'Elated' R Ashwin conjures magic on return
At most times, R Ashwin isn't hugely expressive on the cricket field. He usually wears a frown of concentration at the top of his bowling mark, and mutters something to himself just before he begins his run-up.
That in-his-own-space intensity is all you see at most times, but when he takes a wicket there's a fleeting glimpse of elation, the flicker of a smile, just before he veers off towards extra-cover, right arm raised in triumph. By this time the smile is gone, having first given way to a scowl directed at the departing batsman, and then to that gazing-into-the-middle-distance resting face as he accepts his team-mates' high- and low-fives.
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On Thursday, when he bowled his first ball of international cricket in 2019, most spectators - this one certainly - would have noticed little that was different about Ashwin's body language. But people close to him who keep an eye on him not just when he has ball in hand but at other times too, may have seen something different. That's what they told him, at any rate.
"I am elated to be back," Ashwin said after the third day's play, after picking up his 27th five-wicket haul in Test cricket. "It is always special for India. There is nothing like picking up a five-wicket haul for your country. This place is very special for me.
"But I enjoyed a five-wicket haul for Nottingham too. One is not too lesser than the other. For me, it is about playing the game. I've realised that the joy of the game has to be back in my heart. I've made sure that I can enjoy the game wherever I go and play.
"That I thought to an extent was quite visible when I played also. Yesterday, most people who spoke to me said you looked really happy. I don't know if it was guessing or if it was true, but I did feel genuinely happy to be back there and to be bowling again.""I've literally stopped reading about the game like I used to do in the past. As much as you want to know stuff, you want to watch the game, there was a phase where I actually stopped watching cricket for a brief period."
Since mid-2017, Ashwin has been a one-format player for India, and his appearances in that format have lately been sporadic too, with injuries keeping him out of four Tests in England and Australia, and with Ravindra Jadeja getting the lone spinner's spot in two Tests in the West Indies. It took him some time to wrap his head around not being on the international treadmill day in and day out.
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"To stay away from playing cricket itself is very tough for me," he said. "In order to substitute that, I played whatever games I got. I tried and made an opportunity for myself to go and play some county cricket. I tried and played the TNPL (Tamil Nadu Premier League) as much as I could, played some league cricket in Chennai.
"It was very important for me to tick those numbers off because that is essentially where I came from. Going back and playing there is probably the best thing that could have happened for me."
Playing only one format for India, Ashwin suggested, may have had some part to play in the abdominal injuries he picked up in England and Australia.
"In terms of addressing injuries and why it happened, it is better left to the medical staff to do it," he said. "For me I felt like all of a sudden I wasn't playing all formats of the game. I was playing cricket 12 months a year [before that], and that up-and-down spike in workloads probably could have caused it.
"That's why I went back and played as much cricket [as possible], wherever I got an opportunity I played, and from my side I can only tick those boxes and see how my body coped with it. With all due respect to everyone, I enjoyed whatever I did over the last six months, wherever I played, whatever I did."
All that cricket certainly seems to have kept Ashwin in rhythm. There were times during the Southampton and Adelaide Tests last year - his last two overseas Tests - when it seemed like he wasn't quite able to put the same amount of body into his action as he usually does. Here his action looked like it does when he's at his best, with the back hip driving powerfully through the crease. The ball, as a result, came out with that familiar, bewitching trajectory, laden with drift and dip.
The pitch wasn't as flat as it had been on the first day-and-a-half, but the help it provided was conditional. When batsmen got into good positions to defend and attack, as Dean Elgar, Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock did while scoring 326 runs between them, there wasn't too much the pitch could do to defeat them. But, when a batsman was new to the crease, and not yet moving his feet properly, the ball seemed to zip and fizz this way and that.
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"It's a proper Test-match pitch," Ashwin said. "You expect two teams to bat well, don't you? I thought they batted very well. Whenever the ball spun, it spun from very far distances [from the batsman], not from the normal length. I thought Elgar and de kock batted really well, even Faf batted really well.
"We might have given them few too many runs in the morning session which probably gave them the momentum. You expect a good side to play the way they did. So credit has to be given where it needs to be given. We stuck at it pretty well and came back in the back half of the day. That is how Test cricket is ideally supposed to be."
In these conditions, Ashwin's threat through the air made him India's most likely wicket-taker. On the second evening, it was his drift that opened up a narrow gap between Aiden Markram's bat and pad for the ball to sneak through, and soon after lunch on the third day it made another appearance to break a 115-run stand between du Plessis and Elgar.
That wicket is worth describing in detail, since it encapsulated just what Ashwin brings to this attack.
As is usually the case in Indian conditions, Ashwin bowled to a 6-3 leg-side field before lunch. It was 6-3 after the break too, but with the fielders rearranged on both sides of the wicket. There had been no one in the covers before lunch; now backward point moved to cover point.
Before lunch, Ashwin had pitched the ball on off stump or thereabouts, and this remained his default line, but ever so often he dangled one up wider, with the cover-point fielder allowing him to do so. Du Plessis was taking guard on off stump right through his innings, and the odd ball on that wider line, perhaps, was a way to get him to thrust his pad a little further across, in order to bring bat-pad into play.
The last ball of Ashwin's third over after lunch was the widest one he had bowled in a while, and du Plessis played it awkwardly, shuffling across and only getting his pad to it while trying to defend.
The third ball of Ashwin's fourth over after lunch wasn't as wide, but it was a little slower, with a bit of away-drift, and du Plessis' front foot was drawn across to it, but the length didn't allow him to get close to the pitch of the ball. The bat traced a wavy, imprecise arc as it tried to reach out and flick the ball, having to come around his body, and all he managed was an inside edge to leg slip.
"There is a difference in the trigger moment but on good surfaces you will get away with it," Ashwin said, when asked about du Plessis' off-stump guard and the shift to a wider line. "And on surfaces like this you will get away with a few shots here and there. I thought he was a bit lucky to get away with a few sweeps even before lunch.
"But it was about holding control of the game more than plotting a dismissal or trying to get it wider. Whatever he felt uncomfortable doing, try and gather some control and stop the momentum. Whatever was best suited, we wanted to do that. I thought that outside-the-off-stump line was a more attacking line, so I set the field that way."
Ravindra Jadeja, who has lately become India's first-choice spinner, is perhaps just as thoughtful a bowler as Ashwin, and it is perhaps harder for the viewer to try and discern how he's trying to work out a batsman because he seldom, if ever, talks about his bowling in any detail. On Friday he became the quickest left-arm bowler to get to 200 Test wickets, and you don't do that simply by being a metronome, but on this particular pitch he seemed to pose less of a wicket threat than Ashwin.
When asked about India preferring Jadeja to him overseas, Ashwin sidestepped the question.
"It is very important to do what I do," Ashwin said. "I've literally stopped reading about the game like I used to do in the past. As much as you want to know stuff, you want to watch the game, there was a phase where I actually stopped watching cricket for a brief period. I just wanted to play."
It demanded an explanation when Ashwin, one of the keenest cricket-watchers among active cricketers, confessed to no longer watching the game closely.
"For starters, I have two kids who don't sleep all that well in the nights," he said. "Jokes apart, I felt like every time I watched the game on TV, I felt like I wanted to play the game and that I was missing out. It's very natural, everybody goes through it, that's not the be all and end all.
"I generally try to do a few other things in my life as well. My life has been all about cricket for the last 23, 25, 24 [years], I don't know exactly. I just played the game with utmost passion. I thought my life, my family, my friends, everybody deserved a little bit more of my time, so I tried to spend a lot more time away from the game, tried to develop other interests.
"I do have quite a few other interests, which I discovered, which is also a plus. That's that, and I really found that whenever I stepped back on the park, it was a much happier time for me. I didn't fret too much about thinking about the game or watching the game a lot, but whenever I went into the game I prepared to the best of my abilities."
The other interests, Ashwin revealed, were "books" and, intriguingly, "a bit of archaeology work". None of that, you can be sure, can possibly give him the feeling he gets when he's at the top of his bowling mark, squeezing the ball into the split between his index and middle fingers, and fixing his narrowed gaze on the helmeted figure in the middle distance.