Sunil Subramaniam was not off the mark when he fancied his chances of playing for India. He could not. On his first day as a coach, however, he spotted a “tall, full of beans, stocky off-spinner batsman” and was convinced he could live his dream through that youngster — R. Ashwin, the ‘Man-of-the Series’ against Australia at home.
“I was more or less like this fellow at that age; similar high-arm action, generating bounce on a consistent basis. As the camp went along his intensity and bowling intelligence became too obvious,” said 45-year-old Sunil, a left-arm spinner who finished with 285 wickets from 74 first-class matches.
The coach enjoyed the progress of his student. “Ashwin has a similar orientation. As our arguments increased, so did exchange of ideas. As a template, he himself sets achievable targets much like I used to do in first-class cricket. Prior to the recent Test series against Australia, we had pitched on a target of 25 wickets.”
Sunil did not tamper with Ashwin’s action. “It didn’t take too long for me to assess that the boy had a mind of his own, which was heartening, because he seldom needed support in match situations. Technically, a spin bowler’s action constitutes momentum, load up, rock back, back-foot landing, delivery stride and follow through (in that order) and is a constant self-monitoring process for the intellectually gifted. From time to time, I provided him feedback if the deviation from the sequence was too obvious.”
From a coach’s perspective, the strong points of Ashwin he lists are “supreme confidence in his ability to deliver, extremely supple wrists and long and strong fingers imparting necessary revolutions at will, fearless executor and a highly stable cricketing mind for one so creative and temperament honed by playing more than 2000 cricket matches till date.”
Ashwin is an “amalgam of a bowler who relies on turn and bounce. Added to it is the ball he bowls with control of his third finger.”
The coach reckons the turning point of his career was the “faith the erstwhile chairman of selection committee (K. Srikkanth) had in his abilities and the manner in which he repaid that faith.”
Sunil’s transition from player to coach was smooth. “Having been a strike bowler all through my first-class career gave me an insight into what is expected of a wicket-taking bowler and what it takes to be strike bowler. I learnt from my own failures and was guided by my success. That helped me understand the nuances of spin bowling. Coaching provided me another perspective and depth.”
What does Sunil tell Ashwin before a match?
“Truth be told, Ashwin is too much his own man to seek advice before a game. My job as a coach is completed before he enters the park. My mantra as a bowler or a coach is… bowl well and at the batsman.”