Couch Talk 189 (Play)
Guest: R Ashwin
Host: Subash Jayaraman
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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. The guest today is India cricketer Ravichandran Ashwin. He talks about the ever-shrinking role of bowlers in T20s, the changing role of spinners in T20s over the last 8 years, what it means for a bowler to adapt to various formats, and goes on to state that T20 is a different sport and is probably not even cricket as we know it.
Welcome to the show Ashwin.
Ravichandran Ashwin (RA)– Thanks for having me, Subash.
SJ– It’s a pleasure having you on.
You’ve bowled in the IPL since 2009 and have been playing for India since 2010. In the course of those 8 years, how have you seen the role of spinners in the game develop, morph, evolve, change for the better or worse?
RA– I think, initially, people never gave the spinners a chance. They thought spinners would just exist and will just be hammered all over the park. That has changed over the last 6-7 years of the IPL and even in T20 cricket across the globe. Teams started to believe in what the spinners could bring to the table. But, at this stage, as we are speaking now, T20 cricket has changed; we have seen a transition in T20 cricket. In the next couple of years, par scores will be tested. I have no doubts in my mind that the game has definitely gone to the next plateau.
SJ– Could you expand on that? You are saying that this is at a crucial juncture where it could transform into something else…
RA– Especially playing in the IPL, having played in Australia and Bangladesh and other places, the grounds in India are turning out to be of a size where it makes a batsman believe that even a quarter of a decent hit would clear the fence which is definitely putting the spinners in a bit of risk in terms of bowling aggressive speeds, lines and lengths. If you see what has happened, there was one good spell from Amit Mishra and one good spell from Axar Patel in this IPL. Apart from that, the spinners have struggled to stay in context of the game. It is not easy, me included. Although I haven’t gone for many runs, I have managed to hold my economy rate; but to bowl an attacking line or speeds has been a bit of a challenge so far. Make no mistake, as we are speaking we are standing at a juncture where we have to grow and evolve with the game. I have already decided how best a bowler can offer to the team. We are going to be tested not [just] as a bowling community, but as a sport. We are going to get into a phase we have to find a balance. I found that in different forms of the game, as the bowlers have adapted and evolved, the game has moved forward and it is again time to adapt and move forward.
SJ– Could you talk about your own journey in this as a spinner form 2009 to 2016 in what your training was and what your preconceptions were when you started off in 2009?
RA– When I started, the team was new, everything was new to everybody. That was not a big challenge because everybody was getting into this. People weren’t sure what they would be countered with and what they were going to be thrown at. It was completely new and they were taking as it came, and the game has evolved ever since. I would say that when I started I was just a spinner transforming from first class cricket to one day cricket to T20 cricket. There was not much thought process, my intention was to bowl what I knew; threw it out there and tried to evolve. Since I started playing, I always wanted to pose a threat to the batsmen. So, I always kept evolving, and I also want to reiterate that whatever is existent is not going to stay [that way], we will have to take the game forward. At the end of the day, by posing a threat to the batsmen will be the only way you can [as a bowler] stay in the format now.
SJ– I want to talk briefly about this – you are finger spinner and there are plenty of wrist spinners. Wrist spinners are considered to be more attacking, but finger spinners have shown that they are equally effective in T20s. How do you see the essential difference between the two kinds of spinners in terms of taking wickets vs containment?
RA– This is not about finger spinner or wrist spinner, but what is going to be important is the kind of versatility and adaptability one shows. It doesn’t matter if you are a finger spinner, wrist spinner, fast bowler- it is not going to matter. What will matter is the versatility and adaptability that you bring to the table and how much you can adapt to the fast changing pace of the game, and how much you can understand the game, how much you live and thrive in the pressure that the game is going to thrown on you. This is a very short duration game , for just 3 hours and the bowler is going to be involved in just 4 overs of the game – not even 20 minutes of the game. How much are you going to absorb and understand the scenario and situation of the game and try and execute the best possible delivery at that stage without any hindrance or fear. These are all going to boil down into very interesting aspects of the game which I think will definitely drive the game forward.
SJ– When you say adaptability – people say that a lot – to go from one format of the game to another, going from one condition to another. What do you mean by “adaptability”?
RA– Adaptability is anything ranging from different grounds and conditions to variables to the batsmen – what kind of shots the batsman is playing on the day, what the wicket has to offer and how the batsman has adapted. If you are catching up with the game, how are you catch up with the game? When you turn up at a ground, you expect the wicket to behave in a certain fashion, it doesn’t. There are so many variables in this game. It becomes even more important when it comes to T20 cricket. A single ball, a single event can change the course of the game. So, you stand at the top of your mark, knowing or realising the importance of each and every ball. It’s not about an over; each ball delivered is an event. With that in mind, the significance of every ball you are going to deliver in mind, if you are able to execute the perfect delivery under the pressure, that is all that the team is going to look forward to. That is what we talk about as adaptability in this format of the game.
SJ– I want to continue on that topic. When we go from one format to another, from Tests to limited overs or limited overs to Tests, and people say that we are professionals here and will have to adapt from various formats and conditions. Are there habits as a bowler that you have to unlearn or relearn as you go from one to the other?
RA– Definitely. From my own perspective, the speeds with which I bowl changes not just from one format to another, but from one ground to another. The lengths that you bowl, there is a natural length that every bowler hits, but you have to change the lengths because the ground is smaller. In the IPL, it has become increasingly clear that even the spinners will have to bowl short because most grounds offer a very small straight boundary. If you throw the ball up on a very good batting wicket and try to get the ball to spin is so much risk against the reward. Half decent hit with the modern bats, it is very likely to clear the boundary. Spinners are increasingly starting to bowl short, which means they are taking the straight boundaries away. When you play Test match cricket, you can’t bowl short. That is the difference.
SJ– With that in mind, how do you evaluate your performance in a T20 game? Do you look with respect to the outcomes or do you evaluate based on what you had in mind when standing at the top of the mark -the bowling plans that you had?
RA– It is a very interesting question, and is a difficult one to address as well. More often than not, you could end up with 4 overs 25 runs and not be happy as well. That’s how I am. If I finish 4 overs for 25-26 [runs], it is supposed to be a very good in itself but I am always pushing myself. On the contrary, that is a great spell in the [context of a] T20 game. As far as assessing your performance, you have to go by seeing how well you adapted, assess how well you executed your plans and what you had taken to the game and see if you matched up to it. It creates some momentum going into the next game. At the end of the day, after a game is done, it is about going into a fresh game. So you will have to plan differently, prepare for a new batsman, you don’t know what you are going to be thrown at. So, it is all about how well you bowled rather than the figures. Sometimes, the figures cannot reflect justice to what you’ve done.
SJ– For example, you hear during Test matches the commentators saying “Oh, that was not a bad delivery at all, it is just sheer class of the batsmen, he hit it for a four/six.” The experts say that more often in Test match than in limited overs. Independent of the outcome, you can say that the bowler bowled a good delivery, but is that even possible in a T20 game?
RA– There is subtle difference in a T20 and a Test match game. The sheer class of a batsman can convert a good delivery in a Test match, but I don’t think that will happen in a T20 game. The viewers and experts will have to change their phrase by saying that “It was sheer power that dealt with that good delivery”. I am afraid the game is shifting there, skill and finesse is going out of the game and it is becoming a power-oriented game – which is alright, but the ground sizes needs to be readdressed, and the kind of wicket quality also needs to be readdressed. There is balance that needs to be struck. If you don’t feel that and see it only as a complete entertainment, then I would agree with what is happening.
SJ– As a bowler, do you think in your mind that that was a good delivery that you bowled, but what happened beyond that is not in your control? In some ways, can you convince or tell yourself, have the mental peace, that you did the best you could? Are there things that you do to evaluate and say that you did the best you could?
RA– It could be very hard, you can’t say that you did your best and give up on it. It might be that you bowled well and still went for runs, but from the inside as a very competitive athlete I never think like that. I always think how I can improve on that, what other options I have. The ultimate thing for me is to dismiss the batsman, not [just] beat him in the flight. Beating him in the flight and getting him out is gone, it is not the trend anymore. Beating him in the flight and getting hit for a 6 is the trend now. With that happening, you have to push yourself and see what options you have. Probably the best ball is not anymore the best ball now. Probably, a short, wide and shit ball could be the best ball to bowl from now on.
SJ– That is what I am trying to arrive at.
RA– I basically think that six well constructed bad balls could be the way to go forward in T20 cricket.
SJ– I was trying to find out what is a good ball in T20, and you said that, especially for spinners, bowling short is better now. When someone has bowled a delivery, as a cricket practitioner, can you say that is a good ball despite the outcome – whether he got a wicket or went for runs? Is it possible to say that in a T20?
RA– Do you think any of us have it in us to say that a six being struck can be said as a good ball and it was unfair it went out. Nobody talks like that. Everybody says that he just floated it up there and it went for a six. We never say that it was a good ball anymore. It is not unfair because that is where the game is headed, and so we can’t call it unfair…
SJ– If we think it is unfair, we can call it unfair, right?
RA– I am sure we can. I think with Test cricket, One Day cricket and T20 cricket, we can safely say that T20 cricket is another sport. It is probably not a part of cricket.
SJ– I am with you on that, completely. There is another thing I wanted to talk to you about, from the bowler’s perspective. What is in it for a bowler in T20 cricket? There is this statistic that ESPN Cricinfo and other people keep a track of – control percentage – in a Test match 92-95% of the time the batsman is in control of the shots he plays and it reduces to mid 80s in ODIs and mid 70s in T20s, roughly 3 out of 4 balls the batsman is in control T20s. Yet, if you bowl 4 out of 6 balls exactly where you want and you miss out on two, you can go for 15-16 runs an over.
RA– Definitely, that is why I say the power component is so huge in cricket now.
SJ– So, what is in it for a bowler then?
RA– I think that the bowlers need to just try and find ways to adapt. As the bowlers move forward, the game moves forward. As of now it seems like an unfair component. I don’t want to suggest any tweaks that can make it even or something like that. But we have to find ways, and at the end of the day, it is the bowlers that are left with to find ways to move the game forward.
SJ– There is a historical perspective to it about how cricket has always been a batsman’s game…
RA– It has always been a batsman’s game, it has always been stacked against the bowler. But the bowlers have again and again found ways to dismiss the batsmen. That is the balance that the bowlers give to the game, but the game doesn’t give much back to the bowlers.
SJ– You said that you were not in favour of any tweaks to the game itself. But, would it make it more fair if for example, the specialist bowlers got not just 4 but more overs; or reduce the number of wickets that a batting side gets. You have 10 wickets in 20 overs, that is not fair for the bowlers.
RA– Interesting. For starters, batsmen batting both hands is a problem. When I am the start of my mark, I am telling the batsmen this is what I will commit to. I keep a 5-4 field or a 4-5 field, with respect to what I do; but the batsman, once I do, is free to change hands. Which means I can bowl on both sides of the wicket and the wide call is in the hands of the umpire. He interprets what he wants to do. That itself is a problem. There are the basic rules that need to be tweaked in the first place, which hasn’t happened now. I don’t know what else can be offered, I don’t know who decides all these things but I definitely think that there is something that can be done to try restoring the balance between bat and ball, but as an existing cricketer I will definitely say that we better start finding ways.
SJ– In a Test match, it is a sport for specialists – specialist batsmen, bowlers and wicket keepers. You see part timers bowl more in ODIs and even more T20s. There are statistics that show that as the length of the game reduces, more and more part timers bowl. What does it say about the cricketing contest itself within the scope of T20s? You said it is a different sport, but a lot of people may not agree with that or they don’t think in those ways just yet. So, I would like to hear from you as an expert in the area of cricket, what is the cricketing contest within T20, if there is anything at all?
RA– Obviously, batting and bowling and all these things are cricketing contests. There is cricketing context in the game, I am just saying the sport is a different one. The parameters that are addressed in [T20] is completely different to what is addressed in a One-dayer or a Test match. A good Test match player can convert himself into a good T20 player, but a good T20 player cannot convert himself into a good Test match player because there is not enough skills being addressed in T20 to play well in a Test match. They can come in and give a good golf swing and hit the ball out of the ground, but never play a good Test match innings and something like that. Those are the restrictions and parameters that go with T20s and Test matches. In terms of it being different sport as I told you before, I would still maintain on that. You don’t do a lot of things that you do in a T20 game in a Test match. It is very hard to do that. The wicket conditions are very different; you can’t just keep slogging your way through a Test game or even a one day game.
SJ– Moving forward, let’s say you are running a team. Would you choose a specialist bowler that can bat a little bit or a specialist batsman that can bowl a little bit because of how the game is structured in T20s?
RA– That’s exactly what I am saying. Each and every cricketer in this format needs be able to add value in the other zone. If you are a bowler, you will have to strike the ball out of the ground. If you are a batsman, you will have to roll your arm over. That is the kind of adaptability or versatility that I am talking about. In terms of versatility and adaptability in cricket that I is what I would look at. If you are a bowler, can you hold the bat, can you strike it out of the ground? If yes, I would have you in my team. The quality of one dimensional cricketers is going to throw the game apart.
SJ– Last couple of questions. One is a bit more situational. If there are a couple of batsmen who have batted together in a T20 game for a few overs. With the amounts of wicket that they have in store and the shortness of the format itself, they would be foolish to not try and hit every single ball out for a 6 and hit as many runs as possible. How do you approach that situation as a bowler?
RA– The best way to look at it from a bowler’s point of view is to dismiss the batsman. That is the only way that you can get a small window of relief. If you don’t dismiss the batsman, and you just give single, you will have to live with it that he will come back to strike and try and tonk you again. The best way is to try and find ways to dismiss the batsman. To what extent can I use the lengths on both sides o the wickets, to what extent can I drag the batsman out, what width of the crease can I use before I am being wided – all these things are getting to a stage where millimeters are being used by the bowlers in attempts to find any kind of advantage. From there on, I would just try to dismiss the batsman and find a small window of relief.
SJ– This concept of spells in Test match cricket – as a spinner you bowl 8 to 12 over spells, 6-8 overs for a fast bowler. In T20s, it is just a one, or two over spell if you are lucky. How do you go about it?
RA– It is very simple. You will have to construct each and every single ball of your spell. You need to expect to be charged at, to be slogged after at every possible opportunity. You have to be holding your guard. Giving out just single is gold, dot ball is platinum. That is as good as it gets.
SJ– Alright! Any final thoughts?
RA– I just think that T20 is here to stay. There are a lot of possibilities about the game. As much as there are challenges to the bowlers, I am sure the bowlers will find ways to adapt. I think that T20 cricket is a completely different sport. The percentage of people and teams that realise and move in that direction will find early success in this game. I think we are in transition phase.
SJ– Do you see that beyond the teams and franchises, the people who observe cricket – fans, writers and commentators – are on the same wagon that sees T20 cricket a sport or are they still in the old mindset?
RA– I don’t know, I haven’t had the opportunity to chat to the people or hear them voice this opinion. It is just my belief, that it is a completely different sport, and you will find people fitting in to certain parameters and man to man markings, like in EPL, and T20 cricket will kick on from there. I am pretty sure that is the way it is going to be. As I said, the quicker one realises and adapts to it will find early success. It is all about perception and how people want to see it. Some people can choose to be blindfolded to it.
SJ– Alright! On that note, thank you so much, Ashwin, it was fun talking to you.
RA– Thank you so much.