Ravichandran Ashwin and Nathan Lyon: One art, two masters

Ashwin was the most economical of India’s bowlers. (Source: AP)

After prising out a solitary wicket in 24 overs on a lifeless strip, nonetheless the most economical Indian bowlers on the third day of the practice game, Ravichandran Ashwin tossed up a disclaimer: “We (he and Nathan Lyon) share a lot of mutual admiration but it would be silly to try and replicate his style of bowling.”

It’s tempting for an outsider to follow, and even copy, the habits of a highly successful home spinner. Lyon himself did so in the tour to the subcontinent last year, with glorious returns. But Ashwin wants to steer off such trappings. He reasons it with an analogy.

“You’re not going to ask Ishant Sharma to bowl like (Vernon) Philander, can you? It’s not going to happen.” He then elaborated: “It’s going to be very hard to replicate one’s action. We are talking about actions and biomechanics here, and it’s quite silly when people say, oh, it’s overspin and sidespin and stuff like that. You’ve got to still stick to your strengths.”

It’s a quirk of the game that the same ilk of craftsmen have variedly different craft, though the contrast not as stark as Shane Warne and Anil Kumble.

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The most perceptible, and fundamental, difference is the action. Lyon is classically side-on, Ashwin is more front-on. Then comes biomechanics – the latter gets more arm into the action while Lyon relies more on shoulder and hip. Then comes build and height – Ashwin is broader and a little over six-feet whereas Lyon is a shade under six feet and substantially thinner. Hence, the latter uses a lot of shoulder and resultantly tosses the ball more frequently.

“I was a pretty tiny fella growing up. I’m able to put more revs on it now, but I had to have the courage to flight the ball up,” he’d once said. But with Ashwin it’s more arm and wrists. The latter’s childhood coach Sunil Subramaniam claims he hasn’t come across a spinner with suppler wrists or bigger digits.

All these differences have fashioned their respective craft too – Lyon gets his man in the air, relies on over-spin and thus coaxes bounce. Ashwin too manufactures bounce, but it’s more due to his height, bedevils his victims with his variations, turn and on a really inspirational day, drift. Then the difference in deception. Lyon bowls a foot wider than Ashwin, who prefers a more off-stumpish line, like most contemporary spinners.

A definite DRS-era spin-off, as finger-spinners these days aim to hit the front pad, as umpires are less reluctant to giving lbws when the batsman’s front foot is down the pitch. Lyon relies on the conventional off-break and the arm-ball that he sparingly uses, while Ashwin is spoilt for choice; doosra, the carom ball, leg-breaks, in-swingers and what not.

Hence, Ashwin is not tempted to retool or re-model his approach on Lyon. “You’ve got to believe in your strengths. Something’s got me 350-odd wickets in my Test career, something’s got him 300-odd wickets in his career. It’s important to keep going the same way and learn a few things on the way,” he said.

Still, there are aspects of Lyon’s craft Ashwin could look to imbibe – like his mastery of length, and the awareness to bowl what length on which pitch and his ability to make the ball dip at the end of the flight path.
According to Lyon, he starts inside the eye-line, and makes it move outside the eye-line, an advice passed on by his former skipper Ricky Ponting. He can seamlessly shift roles from an aggressor to container, which cannot always be said of Ashwin – he still has those patches when he’s confused about his role.

Awareness quotient

In Australia this awareness is supreme. There will be phases in the game, on utterly responsive pitches, where he will have to rein in his experimentative traits and look to tie an end up, pepper the same areas for overs on end. He didn’t in Southampton, on a strip his English counterpart Moeen Ali picked nine, and drew considerable flak. Ashwin admitted as much, when asked what he can learn from Lyon. “What can I learn [from Lyon]? Probably just drop the ball in the right spots and probably as the series goes on look forward to a good competition,” he said.

With competition will come the inevitable comparison. Ashwin understands this: “We both started our Test careers at the same time so obviously mutual admiration is there. I think he’s done really well over the last couple of years and he’s bowling really well, the ball’s coming out really well,” he reflected.

Here the comparison could be even more brutal, for his adversary is not a part-timer like Ali, but the most successful Australian finger-spinner, more than that someone who has picked wickets in more varied conditions than Ashwin. Of course, most bowlers are most effective in their backyards, but Lyon’s record in Australia, despite the rather unflattering average of 33.74, should be put in some perspective.

Nothing heightens the level of his achievement than the statistic that the last finger-spinner to take a 10-wicket match haul was Bishan Singh Bedi, in 1977. Since then, a lot of great spinners have churned out hideous numbers Down Under. Graeme Swann has 22 wickets at 53, Harbhajan Singh nine at 73, Muttiah Muralitharan 12 at 75 and Saeed Ajmal two at 111. Ashwin has 21 wickets at 55.

Nonetheless, theirs is a compelling narrative-two of the finest off-spinners in contemporary cricket, trying to out-wit and out-battle each other, but with massive mutual respect. Before Australia’s tour to India last year, Lyon had a rich diet of Ashwin’s videos. “I’ve looked at a lot of footage of Ashwin and all those guys, how they bowl over here and I’ve had to reassess with the way I approach,” he’d said.

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The effort reaped rich dividends too, as Lyon matched Ashwin toe-to-toe (19 wickets to Ashwin’s 21) though at a better average and strike rate, despite blisters in his spinning finger. In Bangalore, he purchased more turn and bounce than Ashwin. A similar haul would be golden for India’s causes, but no matter how hard Ashwin would try to drift away from Lyon’s shadows, his shadow will only keep climbing at him.

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