The 2020-2021 cricket season has augured well for Tamil Nadu cricket, especially in the matter of contributing to India’s success on the world stage. Perhaps for the first time in the state’s history as many as three TN cricketers spectacularly propelled India to series victories in Australia and at home. The extraordinary exploits of off spinner R Ashwin have for instance been of exceptional significance for the state’s knowledgeable cricket lovers who have waited patiently for heroes to celebrate as their own. That he is the second fastest in the world to claim 400 wickets in Test match history is stuff of which fables are made. Add to that the fact that he has five Test centuries under his belt batting in the lower middle order, and he easily qualifies as the best achiever the state’s cricket has produced. In addition to his incisive bowling that spearheaded India’s Test wins over Australia and England this season, he has also come of age as a genuine all-rounder. Only half-fit, he played a never-say-die innings in partnership with the injured Hanuma Vihari to save the Sydney Test last year when all seemed lost. Here were two wounded soldiers whose heroism reminded old timers of some of the bravest deeds in Test history.
Back home for the England series, Ashwin made history once more by scoring a match-winning 106 besides capturing eight wickets in the match to complete a rare all-rounder’s feat. And with 400-plus Test wickets in his bag, he promises to set bowling records few can equal or surpass.
When I first set my eyes on Ashwin the off spinner more than a decade ago, I found his run-up was awkward, his body was falling away in his delivery stride, he did not finish his action in the classic manner, his left leg did not stand erect, but seemed to buckle, and he seemed to lack a follow through. On the asset side of the balance sheet, he kept unfurling a whole new bag of tricks unknown to many of his predecessors, and had loads of confidence and this uncanny ability to take wickets. I was intrigued, but not convinced of the quality of his bowling, tending to dismiss his unusual success rate among other things to poor batting, spin-friendly wickets; and luck. And, I, like some of my contemporaries, waited for the coin to drop and for batsmen to unravel his bowling. It never happened.
That was aeons ago. Since then, Ashwin has evidently put in much thought and effort into his bowling as the considerable improvement in each of the foregoing aspects of his craft shows. Accused of trying too many variations, he has, instead of cutting down on variety, actually added a couple of new deliveries to the carrom ball, his first invention to take the cricket world by storm. What he has done to convert raw talent into a weapon of opposition destruction has been the large increment in control and accuracy he has sweated to achieve. He studies and analyses each and every batsman and works out a tailor-made strategy for each of them. He sets elaborate traps sometimes, but his more straightforward ones work just as well. While he revels in dismissing the best batsmen, he must be the best polisher-off of the tail in the world.
Ashwin must be the most elegant no. 7 (now no. 6) in the world, reminiscent sometimes of the iconic VVS Laxman, and we came to count on him every time the side needed runs from him. He however tended to throw away his wicket, disappointing the team and fans by loose batting. We no longer even despaired of him, instead resigning ourselves to his cavalier ways of self-destruction.
All that changed in Australia. His beautiful, controlled aggression and strategic nous as a bowler played a major role in India’s incredible recovery from their humiliating defeat in the Adelaide pink ball Test. And his defiant half century to draw the Sydney Test from what seemed certain defeat was the icing on the cake for a team dogged by the worst odds imaginable posed by Covid-19 protocols and a spate of injuries to key players. His exploits against England in the recent series have firmly established him as one of Indian cricket’s greats and the number one spinner in the world.
And what a revelation has Washington Sundar been! If T Natarajan, the left arm seam bowler has been living subaltern proof of the spread of cricket to the farthest corners of Tamil Nadu across social and economic strata, Sundar too has emerged as an unlikely star in the cricket firmament from a modest background, his first name a token of gratitude to Mr Washington, a kindly mentor of his father who supported the talented boy’s cricket right through the various stages of age-group cricket. I said ‘unlikely’ not because I doubted ‘Washi’s’ ability but because of the rapidity of his ascent to international recognition thanks to his fearless brand of cricket. He has already played crucial parts in both saving and winning matches for India against Australia and England. While his off spin bowling has served to expose the vulnerability of even top class batsmen like Steve Smith, Joe Root and Ben Stokes without ever looking dangerous in the manner of senior bowler Ashwin’s off spin, his batting has already taken the cricket world by storm, with its left handed elegance, effortless shot-making and sound defence, all marked by one quality that promises a long and distinguished career on the strength of his batting skills alone. Terribly unlucky to miss his maiden Test century at Ahmedabad, Washington need not despair. We expect many centuries from him in future.
Many have already sung the praises of T Natarajan. His overnight elevation from net bowler to a key role as a swing and seam specialist in all three formats of cricket on the recent Australian tour has been the real fairy tale of Tamil Nadu cricket. He did not figure in the Test matches at Chennai and Ahmedabad against England, but was back in the side in the T20 series which India won after a hard-fought battle. Natarajan will surely find a place in the Indian team for the forthcoming world T20 championship. May his rags to riches story inspire many a young dreamer from underprivileged backgrounds.
Yet another Tamil Nadu contribution to India’s recent successes has been the brilliant part played by national bowling coach B Arun, a former Tamil Nadu and India all-rounder. Though Arun’s specialisation lies in fast bowling, and he has largely been acknowledged as the man responsible for the remarkable consistency, improved pace and rigorous discipline of our pacemen from Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami to Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah, and his discovery and encouragement of talented youngsters like Mohammed Siraj, the spinners, too, give him credit for his valuable insights and inputs. Bharathi Arun is indeed a vital link in the Indian bowling chain.
Tamil Nadu can validly take pride in the role its representatives have played in India’s entry into the final of the world Test championship. Closer home, will it be too much to expect a Ranji Trophy triumph, last accomplished by the state as far back as 1987-88?
(V Ramnarayan is a former First Class cricketer, the views expressed here are personal)