Ravichandran Ashwin has done something unique in switching over to being a frontline spinner after starting off as an opener at the junior level. I say unique, because quite a few have done the reverse, either by choice or due to circumstances. Be that as it may, Ashwin has made it known repeatedly that he can be more than handy with the bat. Not that he chose the most opportune moment always to convey it, but what matters to him is making people know what he felt about his batting.
I remember when I was the coach of the Tamil Nadu team, we were discussing what needed to be done to avoid relegation in 2006-07 after losing the penultimate game outright. The team members were coming out with suggestions while desperately trying to get over the dejection that creeps in after a bad game.
Amidst the gloom and despair in the dressing room, Ashwin, the offspinning debutant of the season, put his hand up and said, "Sir, in case you are not aware, I started off as an opener and I can bat very well." Great timing, Ashwin, full marks to you! I managed to retain my composure and responded with something like, "Ash, we will get down to specifics in a bit, once we are through with the larger picture."
A couple of seasons later, he notched up his maiden first-class hundred, after which he asked me if I considered him an allrounder. Not one to shy away from banter, I remarked that he needed to notch up a century and back it up with a five-for in the same game at least thrice to be deemed so. It is not that I did not rate his batting, but after having seen my good friend L Sivaramakrishnan lean more towards batting at the expense of his extraordinary bowling talent, I wanted Ashwin to develop into a bowling allrounder.
The banter between Ashwin and me about his batting was well and truly settled when he got his hundred against the West Indies a year ago. More than his century, the manner in which he has batted since does give me the impression that he can become an allrounder in Test cricket. He has a very simple approach to batting and being a "beside the line" player, he is pleasing on the eye as well. Of course, he will need to work constantly on his cricket, but the signs are encouraging.
His progress as an allrounder will depend a lot on the faith the team management pins in him. In the past, I felt that Anil Kumble was not encouraged enough to leverage his batting skills, but the current scenario is different. MS Dhoni is open to trying different things, using Yuvraj Singh as a fifth bowler in the World Cup being a case in point. Similarly, if Ashwin is given responsibility when it comes to his batting, he can only get better.
Ashwin needs to work on his agility but I must reveal that he has improved a lot since he started playing first-class cricket. A better alternative for him in Test cricket would be to specialise in close-in fielding, like Kumble did.
I can't help but think of Kumble whenever I talk about Ashwin, the reason being that there are a lot of similarities between the two. Ashwin, like Kumble, is an engineering graduate, reads the game well, has more or less the same build, and is as aggressive as the legend. Ashwin has to bear in mind that the journey has just begun and as such, bigger challenges await him. A chat with either Kumble or Ravi Shastri on ways to maximise one's potential will help him immensely to convert his good start into a long and outstanding career.