R Ashwin: ‘I started weeping, locked myself in my room, wanted to quit cricket… Then I sought external help’ | Cricket News

Why Ashwin: In the recently concluded series against England, R Ashwin, India’s leading spinner, crossed the landmarks of 100 Tests and 500 wickets. He played a big role in India beating England 4-1.

Nihal Koshie: BCCI told top cricketers that skipping domestic cricket when not on national duty would have its implications. The BCCI felt some cricketers were prioritising IPL over red- ball/domestic cricket. But when cricketers play all three formats and also take mental-health breaks, should the BCCI insist on that?

Sometimes when an organisation takes a stand, it might not suit everyone, it might not work in favour of everyone, it might be detrimental to a few people. What we must understand here is the message being conveyed by the organisational body here, it said we are prioritising Test cricket, IPL is not everything as far as we are concerned. They are saying Test cricket is of paramount importance, we are going to promote it and we expect people eligible to play this format. In my view, they are making all the right noises. At the same time, whether a cricketer wants to do all the 12 months, or only want to do the two months or whether they want to be relevant playing T20 cricket and one-day cricket and do not want to be playing Test cricket, is their choice.

India’s bowler Ravichandran Ashwin celebrates the wicket of England’s batter Ben Foakes during the first day of the fifth Test cricket match between India and England, in Dharamshala, Thursday, March 7, 2024. (PTI Photo/Shahbaz Khan)

Sandeep Dwivedi: Is there a trend among the younger generation of cricketers to market themselves on social media in a certain way? Like posting videos before selection day, wishing happy birthday to a certain group etc…

It’s very hard to make a complete assessment. In some cases, players don’t really handle their own social media handles. I like talking about cricket, which is why you see me on YouTube. I was always very instinctive, very upright, and somebody who loved the game to bits. And if I spoke about cricket to X, Y, or Z, I realized far later in my life that they see it as overthinking.

I would come back to my street and talk to friends about the same thing. That’s the culture I’ve been brought up in. So when I stepped out of Madras, I didn’t know what India was about. I give my opinion, but if I didn’t change my views or opinions, I wouldn’t be who I am today. Agreeing to disagree is the greatest quality one can have.

I didn’t even bother about when selections are happening. But now things have changed. There is a cricket Twitter war going on, on who should be there in the squad, what are the reasons somebody is selected. At the end of the day, we need to understand that there is a selection committee and things will have to happen according to what the team requires.

Whichever cricketer I sit around with, I tell them the same thing. PR and marketing will get you to a certain place. They might have value, but it’s only 1 percent.

Mihir Vasavda: How was it in the dressing room when you came and how is it now, especially when it comes to communication in Hindi?

It’s a cultural shock. My first shock came when I went for an Under-17 India team camp. All I had had in my life was curd rice at night. The next time I found curd rice was 45 days later. You can’t even explain that to somebody. I actually studied in Hindi but my Hindi fluency or vocabulary wasn’t good enough to speak.

It was neither’s fault. I’m a very proud Tamilian. But the first thing I would do to any child that comes to my academy is along with cricket, they should learn a bit of Hindi. Because the moment the child goes to an Under-14 or Under-16 NCA camp, the last thing you want the child to do is silently wonder what these guys are saying in Hindi behind their back. I would actually seriously recommend for people to understand that this (diversity) is the way of life and this is a beautiful country. We must embrace it.

WTC 2023-25:R Ashwin’s brilliant performance with the ball led India to the win in Dharamsala.

Sriram Veera: M Vijay once said that he could never be himself in the dressing room because his sense of humour was in Tamil. How did you handle that?

I can empathise. He’s a very spirited soul but in my case, the fault was with me because you need to know which players to deal with and how. I’ve also made the effort to say ‘boss, this is who I am. I’m comfortable in my skin’. They will come around because they will also understand you. It has happened inside the Indian interesting room massively. It’s a question of maturing together. You play cricket for so many years; now Virat (Kohli) knows who I am and what sort of fun I enjoy. It’s got to a situation where he sends me jokes or links knowing exactly what I might know or enjoy. It’s the same thing with Rohit (Sharma).

Sandip G: Heard you are into chess these days. What are the other sports you follow?

I have been into a bit of online chess. I’m actually a big sports buff though looking at me physically, a lot of people think I can’t do much. I was pretty good at tennis. Not maybe the quickest around, but really, really good with my long-levers. I was pretty good at table tennis, and played a bit in the zonal sides, in ball badminton. I’m pretty good at racket sports. I can’t say I’m very good at chess, okay, for an amateur.

I watch chess a bit too, when Praggnanandhaa, Magnus Carlsen play. I watch a lot of Bobby Fischer games from the past. I follow a lot of Viswanathan Anand, his legendary duels with Gary Kasparov. I love the intricacies involved in the game.

India’s R Ashwin with teammates celebrates the wicket of England’s Ben Stokes during the 3rd day of the fifth Test cricket match between India and England, in Dharamsala. (PTI)

Mihir Vasavda: Talking of intricacies, when Rohit retired out in the Super Over like you had done in the IPL, Rahul Dravid mentioned that was ‘Ashwin-level thinking’. How often do the players come to you to know about these complex situations?

All these things happen not because it’s discussed. It happens because of the execution. Somebody at the end of the day needs to have the courage to say, ‘okay, I am the guy that will receive the flak’. I still remember that day when Kings were playing Rajasthan in Jaipur. The moment that (mankading) happened, there was a huge buzz, a sort of a silence, and sort of a confusion amongst my own team. I called them into the huddle and said, ‘I know this will receive a lot of attention and flak, but I will handle it. Now, you guys get on with it and make sure we convert this into a victory.’ It shouldn’t disturb anybody else. And it turned out that we won the game. And yet again, it’s proved to me that when you put people in an uncomfortable spot, which they don’t like, they will perennially crumble. Because Rajasthan were cruising even without Jos (Buttler).

I have discussed tactical timeouts with so many captains, management, etc. they say, ‘yeah that’s a great idea’ but they’ll never do it. People talk about change, even these experts on social media who have so much advice to offer, do they get down and actually do it? Do they get their hands dirty? No, they don’t. If you do not have the courage to get yourself dirty, you will never be a part of change.

Devendra Pandey: From figuring out that Sangakkara doesn’t get LBW to off-spinners to watching videos of Williamson, Steve Smith, understanding the degree of turn on offer on different days of the Test… you have done it all. Could you explain your homework methods?

One day I was talking to Muttiah Muralitharan and he said, ‘put your batting on the back shelf a little bit and bowl a lot more. As you grow older you will learn a lot more about bowling and batting’. I found it to be interesting.

India’s Ravichandran Ashwin celebrates the wicket of Ben Foakes during the third day of the fourth Test cricket match between India and England, at JSCA International Cricket Stadium, in Ranchi, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. (PTI Photo)

Bowling is a very conscious act because you deliver the first initial action while batting is a very subconscious act as you are reacting to something – – one is action and other is reaction. And I found when the person reacting is uncomfortable that is your first battle won. Ever since maybe 2016 or 2015 itself, I found myself in a zone to make batsmen uncomfortable at the crease. Which is why you don’t see me talking to a lot of batters. I found it peculiar that good batters want to see a bowler chatting to him and who is respecting him. Giving that space is something I always avoided.

My preparation is whether I can disturb the tempo of a batter. Whether Steve Smith would go to off-stump after ten balls or 12 balls. Whether Marnus Labuschange will try to sweep or reverse me first. Or Joe Root, when you go round the stumps in the first eight balls, he would reverse you once. There are two ways of skinning it, do I want to, stop Joe Root from reversing or do I want Root to reverse or get him out. That will depend on where Joe Root is in his career, how confident he is. Has he got a hundred in the first two Tests? Is he in confident space, is he coming from Sri Lanka after making mountains of runs? So I will try and make a plan because I want that early blood.

Sriram Veera: You had once said that the ‘overthinker’ label has stuck on you to work against you.

I didn’t understand. Everybody has unique methods. A method that’s worked for me, will not work for (Ravindra) Jadeja. The cricket community likes to keep it really simple. Unless it’s completely broken, they wouldn’t try to mend it. But I come from a school where even before it’s broken, I want to make sure I stitch it up and don’t get to a point where it’s broken. Why is it happening? That’s the question that people fail to recognise. I am addressing something before they believe I should address it. Because their journey is different and mine is different. They might get five opportunities but I will get only two. And I made peace with the fact that I will only get two.

Ravichandran Ashwin on the first day of the fourth Test between India and England, at the JSCA International Stadium Complex, in Ranchi. (PTI Photo)

It’s not like I change my action and tomorrow if I am leading a side, I would go to Jadeja and tell him that he should change his action. I’m not that dumb. In a way, people just assumed that that’s how it could be. They just thought he would not fit the bill as a leader and that’s quite an unfair assessment.

Sriram Veera: You had also said that if it was up to you, you would pick being a batsman instead of a bowler. Were you just emotional when you said that?

I don’t say anything just because I’m emotional. If I had a son or have daughters now who want to play cricket, I’d still make them bat, there’s no two ways about it. I’ll ask them to bowl so that they understand what a bowler thinks. Australia is the most successful cricketing country in the world. They’ve got some great batters. But consistently, they have been built by superstar bowlers for decades. They look after them. Pat Cummins was 19 or 20 when he had a stress fracture. He was looked after, was put in cotton wool, and paid his match fee for every single match he missed during that stint. He was treated like somebody who was extremely special, and Cummins has delivered results as a captain and player over the last three years. They know bowlers can win you championships. India is far from it. We do talk a lot about pitches. But batsmen have a lot more good days in India than bowlers do and even when they do have good days, they are not celebrated to the point where you inspire a youngster to say, ‘I want to bowl. I want to pick up a new ball and go’.

Sriram Veera: That general perspective is fine, but are you happy you became a bowler?

It’s destiny. Sometimes we have so much vanity that we don’t admit that destiny plays a role. Right people, right place, right advice. That’s what makes you who you are.

Forget me as being a bowler or a batter, why did I want to play cricket? I wanted to wear the Indian jersey and people to cheer for me. So that India celebrates India’s victories and they celebrate you. Indian victories were paramount, but I never knew Indian bowlers would never be paramount. I’m glad over the last decade you’ve got players, like (Jasprit) Bumrah, you’ve got players like me or Kuldeep (Yadav) who are celebrated far more than a player like Anil Kumble. I feel Kumble is the least celebrated legend of the game in this country. Zaheer Khan was a legend of this game but we didn’t celebrate him.

Ravichandran Ashwin in the nets at the HPCA Stadium in Dharamsala. Ashwin alongside his wife, Prithi and their daughters. (PTI/Instagram)

Venkata Krishna B: In a recent column for us, your wife Preethi had mentioned how in 2017, you went through counselling sessions. What made you seek outside help and could you talk about dealing with the pressure of playing at the highest level?

There are layers of mental health. Some people can succumb to pressure. Some are on the road all the time and can get jaded. Sometimes you are in a very dark place in your life that you want to talk to someone, and I think more often than not, people find themselves in the situation of a victim. Which is a very dangerous situation in my book.

Even though I have my family rooting for me and I can come back to my family, I cannot say a lot of things. I would say cricket, in many ways, is a corporate affair with a little bit of governmental organisational activities and attributes. Though If I come and talk with my dad about corporate stuff, he has only one line to say: It’s all politics. And that’s a very large line. And even fans end up doing the same thing. Occasionally, when I find myself in a dark spot, I have also done that a little. But it’s a very wrong thing to do because you feel somebody’s success is coming very easily. It’s not.

My wife is a wonderful listener, but she had a very young family and I was not giving her enough time. One fine day, we were having a conversation. My dad said something. And some internal affair of the house had broken down. And I said something to my dad. My dad and I fight a lot. And he eventually threw a statement “You know what? You are too upright and honest. That’s why you are getting screwed.” He made that statement and left. I am not someone who is emotive. I would like to think I am pretty strong but I just locked myself away. And then I started weeping. I was crying for a long time. I didn’t expect my dad to say that. I don’t think he even realized what he did.

I thought I am putting people in my house through a lot. I used to lock myself in the room. I never watched cricket. My room used to be dark all the time.

I decided to quit cricket. I was asking myself what would I do? And I said whatever I do in life, I would try to achieve excellence and be as good as I can be in that profession. I would probably try to do an MBA and probably be in marketing. I gave myself so many options and then thought before I make any decision, I must get crystal-clear clarity. Probably get an outsider’s view into my life. And see who I am, where I am. That’s when I sought some external help and it changed my life for the better.

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