19 and also had to miss a game during India’s tour to England in 2018.

Now, Ashwin has set about changing both these perceptions.

In both the Tests of India’s ongoing tour of Australia, he has outbowled Australian off-spinner Nathan Lyon... something no other spinner has been able to do in the recent past. He has claimed the wicket of Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne twice and has dismissed seven of the top eight Australian batsmen at least once in the series.

He has got turn, bounce, drift, flight, dip and more importantly, success. There is no attempt to try too many things, and as former India off-spinner Ramesh Powar puts it, there is just classical off-spin bowling.

“I think he has this time gone there with an open mind and is trying to adapt to the conditions and the Kookaburra ball. This time, he is bowling basic classical off-spin,” Powar said in an interview with Scroll.in.

“He is putting extra revolutions on the ball. He is getting the ball to drift in and that is why a player like Steve Smith missed the line and got out caught at leg gully [in Melbourne]. That ball, in particular, drifted like an in-swinger. Generally, the off-spinner’s ball drifts out. To get the ball to drift out, he is not only using his fingers but also the wrist.”

The Smith Plan

The dismissal that Powar is referring to is Smith’s in the first innings of the second Test. Ashwin took just three balls to price-out Smith for a duck. In the first Test in Adelaide Ashwin had him caught at first-slip by Ajinkya Rahane. It was just the sixth ball of his first over. It wasn’t exactly a doosra but more of an arm-ball.

‘Probably never let any spinner dictate terms like this’: Steve Smith on battle with R Ashwin

As Powar put it, “Ashwin has realised that with Kookaburra balls, one has to rely more on top spin. On his earlier tours, he was trying to undercut the ball. Now, the only time that he is undercutting the ball now is when there is a left-hander who is playing him from deep within the crease. He clearly has a better idea of how to use the Kookaburra ball in Australian conditions.

“Earlier he would go to Australia and bowl how he bowls with an SG ball (the brand that is used in India). The Kookaburra ball is more suitable for top-spin, while the SG ball is more suitable for sidespin. The SG ball spins more while the Kookaburra skids more because of the difference in the leather used to manufacture the two balls.

“It’s impossible to get that amount of dip if one is not working on top-spin. Look at Mathew Wade’s dismissal in the first innings at Melbourne. Wade went to sweep [lofted slog] but the ball dipped and bounced to take the top edge. If the ball hits the rough part of the ball it won’t break, which is something Ashwin is able to achieve.”

Powar breaks down the Smith dismissal in the first innings at the MCG a bit further. It was the first time Smith was out for a duck in the first innings of a Test match.

“It’s simple, anyone whose body falls towards the off-side, his eyes will always be outside the off-stump,” said Powar.

“Now Smith is like that. And he feels that he can easily play anything outside or on the off-stump towards the side. Now if one bowls a ball that drifts out like an out-swinger he will be able to play, but what Ashwin is bowling is one that is drifting in and that is putting Smith out of position. With the ball drifting in, Smith has to commit to playing. Now Ashwin would have worked really hard to get the ball to drift in, because generally we are taught to drift out and make the short-leg bring into play.”

Smith admits Ashwin’s class

Smith has himself admitted that Ashwin has tricked him.

Speaking to SEN network on Tuesday, Smith said, “I probably haven’t played Ashwin as well as I would’ve liked; I probably would’ve liked to have put him under a bit more pressure. I’ve sort of let him dictate terms and that’s something I’ve probably never let any spinner do in my career. I’ve sort of taken it to them, been a bit more aggressive and made them change things.

“I haven’t allowed that to happen, probably because I’m searching for just being out there for long enough. It’s kind of a two-edged sword in a way, but I think I’ve just got to have the confidence to take it on and play my game.”

What makes Ashwin’s effort more special is the fact that he is able to drift in the ball from close to the stumps, something that Powar believes is very difficult to do.

“The fact that Ashwin is able to drift the ball in with a release point that is close to the stump is very unique,” said Powar, who has coached the senior Indian national women’s team.

“It easy to bowl that middle-leg line from the centre or wide of the crease, but Ashwin is able to do this from close to the crease because he is using a lot of wrist. The mindset of the batsman is that if a bowler is bowling from close to the stumps, the line will be on or outside the off-stump. A fast bowler never bowls an in-swinging ball from close to the stumps. A batsman’s traditional way of thinking is that if a bowler is bowling close to stumps, then I can play the cover drive, but Ashwin is making the same ball drift in and spin and thus they are clueless. Once you cover the leg-side field, the batsmen can’t do anything.

Powar added: “Ashwin is also bowling everything in eye-line, so they are not able to make out that ball is drifting in. Tactically, too, he has been brilliant. Look, he realised that if he bowls outside off stump to him, Smith can milk him. But this middle and leg line is making it impossible for Smith to do that. He also realises that Smith doesn’t sweep a lot and thus this line has low risk.”

Slowing the pace

Powar talks about small adjustments that Ashwin has been able to make on this tour.

“Ashwin worked really hard to get his angles right while bowling from close to the stumps. His front shoulder is open while bowling these in drifters. His action thus becomes semi-open and thus the ball comes out the way it is. He has long fingers and a big hand and that allows him to use his wrist better.”

Another thing that Powar highlights is the slow pace at which Ashwin is bowling, something that Sunil Gavaskar had alluded to as well.

“This is also partly due to the over-spin that he is generating. For his sort of action, it is very difficult to bowl fast and also impart over-spin. Ravindra Jadeja can do it because he has arm speed. He makes a base and lets it rip. Ashwin’s arm speed is not that fast and his base is also not that strong. As Ashwin is not a bowler who rides on his front foot, if he has to bowl fast he will have to under-cut the ball. He is an upper-body dominated bowler. Also because he is working on getting more revs, the speeds are low.”

All this has meant that Ashwin has put the ghosts of his last three trips Down Under on the back-burner. During the 2014-’15 trip, missing out on the first Test changed his career, he has said in the past. In 2018-’19, he bowled brilliantly in the first Test but missed rest three due to an injury.

This series is proving to be his stairway to the land of legends. Fitness permitting, the first two Tests have shown, he is on his way.