At some stage over the next three weeks, R Ashwin will become the fourth Indian, and the 16th overall, to get to the magic mark of 400 Test wickets. All other things being equal, he will be the second-fastest to that milestone, only behind Sri Lankan legend Muttiah Muralitharan (72 matches).
To have accounted for 394 wickets in 76 Tests is a remarkable accomplishment, any which way you look at it. It speaks not just about the individual’s longevity, but also his extraordinary skill-sets and a burning passion that the passage of time has done little to whittle. The 34-year-old hasn’t always got his due, with the ‘away performances’ argument a convenient stick to beat him with, but Ashwin has long got past all that, his focus trained firmly on the best version of himself he can be as he enters the final phase of what has been a glorious career.
As a rule, champions refuse to rest on their laurels. They are their worst critics, always looking for ways to improve, to add new weapons to their armoury, to reinvent themselves and be prepared for any curveball hurled at them. Even by those lofty standards, Ashwin is in a league of his own, forever thinking, always working towards being better today than he was yesterday, even when he was very, very good.
Ashwin isn’t so much a reluctant off-spinner as a somewhat slightly accidental one. In his early years in representative cricket, he was a top-order batsman who once nurtured ambitions – he still might – of opening the batting for the country. He has actually batted in the top four for India at the Under-17 level – where he was replaced, interestingly enough, by Rohit Sharma – but as he made the transition from age-group to the senior level, off-spin became the primary vocation even if he diligently made sure his batting skills didn’t suffer in the bargain.
To pigeonhole Ashwin as an off-spinner might be doing him grave injustice, come to think of it. Yes, the ball breaking into the right-hander is his stock delivery and his primary wicket-taking weapon. But over the years, driven by his curious and inquisitive mind and an innate desire to challenge himself, he has added so many strings to his bow that he has been unafraid to try out even leg-spin in the searing cauldron of Test cricket with its distinct slant towards the traditional.
There is a method to what might be, and is often, perceived as madness. The engineer by qualification doesn’t turn up and try out variations on a whim. What’s showcased in full public view is an offshoot of hours and hours of practice in the relative anonymity of practice sessions. Ashwin prides himself on being a master craftsman but hates being unidimensional. Perhaps in some ways, his restlessness acted against his best interest for a brief while, but since when has trying to be better become a crime?
Ashwin was a well-established first-class force by the time the Indian Premier League thrust him into national limelight. Before he played his first game for Chennai Super Kings, he had already picked up 50 Ranji Trophy wickets for Tamil Nadu, yet he served a long period of apprenticeship in Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s franchise before getting his first match. His breakthrough into the Indian team followed a similar pattern under the same leader; Harbhajan Singh was still around and was understandably the preferred off-spinning choice. Ashwin had time on his side, and while he must have been fretful and impatient, he was also sanguine enough to realise that it was a matter of when, rather than whether, he was afforded consistent opportunities to prove himself.
It didn’t take him long to establish himself as the country’s premier strike-bowler since he broke into the Test team in November 2011. One glorious era in Indian cricket had come to an end three years previously with the retirement of his inspiration, Anil Kumble. Harbhajan was on his last legs, Zaheer Khan had a little over two years left in him. Mohammed Shami had yet to announce his arrival, and Ishant Sharma 1.0 was still a game trier without commensurate results. The stage was perfectly set for Ashwin to step in and deliver the results Dhoni desired, and he seized his opportunity immediately, quickly becoming the go-to man for his captain and the team across formats.
None of this came about by accident. Ashwin has been consumed by cricket all his adult life, and will walk any distance to continue living his dream. Be it his backyard, or cricket grounds of other ilk, he wheeled and wheeled away in his quest for excellence, if not perfection. His efforts weren’t just quantitatively prolific, he didn’t try to do the same thing and expect different results.
His inherent curiosity compelled him to try out new things, so he worked on flicking the ball with a snap of his middle finger. The carrom ball became his calling card in white-ball games especially as it broke in the exact opposite direction of his stock off-spinner. The look of stunned disbelief on Hashim Amla’s face in the semifinal of the 2014 World T20 in 2014, when a ball from the off-spinner pitched outside leg and snaked away to hit the off-stump, was the ultimate tribute to Ashwin’s mastery of the carrom ball. Amla, lest it should be forgotten, is hailed as one of the best players of spin, of all time.
The arrival of Shami, the accumulation of pace riches and the electric breakthrough into the Test grade of Jasprit Bumrah in 2018, allied with Ravindra Jadeja’s increased efficacy, directly contributed to slightly diminished returns for Ashwin, still the quickest to 300 and 350 Test victims. Not the naturally most athletic, his body has protested over the last couple of years against the harsh punishment it has been subjected to for so long. Significantly, his silken batting skills that made him such a commanding presence in the second half of the batting line-up too seemed to be deserting him.
But Ashwin’s mind is too strong for him to throw in the towel. The lockdown proved to be a blessing in disguise, keeping him away from doing what he loves the most but allowing him the rare luxury of extended periods of self-introspection. Ashwin has found what is commonly referred to as a second wind. He was excellent in Australia with both ball and bat and, energised by the Sydney blockathon in Hanuma Vihari’s company, he has rediscovered his batting mojo. The Chennai century might have surprised almost everyone given that he hadn’t made even a half-ton for more than three years, but while others might have given up on him, Ashwin has seldom sought out external validation of his talent.
Put out to white-ball pasture in the middle of 2017, Ashwin knows that realistically, he has little chance of making a comeback to the shorter formats internationally. That’s not necessarily the worst thing, because it allows him to focus almost exclusively on his red-ball abilities. Where 400 might be the end in itself for some, Ashwin will use it as a stepping stone. Knowing him, he won’t have a number in mind, but if he keeps doing what he does best, it is a given that it will be a lot more than the already impressive 394, and counting.