Some years after Jagmohan Dalmiya, the veteran cricket administrator, had finished up at the top of the food chain with the Board of Control for Cricket in India and the International Cricket Council, he was asked about retirement plans.
“But, if I don’t run cricket, what would I do?” he was supposed to have asked, in answer. The story may be apocryphal, but it is entirely believable.
Something similar is unfolding now, only it is on the field. Ravichandran Ashwin, the hero of India’s 317-run win in the second Test, first showed how to bowl on that surface and then, deep into the game, demonstrated what approach you needed to take to score runs in Indian conditions. It was as though Ashwin wanted to do everything himself.
The term cricket tragic is thrown around fairly loosely but if there is one person who has lived up to that, it is Ashwin. When he is not playing cricket, he is watching other teams going about their business on television. If there is no international cricket to be had, he watches Twenty20 leagues around the world.
When the pandemic ensured that there was absolutely no cricket to be watched, Ashwin was talking about cricket. On his hugely popular youtube channel and Instagram account, Ashwin interviewed teammates, opponents, former players and when he ran out of those he found people who had only tangential connections to cricket and chewed the fat with them.
Even today, having played international cricket for 11 years, when Ashwin returns home he can’t resist stepping out on to the streets and joining a tennis ball pick-up game.
Which is why it should come as no surprise to England that the professor of cricket is always in the game. Over the years, Ashwin has bowled off-breaks, carrom balls, the undercutter, leg-breaks, googlies, and on occasion in the nets even slow left arm orthodox.
As a younger man, this was Ashwin’s way of staying one step ahead of batsmen. When one thing did not work, he would try something else. Anything but giving the ball away to another bowler.
With age has come maturity and the realisation that what looks exciting, and may appeal to an Indian Premier League franchise, does not impress Test batsmen much. With experience has come the knowledge that each delivery need not look different in order to provide variation.
On India’s recent tour of Australia, Ashwin outbowled Nathan Lyon, something that does not happen too often. He did this by being more Lyon than Lyon himself, relying on overspin more than horizontal deviation off the pitch.
Back in India, in more familiar conditions, with lack of bounce being a real factor, Ashwin switched gears once more. With the pitches providing the natural variation — in the second innings of the first Test and throughout the second — all he focused on doing was bowling six balls to a batsman, building pressure and plotting wickets.
Ashwin used the width of the crease to great effect, landing the ball in very similar spots from different angles, playing with the minds of batsmen. And, with England’s top order not trusting their defence enough, perhaps spooked by the puffs of dust from the surface early on, the get-out-of-jail shot was invariably the sweep. It did not work.
And here again, Ashwin showed how closely he was watching the opposition. When it was his turn to bat in the second innings, Ashwin came out sweeping. Only he used the shot tactically, hitting hard and flat and into the ground most times, not out of desperation.
When he was making his way through junior cricket as an opening batsman, Ashwin liked to sweep. Dismissed cheaply playing the shot on a couple of occasions in quick succession, Ashwin was dropped. He put the shot away, only to bring it back out when the situation demanded it.
If Ashwin’s career has been marked by an obsession with the game — and in this case the word comes without the baggage of the negative connotations sometimes attached to it — it has been kept alive by a constant quest to reinvent himself and stay relevant. Every cricketer will tell you that the day you stop learning, the day you believe you have mastered the game is when it comes back to bite you.
For Ashwin, the learning curve has continued to trend upwards, because he is more acutely aware of himself as a human being and cricketer now than when he was beginning. At 34, Ashwin understands his limitations, of body more than anything else, and has used his mind to overcome.
India’s challenge going into the third Test is not dissimilar to Ashwin’s. After being handed a chastening defeat in the first Test, the thinktank had to find a way to come back into the series quickly. Getting the sort of pitch they wanted played a part, winning the toss was a definite advantage, but in the end it boiled down to something much more basic: finding ways to score first innings runs.
But, if a designer pitch was front and centre in India outplaying England in the second Test, that is something the team will have to put behind them very quickly. The third Test, in Ahmedabad, is a day-night affair, and globally there is no instance of such a Test being played on a turning track. Just what will happen if the ball grips and turns from the first day, under lights? Just how will the tempo of the game go if there is variable bounce early on for the pink ball? Nobody knows. The word is that the curator has been told to forgo the 6mm of grass that is considered necessary to preserve the lacquer of the pink ball. Just how this will play out, is anyone’s guess.
To add another dimension of the unknown, the third Test will be the first international match at the venue. While the location is the same as the old stadium and the ground largely unaltered, the newly constructed stands now seat 110,000.
There won’t be anywhere near close to that many people in the stadium for this match, but for anyone present it will be a novel experience, a step into the relative unknown. What India will be hoping is that they can put their best foot forward, as Ashwin does, fully prepared and ready to learn something new and use it to their advantage.