LWe’ll talk about the David Warner ball first and then move on from there, because if you’re going to try to grapple with the mind-bending, shape-shifting enigma Ravichandran Ashwin, you have to realize that there are layers and mirrors here . Some of the walls move, some don’t. Watch the ball and you will miss the hand. Watch the hand and you will miss the ball. If you watch both, you might just miss the whole plot.
It is the second one-day international match between India and Australia in Indore. India will win. That’s not the important part. For Ashwin, this doomed chase has become a deeply personal mission: a chance to convince India’s selectors that he is worthy of a place in the World Cup squad after more than 18 months without a team. Everything points to that. He completed marathon shifts at the National Academy. He has participated in local games in Tamil Nadu. He remained under the lights for additional batting practice. A bowler with more than 700 international wickets still believes there is room for growth.
Meanwhile, Warner tries to mess with him. He knows – or at least has a good idea – that Ashwin averages 21 against left-handers and 30 against right-handers. So he switches to a right-handed batting stance and negates Ashwin’s advantage. With the spin, he performs a conventional swing through the backward square leg. At this point, with a poker player’s cunning, Ashwin decides to change things up again.
Ashwin’s next delivery is the carrom ball, full and straight, with a little movement of the middle finger to move it away from the right-hander. Warner senses it, drops to one knee and does the reverse swing – a reverse reverse, if you will – gets into a fantastic tangle and lands plumb. Warner is so stunned that he doesn’t even consider writing a review for Insider, which would have saved him. To me, those few seconds seem to encapsulate the story of modern cricket, a game of innovation and improvisation, of feints and counter-deceptions, at the end of which – somehow – Ashwin still stands, still thinking, still half a step ahead.
It has been 13 years since Ashwin made his white-ball debut for India, an era when the existence of a young spin bowler has rarely been more fragile and dangerous. The thugs are as thick as bibles and the thugs are weight trained to within an ounce of their body fat. The formats are fluid and interchangeable. Develop a new delivery and within hours any analyst with a MacBook has it worked out. Every competitive advantage, no matter how small, gained through months and years of training, is an open flame in the most powerful wind tunnel in the world.
But Ashwin persevered, although not without a bump or two along the way. His Test record outside Asia and the Caribbean, where he took all 34 of his five-wicket hauls, continues to diminish his place among the all-time greats. He was not nominated for the 2019 World Cup in England. Despite his continued threat in the Indian Premier League, his performance in 50-over cricket – a format in which he had only played twice for India in six years up to the current series – was long considered to be in recession.
Ashwin, for his part, has never resigned himself to the cloak of obsolescence, never stopped trying to decipher the game, never been content to simply walk in from eight paces and throw darts onto the pitch. A mind is constantly at work, designing each new scenario with the precision of an illustrator. In fact, it is remarkable how many of India’s great spin technicians – Ashwin, Anil Kumble, Erapalli Prasanna, Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan – had technical backgrounds and brought scientific rigor to the best art of the game.
Everything here is plans and contingencies, decision trees and mind games. You think I do this, so you do this, so I do this instead. This is how he managed to go from finger spin to wrist spin, from side spin to tops spin, with the wrist, Playing the fold and the run-up and manipulating the wobble and drift in an even calmer way feels new and unfamiliar. The carrom ball that dismissed Warner on Sunday was slightly different from the one that removed Marnus Labuschagne, a variation he began developing a few years ago after he noticed batsmen starting to field his traditional carrom ball .
He can bowl with the new ball. With the pink ball he averages 14. From sneaky run-outs to tactical failures, from placing fielders directly behind the bowler to taking off his pads at the non-striker’s end so he can run faster – Ashwin has reinvented the sport to a degree that no spreadsheet or statistic can adequately describe. All of this just to stand still in a game that continues to change rapidly beneath his feet.
What this great career is missing, narratively speaking, is a crowning moment: a signature performance on the biggest stage. Kumble had his 10-wicket haul. Harbhajan Singh had his Australia series. For Ashwin, a home World Cup could be such an achievement. But of course there are layers and mirrors to this matter. Ashwin’s place is by no means certain. Axar Patel and Washington Sundar are still pushing him hard and perhaps for many India fans this is a largely transactional question: who fits best in this team at this tournament? But for the rest of us, it feels like a decision burdened with something more: a parable of modern cricket and its quirks, its efficiency and inefficiency, its quixotic and often unstable relationship with pure genius.