I started to play the game out of pure joy and love: R Ashwin

Ravichandran Ashwin for Team India
Ravichandran Ashwin for Team India (PC: ICC)

Ravichandran Ashwin is one of the legendary spinners that India has produced, especially in the red-ball format. Currently, he is currently busy playing in the TNPL, but ahead of that tournament, he opened up in a candid chat with RevSportz’s Editor-in-chief, Boria Majumdar. In this special episode of the Backstage with Boria, Ashwin’s book, ‘I HAVE THE STREETS; A KUTTY CRICKET STORY’ is celebrated as the off-spinner shared some untold stories along with his ways of overcoming continuous challenges, equation with Sachin Tendulkar, Mankading and a lot more.    

Boria: What does cricket mean to you? Not only you, to your family, what does it mean?

Ashwin: First of all, cricket is not something that I chose as a profession because I wanted to be popular or be on TV or earn money. The reason for which I started to play the game is pure joy and love. There are lot of stories that we had to cut out of it, Boria, because we had to get some finite distance in the book. I would have probably finished it earlier than what I have finished. My whole interest in writing is because I am a book reader, especially novels.

For me, it was about bringing out how much I love the game, because of all the struggles of my parents. The cost of a bat used to 6,000 rupees and the entire salary that my household used to get was about two-three thousand rupees. To buy those English-willow bats was a huge struggle. But never once did my parents ever tell me that the investment, he had to go out and earn that.

I do not know what it meant to them; it is just pure love. Even now, when I go back home to my mother or father, I just feel home. There are several times when I think that what would I do if they are not there! They have been there all through my life as a pillar of support and there is no such expectancy for the love they give.

Even now, when I am home, currently I am practicing for the TNPL, when I go home, my dad will give me 100g of my favourite milk sweet that I used to eat when I was 12-13 years old. I do not know how I would repay that back, because we all miss our parents once they are not there anymore. But for me, even writing this book is a way of keeping them with me over a period of time.       

Ravichandran Ashwin running out Jos Buttler at the non-striker end in IPL
Ravichandran Ashwin running out Jos Buttler at the non-striker end in IPL (PC: X)

Boria: This book is an inspiration for everyone. You may be not the fittest kid, have problems but if you have passion, determination along with a dream, you can do it. Can you tell me about that phase? How tough it was?

Ashwin: Look, I am very thankful to the neighborhood where I have grown up. The 90s households, and they are very close. You live in Kolkata and the neighborhood there is also very close. The locality I live in is pretty much similar. My father used to invite the neighborhood uncles for chai, watch cricket together and that’s the sort of neighborhood where I have grown up. One thing is that I would really thank my elder friends that I played with for the competitive edge they gave me all through my life.

I was the youngest in that group, used to play alongside them and they used to give me that opportunity and because of that, I never feared anything. I started to believe that I could conquer anything and everything. Even though I was not the most gifted, had my own challenges, I used to feel that anything could be overcome. At very early stage of my life, I understood that my limitations need to be conquered through other strengths that I could bring to the table.

I used to think constantly think that this is my weakness, and how do I combat that. My first overall dismissal at the non-striker end came from that because I used to be a slow runner between the wickets and used to cough a lot. I used to take extra distance as soon as bowler delivers the ball. I used to start running and if I needed couple of twos, I used to step out on purpose to counter the ball.

Then, I realised that maybe I can run out a batter at the non-striker’s end. So, I started to think all these, how to combat all the limitations I had. We all are born with some strengths and limitations. If you use your strength to cover your limitations, you might end up even.

Boria: How was the whole Mankading thing? I have always said that what you did was completely within the rules. Give me a little bit more of that.

Ashwin: Recently, I did a book launch in Chennai, and we were talking about it and I found it amazing. Because it gave me a new perception to the whole situation as well. My childhood coach, his name is Mr Chandrasekhar Rao. I was his blue-eyed boy and he used to pick me, even in a group of 100-200 kids, he will be able to see me doing my thing. I used to be quite naughty and hence, he used to pick on me a lot. He loved the way I batted, loved the way I bowled, he knew that there is something in me. Hence, he loved my dad because he saw the passion my dad brought to the table. Every day, he used to take me to the ground.

I never used to take a change of T-shirt. My father used to carry that because coach will be annoyed. He used to carry that extra T-shirt, used to carry water for me. For me, cricket was everything. The moment you put three stumps in place, I don’t need water, don’t need food, don’t need anything as I just want to be there. Because my coach did not like this, my dad used to step up and they used to have a love-hate relationship. Every time my father used to look after me, coach would come up and yell at him saying that why are you spoiling your son? Then, my dad will come up that this is the only son of mine, not that much gifted, have some limitations and that he used to do it with a lot of joy.

My dad was working in railways, and some of his colleagues visited home three days ago. They said how they used to chip in at work because he had to take me for practice or matches and how delighted they were doing that. So, we were playing a private club game. The game was in the balance, a good batter batting at the other side and a No. 11 batter at the non-striking end. It was the last ball of the over and my dad stood right behind the batter and suggested to me to knock the bails off. Why did this even come into his head? It was triggered because he said that Kapil Dev once ran out Peter Kirsten at the non-striker’s end and got a warning. Courtney Walsh also got a warning. So, all these stories, he used to narrate to me, and I started running out elder kids near my house because otherwise, I had to bowl at them all day long.

All these kids used to go and complain to my dad. But dad used to tell me that it’s fine, you ran them out because Kapil Dev has done it, Courtney Walsh has done it. A batter is supposed to be behind the crease and as a bowler, you should also bowl from behind the crease. But when I did it in a game for the first time, the coach did not talk to me for days despite being his favourite. Once he broke the ice in another game, he just went at my father. My father was shattered and I knew that it is not a very popular thing. Later, he pardoned me and all, but for me, I never did anything wrong. So, when I ran out a batter on a bigger stage and questions were raise by millions, it was not such a big deal for me.  

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Boria: So now, when I think about the Jos Buttler incident, you have actually had this story in your head.   

Ashwin: See, in the Buttler episode, my team was shocked. They were looking at each other and I called them into a hurdle and said that this is a game-breaking moment. All I want now is that you guys focus on the game and win the game. Because I am not just doing this for the sake of it, I also want to win the game. A lot of people who come and talk about it, make a mistake by saying that it was done intentionally to change the flow of the game. Of course, it was done with intent and it is within the rules. If I am using that as an advantage, I will, as I am not cheating anyone.

Boria: Have you ever spoken about this with Jos Buttler?

Ashwin: Look, after playing so much cricket over the years, I have learned that I do not have to convince anybody. I don’t want Jos to see the right side because I did it. I respect him as a cricketer, and I am sure he also respects me as a bowler and a cricketer, what I bring to the table. I don’t believe that it is required at all to have a conversation. Because of that, he will not make any changes to his stance as he has said many times that he would not run somebody out at the non-striker’s end in a semi-final or final like that. But I am sure in 10-15 years of time, somebody will run out somebody at non striker’s end and win a cup. And all we need to do is say to the batter that it is within the rules.

Boria: When the doctor from Apollo said that you don’t need that operation, for six-odd weeks you could not move, how challenging it was in terms of mental health?

Ashwin: Doctors are one of the angels that have turned up in my life. Although I have not written an acknowledgement page on my book, I constantly showed gratitude to all the people that have come in my life. When I was about to take the surgery, doctor said that it is not needed and it was sigh of a relief for the family. We celebrated, distributed sweets but I never knew what I am getting into. It was painful six weeks because at 4 pm in the evening, I used to hear children play. All my friends were used to be on road, shouting ‘four,’ ‘six’. Fifth week or something, when I saw myself in the mirror, I was shocked. My face swollen up this big and nobody even spoke about it. After six weeks, when I wore the school uniform, it was not getting fitted. When I just entered the class, all classmates were shocked. It was a huge shock!

Ashwin with Sachin Tendulkar in the 2011 WC Winning team
Ashwin with Sachin Tendulkar in the 2011 WC Winning team (PC: ICC)

Boria: Have all these things impacted you during your miracle fight in Australia?

Ashwin: I may not be good enough; you may not like me. My direct straight forwardness might be liked by many people. My questioning will not be liked by many but at every stage of life, I have fought. I had fights with myself, my limitations, organisations, and the power that holds me. I take pride on it. Everybody goes through challenges, and I have also. I don’t look at these things as challenges, always look to combat these. Sometimes, it works, sometimes it does not and in Australia, it was the same as well. I tried to stay on the back foot, block the balls, tried to combat and it worked. There are days also where I failed. So, that is who I am and I will fight. Even if you put me inside a cage with the strongest person, and I have to live, then I will fight, nothing will matter to me.

Boria: Can you tell me about Ashwin and Sachin Tendulkar?

Ashwin: Sachin Tendulkar was, is, and will be everything that will signifies the cricket for me. Recently, a week ago, I gave your book, ‘Sachin@50’ to my daughter and asked her to read the book. I wanted her to know about Sachin and the one thing that really stood by me in terms of Sachin is the way he became the only ray of home in a nation where not much to look forward. In 80s, two things were struck with people, one cinema and another cricket.

In cricket, it was all Sachin Tendulkar. Then, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid came but still remembered how my stomach used to scrunch when Sachin used to come out to bat. It was a gift for me to watch him bat for two-three hours. He gave me happiness and never wanted him to get out. There has been a competitive side to me, and I have always wanted to take the wickets of everyone even in the nets. But, when I used to bowl against Sachin, especially in the first one or two years, I was not able to complete my action because I was bowling to the great man.

In my memory, I have seen him cutting Shane Warne, Saqlain Mushtaq and all. I knew that if I bowl, he will treat me the same all round the park. He was a ray of hope for me and in school, I had fights with classmates as they claimed that Sachin was not the greatest player, Mark Waugh is. It was maybe the century from Waugh at Chepauk in 1996, and the fight happened. To share the dressing room with him, credit to him for giving me the space.

Also Read: MSD told me that I must remain funky: Ashwin