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cricket:image:1434921 [365x205] (Credit: BCCI)

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On Wednesday night in Ahmedabad, Rajat Patidar, batting on 1 off 2, may have tapped his bat, looked up, and found himself flummoxed by the picture in front of him. Everything was in its usual place, but where was the bowler?

Then R Ashwin emerged from behind the umpire, ran up diagonally, towards the off side, and delivered from the very edge of the crease.

Only a handful of cricketers in the sport's history have had Ashwin's feel for angles. In November 2021, in a Test match in Kanpur where the pitch was so slow and low that bowled and lbw were virtually the only dismissals in play, Ashwin used an extreme example of playing with angles to maximise the likelihood of both pitching and finishing within the line of the stumps. He went around the wicket, ran up at an out-to-in angle that put him in danger of colliding with the umpire, and followed through in front of the stumps and across them.

For that one ball to Patidar, Ashwin ran up the way he did, and delivered from as wide of the crease as he did, to create as much of an angle into the batter as he could, and shut out the off side as a scoring area. He did this because he was bowling at a ground with uneven square boundaries, and he was bowling from the end with the long leg-side boundary for the right-hand batter.

Playing with his run-up angle was one of many things Ashwin did in Wednesday's Eliminator between Rajasthan Royals (RR) and Royal Challengers Bengaluru (RCB) to use the asymmetry of the ground to his advantage. He bowled at speeds hovering around the 95kph mark and tried to deny batters room to free their arms, while either firing the ball into the pitch, on the shorter side of a good length, or pitching it right up near the batter's toes. There wasn't a lot of grip on offer, but he hit the pitch hard enough with his carrom and reverse-carrom balls to get them to straighten and induce mis-hits. When batters tried to create room to hit through the off side, Ashwin was almost always in step with their intentions, following them down the leg side as if he had installed a magnet in the ball's core.

He ended a masterclass of defensive bowling with figures of 2 for 19 in four overs and his first Player-of-the-Match award of IPL 2024. He took the wickets of Cameron Green and Glenn Maxwell, off successive balls, and created a chance off Patidar too, getting him to slice one into the night sky only for Dhruv Jurel to spill the chance.

Ashwin will be the first person to tell you, of course, that wickets are only incidental. He attracted flak for his comment on his YouTube channel that "wicket-taking is becoming irrelevant in T20 cricket", and he has since gone on to elaborate on what he meant.

To boil his argument down, there's a difference between what he calls "wicket-taking" - trying to force wickets through attacking bowling, which, for a spinner like Ashwin, might mean flighted deliveries looking to beat batters on the drive - and "wicket-happening" - where wickets come about as the by-product of denying batters quick runs.

"T20 is where wickets happen," Ashwin said. "Wicket-taking is a little over-rated. You can't bowl in a wicket-taking way. There are certain phases when you can do wicket-taking. For example, if you've taken a wicket, you can go searching for a wicket off the next ball. With the new ball, when Trent Boult bowls, or Mitchell Starc bowls, there's a window to swing the ball. The first two-three overs. And if it doesn't swing, you're pretty much looking for wicket-happening - how do I make the batsman uncomfortable?"

Over the first half of IPL 2024, wickets didn't happen to Ashwin: just two in nine games at an average of 159.00. His fortunes have turned since then, though, with his last four innings bringing him seven wickets at 15.57.

Ashwin may have made several micro-level changes to his bowling over the course of the season, as he no doubt does in every series or tournament he plays, in any format. In broad terms, however, he has bowled in exactly the same way when wickets have happened to him as he has when they have not. He has tried to build pressure by drying up boundaries, making batters hit the ball where he wants them to, and tried to bring his team some sort of scoreboard control via the steady drip of singles to deep fielders.

It isn't spectacular to watch, and the numbers he generates tend not to be spectacular either. He sits low down among IPL 2024's spinners if you measure them by wickets taken, and even his economy rate (8.31) isn't remarkable. Sunil Narine (6.90) is in a league of his own by that count, but even traditional fingerspinners like Axar Patel, Krunal Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja and Harpreet Brar have gone at below 8.

Ashwin stands out from the crowd, however, in a subtle but crucial way. He has completed his four-over quota in 12 of his 13 games this season, and sent down three overs in the other match. This puts him right on top of the pile, alongside Narine, for balls bowled per innings, and this is remarkable in a number of ways. It shows that he has the defensive skills to get through spells relatively unscathed when batters come after him, and it shows that his captain is ready to throw him the ball no matter what combination of batters is at the crease: right-right, right-left, or left-left.

This is the case even though Ashwin isn't a wristspinner, and he isn't a mystery spinner either; for all his variety, he doesn't rely on deception like Narine or Varun Chakravarthy do. Ashwin doesn't operate in the IPL like a traditional fingerspinner either, so he belongs, quite simply, in a category of his own.

And he's needed to do this, because traditional offspinners only feature in the IPL as bit-part players who make the odd appearance against line-ups full of left-handers. Ashwin gets criticised for not bowling offspin in T20s - even RR director of cricket Kumar Sangakkara said this once, back in 2022 - but he knows that he won't be playing every game, and bowling every available over, if he bowled in his Test-match manner.

Ashwin knows his results can fly under the radar, and that he can go through stretches of games where the wickets just don't happen, but he'll take it. Especially if it helps his team go deep into tournaments.

On Friday night, he will be part of an RR line-up that's one match away from the final. He will be a key member of their attack, quite likely a powerplay operator against a left-left combination that's among the most frightening opening pairs the IPL has ever seen. He will be playing on his home ground.

Ashwin's done all those things before, of course. He has taken out the world's most dangerous left-hand opener with the new ball, in a Qualifier, and in a final in Chennai. He has taken 50 wickets here in the IPL, while going at just 6.15.

He can probably find his way around the MA Chidambaram Stadium blindfolded, and he knows that the crowd here, with no home team to cheer, will greet his every move rapturously.

Two months ago, the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association felicitated Ashwin at Chepauk, after he had completed the milestones of 500 Test wickets and 100 Test caps. Ashwin gave a speech at the event, and concluded it with these words about this ground: "Tomorrow I might not be alive, but my soul will be hanging around this place. That's what this place means to me."

On Friday night, Ashwin will be at Chepauk once more, body, soul and all.