What makes Ravichandran Ashwin special? Is it the journey he’s undertaken to transform into one of India’s finest modern-day spinners over the years, irrespective of the format? Is it the way he moulds into any given role or situation, loves to experiment and isn’t afraid of failing? Or is it simply his zeal to outperform his own self, set higher standards by pushing his limits from time to time and be his harshest critic when things don’t go well? That he’s an ardent student of the game and is continuously finding ways to innovate, learn and unlearn at the same time is a quality that sets him apart from most cricketers of his generation. A quality that also gives whichever team he represents an edge in terms of unpredictability and newness, the ‘X-factor’ if you’d like. 

When Rajasthan Royals bought Ashwin at the mega auction earlier this year, there was a lot of talk around his impact on the team even before the season had commenced. Some were intrigued by how things would unfold between him and Jos Buttler, former competitors who shared an infamous incident and were now going to be teammates at the Royals. Others were just excited at the prospect of watching a classical off-spinner light up the T20 game with his intellect, this time donning the pink jersey. After all, Ashwin was coming into the season with over 140 wickets to his name and had been playing in the IPL for 12 seasons now. With the leg spin of Yuzvendra Chahal to partner the off-spin of Ashwin, the Royals’ spin department already looked like a potent threat. And while Ashwin did have a decent outing with the ball, it was his batting that really grabbed eyeballs during the season. The world stood in awe of Jos’ mad hitting at one end, but an inspired Ashwin brought in a fresh, new dimension to the Royals at the other, leaving many of us pleasantly surprised.

The Royals have always been known to do things slightly differently, whether it’s in their gameplan on the field or the way they engage with their fans off it. And when the team was playing their fourth game of the season against Lucknow Super Giants, it was time to make a statement. Batting first, they had lost four quick wickets and were in need of some rebuilding. That’s when, in a surprise move from the dugout, a padded up Ashwin walked in to bat at No.6 ahead of the designated batter, Riyan Parag. It was his first batting opportunity of the season, and he ensured it left a lasting impression. Not just because of the crucial runs he scored in partnership with Shimron Hetmyer, but also because of a selfless act that etched his name in the history books of the IPL. 

After smashing two huge sixes during his 23-ball 28, Ashwin voluntarily retired out at the start of the 19th over to make way for Riyan. It wasn’t an impromptu decision, the management had thought it through and we’d have seen the team execute it in some game or the other. But for Ashwin to take that call in the kind of situation the Royals found themselves in says a lot about the team player he is - realising his job is all but done and clearing the path for someone who could help the team finish on a high. The decision to first swap batting positions and then for Ashwin to retire out worked wonders for the Royals, as Riyan’s six was eventually the difference between the two sides. That move stunned those watching the match, but it was also a move that the experts pegged as a landmark development in T20 cricket. 

Once again, it was Ashwin leading the revolution by simply sticking to the rulebook of cricket and applying the laws on the field. He had done it before and the cricketing community was divided back then, but that didn’t deter him from being himself and becoming the first batter to retire out in the IPL. 

“It was the right time to do that,” Head Coach Kumar Sangakkara had said in the post-match conference. 

“Ashwin himself was asking from the field as well and we had discussed just before that as to what we would do,” he added.

The innings against LSG inspired so much confidence in Ashwin, the batter, that the management continued on the exploratory path to push him up the order. He may not have entirely succeeded at No.3 or 4, but what it definitely did was surprise the opposition and make them rework their bowling plans that were initially set for say, a Sanju Samson or a Devdutt Padikkal. It was what an out-of-syllabus question in the examination would do to a student who has only known the book by heart.

In our Shane Warne tribute game against Mumbai Indians, Ashwin came in to bat at his usual No.7 position and the Royals were in dire need of a competitive total. During his nine-ball stay at the crease, he added 21 vital runs to the total with four boundaries that included dispatching a Jasprit Bumrah yorker for a four, leaving even the MI bowler impressed. Only Jos Buttler scored more runs than Ashwin that night. It was a testament to his growing confidence as a genuine batter with proper cricketing shots, the seeds of which were being sown at every practice session. And in the match against Delhi Capitals, all those efforts really came to fruition as he scored his first-ever fifty in T20 cricket, that too batting at the important No.3 slot. Albeit in a losing cause, that knock further strengthened his belief and that of the team. 

A few days later, Ashwin played his most satisfying innings of the season. In our final league game against Chennai Super Kings, a top-two finish on the points table awaited the Royals. And what could have been a smooth chase turned a bit tricky when we lost half-centurion Yashasvi Jaiswal and Shimron Hetmyer in alternate overs. Promoted to No.5 this time, a watchful Ashwin played out the first six balls without taking any risk. But once he got going, it only ended with an unbeaten 23-ball 40 and jubilant chest-thumping from Ashwin as he brought the team home. It was a special knock, not just for him but for the entire team, who were on their feet watching him hit those five boundaries to all parts of the ground. From once playing for CSK to now taking the Royals to second place with a match-winning innings against them - you could see how much he enjoyed that moment. 

Method, madness and courage - these are the three words that define Ashwin, according to his own analysis. There’s a certain way he goes about his business on the field, even if those watching may not necessarily understand or agree with it. He doesn’t dwell too much on public perception because that is out of his control. And he’s courageous enough not to settle for the ordinary, which makes him challenge the norm. This season at the Royals, he had the perfect opportunity to stamp his authority on the all-rounder’s spot that didn’t really have a permanent taker. And he grabbed it with both hands, having the enormous support from the coaches in the Royals camp. While he worked hard on his batting that involved endless hours of big-hitting, his bowling experiments weren’t too far behind. 

In our first match against Kolkata Knight Riders, Ashwin’s first over went for 14 runs. Yet, he ended up as the most economical bowler of the team and bagged the game-changing wicket of Andre Russell. KKR looked dangerously close to victory, but the tide turned when Ashwin bowled from a different angle around the stumps to clean up Russell. It was a tactic he had only attempted at the nets a day before the game. But to go out there and execute it in a high-pressure situation spoke volumes of his mentality and match awareness. Against MI, defending a total of 158 meant that he had to keep it tight and stick to his plans. He conceded just the solitary boundary, and even though the game was lost, his all-round performance was the highlight of the night. 

Coming into this season, Ashwin’s mantra was pretty straightforward - to try and raise the intensity of everything he did, both with the bat and ball. And at the Royals, he found just the right frame of mind and environment to do so, with the management backing him all the way. Thanks to this opportunity, he was able to take the finer nuances of his game to the next level and bring something new to the table almost every time - from his batting stance to his bowling variations and even his otherwise rare but animated celebrations. His polished all-round offering is also what will now make him an even more important cog in Team India’s wheel. 

The after-effects of a strong and successful IPL season have had far-reaching effects on the Royals - right from Jos Buttler wreaking havoc against the Netherlands to Daryl Mitchell’s sensational hundreds and Trent Boult’s record outing in England, from Yashasvi Jaiswal’s Ranji heroics to Sanju Samson’s T20I brilliance against Ireland. With India’s fifth Test against England coming up, all eyes will be on Ashwin in whites. We definitely don’t mind a few balls flying off at Edgbaston. :)

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