R Ashwin: ‘Accidental Spinner’ Scales Mount 500

First ball of the 14th over and R Ashwin, from around the wicket, pitches one outside the leg-stump and the ball turns a bit after hitting the rough patch. Zak Crawley went down on one knee and looked to sweep it fine but miscued the hit to Rajat Patidar in the short fine-leg region. By no means it was a wicket-taking delivery but Ashwin would grab it with both hands as it made him only the 2nd Indian bowler, fifth spinner and ninth bowler overall to enter the elite 500 Test wickets club.

There were congratulatory hugs and smiles all around as the 37-year-old, playing his 98th Test for the country, soaked in the moment and acknowledged the applause from the dressing room with a gentle wave. Ashwin has sent down more than 25,000 deliveries in his Test career and those who have played both with and against him, marvel at the time and effort he puts in to stay relevant in the ever-changing cricket landscape.

ALSO READ | With 500 scalps, Ashwin becomes the second-highest wicket-taker for India in Test cricket

With the match still excitingly poised, Ashwin didn’t play up the milestone bit much at the post-day presser but did reflect on what has been a long journey.

“I was an accidental spinner, I wanted to be a batter all along. Life gave me a chance. When I walked into the CSK dressing room, Muttiah Muralitharan didn’t want to bowl with the new ball. Eventually, I got past the new ball. I had a good First Class start. The stage in the IPL made me visible to a lot of people. I eventually got my Test debut. People doubted me whether I could be a Test bowler, and here I am 13 years later. So not bad. I am pretty glad,” says Ashwin.

Former England spinner Graeme Swann has always been a big fan of R Ashwin and was in the commentary box when his opponent from playing days scaled Mount 500. What made the 500th more special for Swann was the fact that it was the first England wicket to fall on the day and a breakthrough India desperately needed at that stage.

“It was going to come in this Test match, probably fitting that it was the first wicket to fall. Just when India needed that breakthrough, he was the man who got it. I have got to take my hat off to him. It is brilliant to see, especially a finger spinner to get to 500 Test wickets. I have always been a huge fan of his bowling. To get to 500 Test wickets in less than 100 Tests is a massive thing,” says Swann during the break from his commentary stint.

Well before the series got underway, two Ashwin milestones everyone was waiting for were the 500th Test wicket and the 100th Test. The 100th, if there are no fitness concerns, will anyway happen in the fifth and final Test in Dharamsala but the venue of the 500th Test scalp was anybody’s guess. At the pre-match press conference, Ravindra Jadeja remarked that it should have happened in the Hyderabad Test only but he was happy that his long-time teammate will achieve the historic feat in his hometown. “It’s destiny,” Jadeja said.

From trying different load-ups before a long series to exploring various angles to testing new deliveries (even leg spin), Ashwin has always been a bowler who has never stopped trying, never afraid to experiment and never stopped thinking about the game or his craft. How difficult is it to keep doing that over the years, Swann has a crisp take: “It’s very difficult for people but not Ashwin. His character demands that. He is a student of the game… like a professor of spin bowling.”

When Ashwin is not playing cricket, he is watching it. When he is not watching cricket, he is talking about it. When he is not talking about cricket, he is tweeting about it. Even when the rest of his teammates enjoy the break between series cooling their heels at home, Ashwin finds time to churn out videos on YouTube and also watch a Ranji Trophy match between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu at Chepauk.

Unlike other leading spinners in the country and around the world, Ashwin didn’t make an early debut. He was 20 when he turned up for Tamil Nadu in the First Class circuit for the first time and had to wait five years to get the Test cap. Swann himself was 29 when he made his Test debut and feels both he and Ashwin had “an advantage”.

“If you start playing slightly later, you do have an advantage because you’re a better bowler, you’ve played more cricket by then. Guys who have to learn on the job or who had to learn on the job back in the day, I find, they were at a disadvantage, so he probably benefited from that when he eventually did play Test cricket at 25, he was ready for it,” explains Ashwin.

ALSO READ| ‘Greatest Off-spinner India Ever Produced’: Wishes Pour in as Ravichandran Ashwin Scales 500-wicket Milestone

In the 98 Tests Ashwin has played so far, 59 have been at home and 39 have been played away. The crafty off-spinner has been India’s go-to man in the home series for over a decade now. What impresses Swan the most is how Ashwin has delivered with the “massive pressure” of performing and winning Test matches at home.

“In your home Test, where you are picked to win the Test matches. There’s a massive pressure. He’s had to live with that pressure for 10 years, For 98 Tests. And he never fails to deliver. So his achievements speak for themselves,” says Swann.

There is still a lot of time left in the game and the series and Ashwin is certainly not stopping at 500 and would look to make this a memorable Test for himself and the team.

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