Ravichandran Ashwin’s T20 World Cup Selection is a triumph of T20 bowling
The leading Indian off-spinner was an excellent practitioner of defensive bowling skills in T20 cricket.
When Ravichandran Ashwin takes on Sri Lanka’s dangerous mid-range power hitter Bhanuka Rajapaksa in a clash at the Asia Cup 2022 in Dubai, former Indian player Sanjay Manjrekar began commenting on the duel from the comment box for a crucial point in the game.
It was important to Manjrekar that Ashwin maintain his “stickball” – the off-break – to try to parry the opposing left-hander. The veteran commentator felt it would be a mistake on Ashwin’s part against Rajapaksa not to keep that classic flight and drift and allow Sri Lanka to run away with the game.
However, what happened on the field was in complete contrast to Manjrekar’s assessment. The moment Ashwin floated the ball up as part of his overall lineup, Rajapaksa and partner Dasun Shanaka quickly used their feet, trusting the surface’s accuracy and batting the bowler away. Rajapaksa found a six to deep mid-wicket region while Kusal Mendis hit a similarly flown off-break via covers earlier in the innings.
But as the bowler slipped the ball down a lower trajectory, he found a significant leash on run scoring that was more characteristic of his nature in T20s. Take away those two sixes and Ashwin had a daily value of 1/20 less of his remaining 22 deliveries in defense of a goal that forced Sri Lanka to operate over 8.5 and up.
But when it came down to the action on the field, Manjrekar kept encouraging the bowler to keep flying and pumping the ball up, hoping for the turn that wasn’t there. Why would a commentator ask Ashwin to embark on a trick he’d just seen fail?
The quality of the commentary offered throughout the Asian Cup left a lot to be desired for the viewer. But what Manjrekar did essentially deepened the chasm that continues to exist between actual T20 action and how commentators have spoken about it. There’s a shocking bias towards the traditional skills that work in tests and ODIs, and a deeper sense of disregard or lack of understanding of what makes T20 a different sport in its own right.
Leading broadcasters continue to employ prominent retired cricketers to hold the mic, which in turn leads to tactically misguided commentary for the viewer in T20 as these former players are inherently detached from the essentials of the format. Audiences are quick to absorb these gentlemen’s words, a scenario that would require careful scrutiny of the game for them to earn their paychecks. But the commentary for T20 is stuck in an old era where there is no wiggle room to understand and respect the concept of defensive bowling skill.
With the lower trajectory being at heart of their longtime bug-bear and wicket-taking, the average viewer is likely to negatively sway opinion of bowlers like R Ashwin in the shortest format when he or she hears these commentators. Manjrekar & Co. failed to recognize and convey why Ashwin’s landing the ball away from the batter’s arc is a compelling solution to avoiding the downswing in unassisted bowler conditions.
You can’t tell the viewer that “I would take 3 for 40 any day of the week over 0/24” and expect him to weigh heavy words like hard lengths and defensive trajectories. if you tell him “wicket taking” is the be-all and end-all, leaving the viewer woefully misinformed about T20 bowling.
For commentators, wicket-taking in T20 cricket consists of levitating the ball near the arc and causing it to spin or swing with a stickball to release the batsman in the conventional manner. You can’t do that as a bowler until you want to be sent to your peak as the lane doesn’t give you grip and spin, nor does the white kookaburra have a stitch strong enough to move laterally in the air and off the deck .
Ravichandran Ashwin’s T20I Sojourn commands respect for the art of defensive bowling
Most T20 surfaces and the general conditions in which the format is played, force the bowler to improve on defensive bowling skills. As a spinner, getting the batter to find the fielder at depth, not the limit, and invariably keeping the ball off the arc when the big shot arrives is the surest means of getting the batter to find it.
Why would you challenge the sweet spot of these bulky racquets on flat pitches should be the follow-up question to the Manjrekars of the world when they are so obsessed with Test play lines, lengths and trajectories, depriving the viewer of actual T20 play, which in turn leads to a ill-informed discourse about its best practitioners.
That’s why R Ashwin’s T20 World Cup selection is a triumph of T20 cricket and defensive bowling skills. An ever-evolving cricket brain, Ashwin was one of the earliest figures to understand and adapt to the demands of the format. Ashwin was mocked when he said: “Six well-constructed bad balls could be the way forward in T20”, but his prophecy has only since been fulfilled.
That “bad eggs” Ashwin was referring to a set of top six saves delivered in terms of surface area, general conditions and opposing hitter available. Rashid Khan, the world’s largest recognized spinner with limited surpluses, has now built his own T20 empire by absorbing this trait. Rashid kept it dead straight on a low trajectory, throwing an indecipherable mix of googlies and legbreaks to celebrate some notable wood against his opponents.
But Rashid is a wrist spinner, with the game enabling his success. What Ashwin, a finger spinner, managed to do despite the rules and rules of the game in T20Is and IPL is a great case study of one of modern cricket’s finest spin bowlers. With the game’s keepers pressuring the “Doosra,” Ashwin had to dig deep into his determination to take the ball away from the right-hander and take their goal on a leash.
Since his comeback last year, Ashwin has sent over 48% of his overs down on point balls and has had an economy rate of 6.10 with 14 wickets from 10 T20Is for India. In his overall career, the off-spinner has recorded just 6.81 an over in 56 games and 66 wickets. 58 of those overs were delivered in the field restriction phase, where Ashwin managed to keep the batters to a very respectable 7.48 overs despite only two boundary riders.
Against India’s toughest opponents on Ashwin’s career timeline – Australia, England, South Africa, New Zealand and Pakistan – the 35-year-old has an aggregate economy rate of 7.40 in 29 games from 28 wickets. Among the Indian spinners, only Yuzvendra Chahal (38) has taken more wickets against this group of opponents. But he took her at 8:54.
In Australia vs Australia, a place considered a graveyard for finger spinners, Ashwin has a T20I economy rating of 7.40 over five games. No Indian bowler could claim to be that stingy in these encounters, which somehow dispels the perception that Ashwin is unfit for an Australian World Cup.
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Chahal is a symbolic figure of what warms the hearts of traditionalists and current commentators serving the format. His tendency to fly the ball up is always raved about from the box, and anything else is criticized by these gentlemen.
And that despite the fact that he is one of the most expensive T20I spinners ever with a career economy of 8.08 after 66 games. Chahal has been going for 8.28+ over 39 T20Is since early 2019. The 32-year-old is considered a wicket-taker when in reality he has averaged over 30 with a strike rate of over 22 for almost three years.
That Chahal had this decrease in his wicket-taking frequency over such a large sample size confirms the cancellation or disapproval of his method in this format. And underscores the greatness of Ashwin, the T20 cricketer, while reinforcing the necessary art of defensive bowling.
At his best, even Chahal pins him away from the arc, forcing batsmen to drag the ball for options against the spinning ball. But he hasn’t been at his best for well over three seasons now and was one of the main reasons India were eliminated early from this Asian Cup.
That should have gotten gentlemen holding the mic to reconsider what they think, know and are telling the viewer about the T20 action. But we’re a long way from getting there until broadcasters mandate certain specific standards for these ex-cricketers to achieve with their commentary.
First, let’s celebrate the triumph of R Ashwin and what it means for the art of defensive bowling.