Transcript: Couch Talk 193 with R Aswhin

Couch Talk 193 (Play)

Guest: R Ashwin

Host: Subash Jayaraman

Subash Jayaraman (SJ): Hello and welcome to Couch Talk everyone and I am your host Subash Jayaraman; joining me today on this episode Indian spinner R Ashwin. Welcome to the show, Ashwin. 

R Ashwin (RA): Thank you, Subash How are you?

SJ: I’m doing quite well. Thanks for being on the show for the third time. The first time in 2013, we talked about you rise through the ranks, TN Ranji and in 2016, we talked about bowling in T20s. This time I would like to talk to you about your stints playing in the English county system. 

In 2017, you chose to play for Worcestershire. They were a Div 2 team at that time and have since progressed to Div 1, a lot of thanks to you. WHat precipitated the decision to play for Worcestershire?

RA: In 2017, personally, I was going through an up and down slide in my own cricketing career. All of a sudden, when we came back from Champions Trophy in England and went to Sri Lanka, they did communicate to me that I may not be playing that series and they were going to rotate the players. It was quite a disturbing time for me, in the sense that I did not understand why it was happening because the previous two years I’d ended up playing limited number of ODI games as I had to give myself the best chance to be the frontline bowler in the Test format. It was more of a conscious decision to serve the country in a better fashion. All of a sudden, the games I played had become [fewer]; people started to talk about my stats and for any cricketer at the elite level, especially for me who keeps excellence at the forefront, it was quite a difficult thing to understand or assimilate what was happening, and I needed a break. 

I thought playing county cricket at that time would give me that required break and also allow me to rediscover the joy of playing the sport. I did feel like I was losing a little bit of joy, not necessarily in the sport itself, but playing the sport at different points of time in different places. So, I wanted to go from the attention and play some cricket. Worcester chose to give me a stint – it is not easy to claim a stint in England – and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

SJ: You’d debuted for India in Tests in 2011. So, for somebody that had played six years of [Test] cricket, to go away and play Div 2 county cricket, and especially as an India cricketer you are mobbed everywhere you go, what was it like playing in the county system? Was there regaining of some your anonymity?

RA: I genuinely feel the fans, the people that watch the game are the elite stakeholders of the game. They dictate how one’s career shapes up and how one becomes popular and gains celebrity status. To me, firstly, I am a sportsman; the love of the game and the passion have for it has drawn me to it. I am indebted to the game and the fans for how they have celebrated me over the years. I believe even if you are a celebrity or a cricketer in India, you still want to lead a normal life; you want to take a walk. Yes, you can but you may have to give a few photographs and autographs, which I have no issues in doing. If I’m not in the mood to do it, I do say no as well. Living back in Chennai hasn’t been that hard. You do get occasional stones pelted at you with rash comments from people that you don’t want to hear, it can’t stop me from living the normal life that I crave so much. I am just a normal human being and the celebrity status was thrusted upon me rather than me asking for it. So, it was perfectly fine going to England and be one amongst the commoners and play the game. I genuinely derive a lot of pleasure playing the game. Forget the county circuit, I enjoy playing even in the clb circuit in Chennai. I thoroughly love it and I go back to it with utmost passion every time.

For me, playing in the county, was about understanding the playing culture there, the way cricket is played there, the different surfaces that you encounter, the sort of roles that you have to play at different stages of the game, the professional pressure that you may have to handle on occasions – sometimes you feel you have to carry the burden of the team all by yourself, living on your own – making your own food. It is not the same as [playing for India]. It’s not the 5-star hotels where you pack up, boot up and eat wherever you want to…

SJ: That’s what I was going to ask you. In the Team India set up, you have a lot of support staff that take care of your day-to-day needs so that you can focus on playing the game. Did being on your own and taking care of you own stuff, take you back to an earlier time as a cricketer?

RA: My early days as a cricketer involved being an engineering student and playing club cricket in Chennai, managing both of that, shuttling between college and practice. Playing in county, it was a new experience, as you had to assemble your house, get your family over. I had to go first and settle things down. Because I had two really young kids, I first had to settle down and get them over. You had to get your own groceries, you drive your own car, I thoroughly enjoyed it. For the first week or two, it was a bit of a strain as you had to settle down but then, I enjoyed it as I had time with my family away from home and playing cricket on my own terms. I thoroughly enjoyed it my first time at Worcester, and drawing on that experience, as I go back, I keep getting better as a human being and as a cricketer.

SJ: I’ve read former Indian cricketers playing in county and describing as an eye-opening experience for them. You just described the personal side of things. From the cricket side of things, you play a pretty packed schedule. The former cricketer I am referring to is Zaheer Khan who said that playing in county allowed him to get back in shape and get back into the Indian team. How was it from the cricket point of view, first playing in Worcester and later in Nottingham?

RA: I personally learned something over the last 12-18 months. I’ve been injured two times on big tours to England and Australia. I don’t read too much into it but I’ve learned a thing or two from it. 

When I came out of being all format player to playing only Test, which came under my own realization and the communication wasn’t that sure, when I was rotated out in 2017 and I realized in 2018 that it had been a year out and I might not be back in the white ball formats. There was a good 12 months when I was hoping to come back, trying to manage my work loads. By the tie I reached the end of 2018 and in to 2019, I realized that the rigour of playing 12 months [in all three formats] isn’t there anymore. My body had become used to playing around the years for the last 10 years since becoming an international cricketer in 2009, and I had played almost every day for 10 years in some high intensity fashion, playing all three formats. All of a sudden, I didn’t have the same workload. So, actually, I had to skip managing my workload since the cricket wasn’t there as much as it had been. There were big spikes in my workload. 

So when I went back to England, I was bowling those overs which I was bowling over the last 10 years but missing from my life from the last 6-8 months. All of a sudden, my body didn’t live up to it because it wasn’t used to the spikes. Similar thing happened when I went to Australia. I hadn’t played a lot of cricket; I’d played a couple of games here and there – obviously the opportunity to play more didn’t present itself and in a couple of cases I also turned it down. Now, my realization is a lot [different]. Wherever there are three stumps, I present myself and play cricket. I’ve started to realize that the game actually draws a lot of love in me. I had to come to terms with my own understanding of my game and where I stand in my career. I feel a lot more at ease, and understand my body, and what needs to be done going forward. Playing cricket in England definitely gives me that sort of understanding within.

SJ: In terms of your performance, you had a big hand in Worcestershire progressing from Div 2 to Div 1. I want to talk in terms of spin bowling – bowling in England, softer pitches, time of the year you were bowling in – September, I believe. What was the experience like?

RA: I think the days of soft pitches and damp pitches are gone. Those were the days of Derek Underwood and John Emburey. It’s not the same any more. People do cover the pitches now {laughs]. They have relaid the pitches. If there are soft pitches, they would aid spin, but there aren’t soft pitches. 

English pitches are extremely slow. What happens for a spinner, doesn’t happen necessarily quickly. Even if there was rough or a little bit of spin, it can be countered. You don’t pick wickets in a hurry there. Sometimes, you are lucky and pick wickets but sometimes, you have to keep pegging away. 

That’s when I realized that the way they approach the game and the way their captains drive the game, is different from how we do back home and in different parts of the world. There is an understanding of the game on how it needs to be played in different pockets of the world. That’s why the home advantage is as distinct as it is. The understanding takes a bit of time, and sometimes, it takes years together. With India, even with the greatest of batsmen that we had and the great bowlers that we had, it took them 4-5 tours before they started achieving the results because the innate understanding of how the game is played in different parts of the world is vastly different. Maybe the aspects are fine and minutes, but how you apply it is so very different and sometimes, if you don’t apply it well enough, it could cost you as much as an innings defeat. That was my biggest takeaway from the county stints. 

SJ: You performed really well with the bat as well. You played only four 4-day games for Worcester and you led them in both bowling and batting averages. So you’d say you had a very successful stint in Worcester in 2017?

RA: See, when I landed in Worcester and started playing, I realized something contrary to what were taught in terms of getting on the front foot to counter spin or seam. Most of the successful English batsmen actually sit back, they go deep in the crease and allow the ball to move away so that it can miss the edge. So, it was vastly different from what we believe in terms of cutting the spin or seam, back home. That’s one thing I learned. However, it’s not like it is the truth and it has to work that way, but I saw some cricketers [do that] and I tried to [implement] that in my game and I was quite successful batting there. 

Even when I went back to be with India,  it was not easy to dislodge me. I was making 30s and 40s on challenging wickets because I allowed the ball to come to me and tried to play it late. I went deep into the crease and I didn’t offer [my edge] to the movement.

Even with the ball, I realized how much ever [action] you put into the ball, you have to keep pegging away. You don’t end up with five wicket hauls in a session, you end up with five wicket hauls in a day! That realization dawned upon me when my captain at Worcester actually made me understand. I played with some senior cricketers at Worcester in Joe Leach and Daryl Mitchell who made me understand it works this way. You will get one wicket here, one wicket there and all of a sudden at the end of the day you have a five wicket haul. It’s not like you can five wicket hauls every day because fast bowlers do rule the roost even if the pitch has something in it for the spinners. Those are some straightforward understanding I need to take from Worcester and I came out rich from that [experience]. 

SJ: As an international overseas pro, what sort of responsibilities on your shoulder not only in terms of results but also in guiding the younger players in the team?

RA: One thing I really enjoy when I play county cricket is that I get to share whatever I know. I actually take batsmen and bowlers out on one-on-one sessions with them. I do enjoy that part of cricket because as I teach, I learn. I understand what they have to offer – it could be very small but those are the understandings you are trying to pick up. Without any intent of gaining from them and my intent is to give, I enjoy giving back to the game and to these cricketers.

On my first stint with Worcester, I took a few batsmen away and had one-on-one sessions with them – how to play against spin, try to understand what they have to say. That was a great experience for me as it was really eye opening. Also to gain access into how they felt, how they played the game, how they thought about it. For me, those sort of battles and intricate details give a lot of excitement.

SJ: I want to go back to an earlier point about workload; you used to have uniform high workload whereas now you have spikes. How do you manage yourself now, with the position that you are in your career, when a Test series comes along, you are ready to play and do not stretch yourself too much?

RA: I can’t really think about all that, to be honest – if I have to think about how my body is going to shape up or how it is going to give up. I have to give myself the best chance. As I said, it is the joy of playing the game. If I put limits on me or embargoes, it unnecessarily burdens me because I have no control over my body. How much ever I train, it is going to react the way it going to react. There are only certain things I can take stock of; I understand that I can only control the controllables. I just want to have a smile on my face and continue playing the game the way I’ve played it all along because I’ll be doing deep injustice to myself If I do it any other way at this point in my career. 

Strictly speaking, there are a lot of negative things floated around every day in everybody’s cricketing career, it is no different to me. I just want to stay away from the negative aspects of the game or what at comes with it – I play, I don’t get to play, I might get to play, all these things are not in my control. When I do play, I want to put that smile on my face and play and realize that I do enjoy playing the game. If that goes away, the point of playing the game itself becomes irrelevant.

SJ: I checked in with a English journalist friend of mine about your time at Worcestershire. He actually used the phrase, “he had a smile on his face” and that you were friendly and a major hit. It seems you realized something about yourself in your time there. 

RA: There is no realization as such. Different people use different journeys and enjoy playing the game in different ways. For someone, it could be fame that drives them to play the sport; for someone else it could be the money that drives them to play the sport; the reasons could one or more. There could be a hundred reasons. The only reason for me to play the sport is the sport itself. I really enjoy doing it. Despite all the opportunities and jobs in front of me, I get to play the sport, enjoy it and get to make a living out of it. I genuinely enjoy it and I am passionate about it. It’s not like I go and play where there are three pegs, I actually enjoy those three pegs, so I go and play them. It’s that. 

Sometimes, along the line, when you are in the circle of playing the sport, or stuck in the bubble of playing international cricket – stay in the bubble, five star hotels, four walls, planes or whatever it is, you do probably lose the purpose of you being there sometimes and it can happen to the best of the best and it was no different to me. So when I did the chance to reflect, and go away from the bubble, think for myself and think about the game; Why am I here? Why am I playing the game? It makes things a lot easier. It also makes me realize how important it is for me to keep being associated with the game, keep playing it in different places wherever it gives me that opportunity.  

SJ: You try to play as much as you’d like, but the craft of bowling itself – you can’t just not play and turn up one day and expect to land it on a dime. When you have time away from the team – whether you are on tour or back home – how do you keep yourself sharp with your skills. 

RA: For me, every practice session is very important. As you said, you can just expect to land it on a dime every single time, but at least I know, as a process, if it doesn’t land on a dime on a given day, the things I can draw up on. I play the sport with utmost awareness because I enjoy doing it. I think the success in my career or whatever I have achieved so far has come from the fact that I am an aware cricket, so to say; a “process to results” kind of a person. If I put this process in place, this result will happen. If that result does not happen, then, what are my plan A, plan B… I probably have till plan E. So, it works sometimes, sometimes it doesn’t. Even my plan E doesn’t work sometimes, that’s the way it goes. You don’t go to work and be successful every day of your work. 

SJ: Of course.

RA: I do realize that it is work after a point of time but I have realized that the more happy space I find myself in, the more I enjoy the game, and more successful I have been, in the past and even right now. When I played Under-22 cricket for my state, that was one of my really successful times before I got into international cricket. I made runs and got wickets for fun. The best part of it was that I wasn’t extremely serious or anything like that; I was having a lot of fun and kept myself in the best possible frame of mind. I used to do things I loved. It’s about that. I can’t really hide in the cocoon. 

It’s like music. It’s like when AR Rahman says, “when I am in the best possible head space, I create magic with music.” So, he composes music at midnight or past 1 o’clock. That’s probably when he finds himself in the best head space then. So, for me, if I can find myself in that best space, I give myself the best chance to succeed. I could produce a bad song, but the chances are that I’ll produce more often a good song than bad. 

SJ: In high level sport, no player is ever 100% fit. You are always dealing with some niggles or the other. You have had some injuries, how do you manage those and come back from them?

RA: On the contrary to what other people are saying about their similar injuries, I keep reading some of those reports on and off – I’ve refrained from reading anything about cricket or myself over the last twelve months; wherever I read it fleetingly, it has been actually very different [to what was said]. It has been [a] freakish [injury]. 

The first time I injured myself was in Nottingham, where I go to play county cricket now. It wasn’t a cold day but my adductor just gave up, it could’ve been due to anything. It could have been due to workload spike – up or down. The second time was actually an abdomen tear in Australia. I had bowled 40 overs, and at the end of Day three, I went to do spot bowling trying to achieve something with the bowling coach and it just cracked. Maybe because of the workload again but it just cracked. It was a freakish injury. It was probably because the body wasn’t warmed up enough or it was too fatigued, or it was the wrong time to do it. So, these are learnings I have had. Whenever I have done these things before, it did not happen to me, I did not injure myself, but I have learnt now. Like you said, you are never really perfect. I wasn’t really perforect when I walked into the second innings at Adelaide with a grade 3 abdomen tear and I ended up bowling 60 overs. That’s all I can look at. When I look back at my career and say, “Could I have ended with a five-for at Adelaide?”yes, I could have. With a bit of luck, I could have because Nathan Lyon took 6-fer in the second innings but that doesn’t put my performance down. I was reflective on creating a win for the team and I am very proud of the way I put my hand up for the team and bowled 60 overs with a grade 3 tear. So, for me, looking at any of those negatives, is a waste of time. I am only looking ahead.

SJ: Even with injuries, you try to do the best you could but it is only human to think about them when you are trying to perform. How do you manage that?

RA: (Sighs) As you said, it is very human to think about it but next time I take the field for Team India, it will definitely going to be an interesting time for me and an exciting opportunity. After having played 65 Tests for India, I will be walking in thinking it is my debut game because I am going to have all the butterflies I had when I played my first game for India. I am going to look after my body; I am going to look after my success; my first over, my first ball that’s going to come out. I want to make runs. I want to prove a lot of people right; I want to prove a lot of people wrong. Fortunately enough, the people bit is one thing I can really shelve. I don’t bother about it any more. I used to once upon a time but not any more. All these butterflies running in, it is an exciting opportunity for me to start my career all over again. I’ve controlled whatever I can control; Whatever happens, happens. I cannot refrain from putting a smile on my face and going out to play and do the best for my team. I can’t afford to be nervous either. 

SJ: Going back to county cricket, your games for Nottinghamshire this season, how was your experience there in 2019? You played three games?

RA: Yeah, three games. I love playing at Notts. It’s a very young side per se. They’ve got players from various other teams and they are trying to assemble the team together. Lovely team atmosphere. Worcestershire and Notts – it has not been very different to me, to be honest. Yes, the clubs’ pedigrees are very different. Worcestershire is a very family based sort of club, everybody comes from the academy. Notts is slightly richer club. They have got a massive history and obviously, Trent Bridge is a very famous Test venue. But the team per se and the guys in the dressing rooms have been real stars, they’ve been wonderful. Some of the guys I played with Worcester – Joe CLarke and [Ben] Duckett – are in Notts dressing room now. They welcomed me really well. I enjoyed working with some of them and sharing whatever I know. Personally, sharing and teaching takes me higher as a cricketer and that is one aspect I really enjoyed there. 

SJ: I know you are a cricket nut, and try to watch as much cricket as you can, when you are not playing yourself. Having been exposed to spin stocks in England – they have had trouble finding someone of the quality of Graeme Swann since he retired after the 2013-14 Ashes – now Jack Leach is playing for them and they have tried previously Scott Borthwick, Dom Bess, so on and so forth. What is your evaluation of the spin stocks in England?

RA: I think spinners play a different role [in England] and are definitely not the alpha males of bowling attacks in any team. Rightly so, because the conditions demand that. How we go through spin bowling in India – the kind of lessons I have learned with the right mentors at different stages of my career; I had WV Raman as the coach of the team when I made my first class debut. I credit him highly for the cricketer that I have become today. All those small, fine adjustments that he empowered me to make, puts me in a good state to the small adjustments to my game [now]. Likewise, it is important for [English spinners] to get those mentors. You have one Graeme Swann, how many people can he [mentor]? And even he has moved on to broadcasting.

Obviously, the way you bowl spin and the way you approach, there is going to be a marked difference in how those people see it. Sometimes, in the first half of the season, they don’t even get to roll their arms over. Even when they do in the latter half of the season, the fast bowlers are the strike bowlers and the spinners do a holding role, which even I do in the 7-8 games I’ve played in England for county teams and even for India. You end up playing the holding roles more often than not and you become a strike bowler by chance; [Being a strike bowler as a spinner] doesn’t present itself very often.  

So that being the case, to be able to understand [spin bowling] innately and the ability to try new innovations becomes a challenge for them. I do think they are starting to produce their own spinners. They do realize the importance of it. There are a lot of good spinners going around there as well, but like you said, Dom Bess, I had an opportunity to chat with him. We are in touch and I really enjoyed passing whatever I knew to him. He is a very keen kid, I am sure he will come through very well. 

SJ: On that note, Thank you Ashwin for being on the podcast, I appreciate it very much.

RA: Thank you.