Minutes after one of the great individual all round performances in recent test history, Ashwin Ravichandran tweeted to the world “Can anyone tell what differently cud have been done??instead of saying cud have run the 2…moment I completed 1 the throw was over my head.”
Active athletes, coaches, politicians and performers rarely tweet what they believe. They have careers to prolong, relationships to maintain and brands to manage. The only emotions that the highly corporate sports industrial complex allows for are gratitude and joy. Any messages to the contrary are called out as being controversial and disruptive even if fairly innocuous. This is why so many celebrities have twitter feeds that rarely venture past humblebrags of their workouts or brand of orange juice consumed.
The above tweet from Ashwin was an exception to this environment. It was refreshing in its candor as it conveyed a bit of kolaveri frustration in a uniquely Indian way that an Indian fan could empathize with. It was also refreshing and unique in its timing. This was no tweet canned by agents and agencies and released several weeks after an important event. It was raw, not overtly defensive and released to the world minutes after what is likely to end up being the closest test match Ashwin will ever be a part of. While unlikely, I hope Ashwin continues to exude the same level of honest spontaneity and shows millions of fans that the pain and pleasure they feel is mutual. If this veteran of three tests feels similar pain in future losses/draws where he contributes more than his fair share, Indian spin bowling is in very safe hands.
Now, to try and answer Ashwin’s question –
a) Cricket is still a team sport and hence Duncan Fletcher, support staff, other players in the team and captain MS Dhoni all share some blame in not getting the team the extra run to win a memorable test. While it is human instinct to focus an overt amount of attention on the last delivery and the last seven deliveries of the test, there were several deliveries through the test when a single run could have either been saved by Indian bowling and fielding or scored by Indian batting. Any analysis of the game and the result should account for the whole game and every one of the 440+ overs bowled. Criticism of anything Ashwin did should account for the fact that the last seven deliveries constituted about 0.3% of the game. So as far as things that could have been done differently go, every single Indian cricketer who played in the test could have done something more to clinch the win!
b) The first action that the ridiculously calm and unique Ashwin performance came for criticism was his choice (really, his team’s choice) to call debutant Varun Aaron for a single in the last ball of the penultimate over. The ensuing three dot balls and eventual outcome of the game makes it an easy choice to criticize. If Ashwin had refused the single, he would have had the strike to score four runs in the final over. Ashwin’s subjective reading of the situation was that with the field set up to prevent any twos and fours, his goals of retaining strike thru the final over and winning were made hard enough that the possibility of giving up the strike to the debutant for the marginal value of a run made more sense. This actually makes a ton of sense as it translates in most basic terms to the fact that the fewer runs a team has to get, the more likely the team is to win. Anyone who questions this, owes an explanation on why they think the odds of a two or a four from Ashwin in the final over were higher than those of the debutant scoring a single, three or four in the first three balls of the final over. I am with Ashwin on this! Varun Aaron being unable to score a run in the first three balls of the final over should not mask or take away from Ashwin’s call here.
c) The second action Ashwin gets criticized for is his choice to eschew risks and protect his wicket (with 2 needed to win) in the penultimate ball of the final over. By doing this, he ensured India wouldn’t lose the game. Fans who demand that he risk more for the reward of a victory over a loss/tie/draw have a valid point. However with prize money and eventual rewards remaining the same, math and economics dictate that a draw is better than a loss. Years from now, people will remember this series as one where India won 2-0 and that looks a lot better than if India had won 2-1. Hence, here too, I’m with Ashwin.
d) The last action Ashwin gets criticized for and one for which he will probably be remembered for a long time is his lack of urgency in going for the second run in the last delivery. I’m with the fans on this! Ashwin’s explanation was that he saw the ball passing him en route to the keeper even as he completed his first run and that it was an inevitability that he’d be run out. While this too passes the sniff test and is extremely representative of how most humans would react in the situation, it still does not account for the fact that the wicketkeeper could fumble the throw or miss the stumps or knock the bails off with his gloves etc. Had Ashwin made the effort to run harder or showed more visible sweat and strain in that final moment, I doubt he gets even a fraction of the questioning he does now.
Ashwin needs to be remembered for his stellar performance in a unique test match and not for his unfiltered tweets or decision making in the clutch. He is doing just fine. The only consequence of this should be that he and his fellow cricketers need to be taught to hustle even when the outcome seems preordained. That would go a long way towards eliminating second guessing decisions taken in the most tense circumstances.