We got two giants of the modern game, off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin and England’s Jos Buttler, to sit down for a chat ahead of Rajasthan Royals’ opening game. Ashwin is known for his cerebral approach while Buttler has revolutionised white-ball batting. Of course, ‘that’ 2019 incident in which Ashwin ran out non-striker Buttler for backing up came up too!
Do you think your little bust-up in the 2019 IPL played a part in the MCC legitimising the running out of non-strikers who are backing up? Now that it’s no longer termed ‘unfair play’, will it become more acceptable?
Ashwin: When the incident happened, I think it was Jos who felt deflated about it and quite upset. Rightly so, because it’s not accepted practice. It’s not something that happens day in and day out. I can totally understand that. Whether it’s going to be accepted or not accepted widely by different quadrants of the cricketing community is something that we’ll have to wait and watch. But the pace at which the game is going, the professionals are evolving and how the players are perceiving the game, I just hope and wish that it is looked upon as a legitimate form of dismissal. But whether somebody chooses to do it, or not to do it, is entirely up to them and it’s not a question of character assassination.
Buttler: If the batter just holds his ground till the ball is released, then there’s never any issue. I’ve been run out that way twice in my career. So hopefully, I’ve learned my lesson now. It’s hard sometimes to describe the emotion. You’re trying hard for your team and you’re always desperate to win. Of course, it’s a surprise when you get out like that. It doesn’t bother me what people’s opinions are about it. If you just stay in the crease, then there’s never going to be a talking point.
That incident created quite a stir and led to talk of some bad blood. Much like the India-England rivalry itself, which has tended to get quite intense in recent times…
Ashwin: It’s more than what meets the eye. Cricket is as big as the film industry. It’s like people say, a religion. Sometimes we need to understand that sports professionals are putting their bodies on the line trying to play for their professional pride, team and country. So emotions are going to be at the forefront. Whether it is taken beyond the boundary line is entirely left to the perception of the player. I would think that a modern-day professional cricketer definitely knows where to draw the line. In today’s world, one day you’re on the same side of the boxing ring and the other day you’re on the other side. As professionals, it’s not even a question. I know it’s a talking point and a matter of entertainment for the audience.
Buttler: I am not someone holding grudges. I’m excited for the season ahead. I’m excited to have Ash on my team. He is someone who wants to win. And I want to play with the best players. One of the great things that the IPL has brought to cricket is lots of people mixing with each other from different countries and sharing different ideas and beliefs.
To what degree can you play on the ego of the opposition, especially in T20s?
Ashwin: As a spinner, I don’t know if T20 cricket is the exact place to play on egos of the batsman! It’s a very fast-paced sport. It’s about playing for one another. This format has really given more purpose to the fact that it is actually a team game. If you look at any of the other formats, or the years gone by, cricket was always a sport where individuals performed when they came together for the common cause. In T20, as a bowler I’m actually bowling for the next over, a handover and a par score. I’m bowling for my batters, and bowling for the points table and bowling for my franchise. I actually do not have the time to actually plan or have the luxury of building up a spell and playing on a batsman’s ego. It’s about what somebody’s strength is. Weaknesses are targeted ruthlessly. I am not one of those egoistic persons. I believe in keeping ego aside when I step on to the field.
Buttler: I think certain characters see things in different ways. For me, I know I get the best out of myself when I’m very internally focused and not too worried about the outside, not too focused on what other people are trying to do to me. I just try and play my own game and stick to my own strengths. So now I try and play cricket without much emotion, play it as logically as I can.
Are we playing more sport than is necessary because of the constant demands of live TV? Is that leading to early breakdowns? Ashleigh Barty retired at 25 saying she was ‘spent’…
Ashwin: We are in a very interesting stage of sport and a very interesting stage of the global health of the game itself, and I am talking to you about cricket. Over the last couple of years, with the pandemic, it has not been easy for anybody, you know, not administrators, stakeholders and certainly not the players. I’ve been in hotel rooms constantly for, like, 12-13 years now, if not more, and it is definitely getting harder, especially over the last couple of years. The window when you get to see your family and all that is a bit challenging. I think there are different priorities for people. I’m so chuffed for Ash Barty because at the age of 25 you can make a decision on what you’re chasing in life and have the resolve to be able to say, ‘Yes, I’m done. I’ve tried and tested this, and I want to move on and do different things in life because it’s just one life and you live it once.’ I found that amazing. There is a respect that has gone one notch higher. So yeah, it’s again, at the end of the day, very individualistic. What you want to do can’t be hijacked by anybody or by any system.
Buttler: There’s lots and lots of sport and the demand is high. It’s really a fine balance between the demands of all the people that are involved and sometimes there is a little bit too much. The last couple of years, it’s really been a changing world for everyone. As you get older, your priorities change and you change as a person. When I look back, I played cricket for about 10 years as a sort of a single life, with no other responsibilities. I jumped at every chance to play cricket. Then I got married and now I have a young family and suddenly you’re pulled in different directions, and certain things are more important than others to you.
Just going to leave this here… 👀💗#RoyalsFamily | #TATAIPL2022 | @ashwinravi99 | @josbuttler https://t.co/zgDoRKeVFe
— Rajasthan Royals (@rajasthanroyals) 1647947071000
Does that mean it’s time to prioritize for the select few top stars who are required by their national teams to play all three formats?
Buttler: It is tough nowadays to play all three formats. My ambition was to be the best player I could be and, in my eyes, to be one of the best players in the world. You had to be able to play across every single format of the game and be successful in that. I think when I look at those I view as the top players in the world, they’re the guys who can manage that in each format and excel in every single format. I don’t think it’s easy and that’s why there’s not many people who are capable of it. One of the challenges is what the different formats demand of you. Then there is the time spent in a high-performance environment and being able to have enough time and energy and preparation time to perform to the best of your ability in each format. For me, I’ve now lost my place in the Test team. My focus shifts now more to 50-over cricket and T20 cricket. As disappointing as it is to lose out in the Test format, I gave everything I could there. My strengths probably do lie in white-ball cricket. I’ve always probably been a stronger white-ball player. I see that now as an exciting opportunity again for me to sort of push the boundaries of my game in white-ball cricket.
Ashwin: Jos hit the nail on the head. It’s about how you can manage to have a break from cricket. We spent time overseas for five to six months during the pandemic. Even though it was hard, players had a chance to reflect upon life and so they also came back to the ground much more eager to play. I am at that stage of my life, career and mental space where I believe I’m not thinking too much ahead or to have too much behind me. I’m just taking it one day at a time and just enjoying myself, wanting to be better the very next day, which has been the essence and the basis upon which I have built my career. The day I lose interest in being better the next day or the day I lose passion in doing it, you can be rest assured I’ll call curtains on my career too.
Ashwin, how much did it mean to you to make a white-ball comeback for India, that too straight in the T20 World Cup?
Ashwin: See, I know there are going to be external noises. It is a great story that you come back after three-four years and straight away walk into the World Cup team. I wanted to be there and I always believed I was still one of the better T20 bowlers going around in the country, if not in the world. Rather than belief, I knew that was the case. It was always going to be about perception… what the selectors thought and what the captain required. I got aligned to what the team needs. I got the communication before the T20 World Cup that they are looking at me. I was preparing for it.
Can the incessant data crunching in T20s be a bit overwhelming, especially for the more instinctive or spontaneous cricketers?
Ashwin: The problem is that we see the tip of the iceberg and say the iceberg is at fault. When you come to match-ups, there is still a requirement to understand conditions, see how the batter is playing etc. But I think assimilation of data and information when it comes to the tech aspect of the game is what needs to improve and not necessarily the tech itself. Tech is one of those segments of the game that is going to keep evolving. Especially with artificial intelligence, I only expect it to get better. It’s the ability of the people who are going to put it together for the cricketers and make it far more easily consumable for cricketers that matters. Buttler: Data in cricket is something that is now just collected a lot more. There were always match-ups in cricket, even back in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Captains naturally did certain bowling changes to suit certain style of pitch or batter. The skill of data is actually just using it as one more tool to make a decision. So you just put it into your decision-making process… this is what the data is saying and this is what my gut feel is for this day. Will the rapid evolution of cricket continue and how advantageous or detrimental is the pace of that constant change?
Buttler: T20s have had a huge impact on cricket. Reverse sweeps seem common in Test-match cricket, whether through T20 cricket or just through natural evolution of the art of batting. Power in T20 cricket has become a big part of that. Being able to be a powerful athlete, having more of a sort of baseball-style hitting mode, as opposed to a traditional sort of high-elbow MCC coaching-manual mode, is what the change has been about. Guys like AB de Villiers have really transformed the game and what’s seen as possible in terms of batting. I don’t know how much further it gets taken and where we’ll stop, or if it’ll stop at all. Maybe it will all get to a point where batters are just as good at batting completely left-handed as they are right-handed, like some bowlers now bowl with both their arms!
Will the rapid evolution of cricket continue and how advantageous or detrimental is the pace of that change?
Buttler: T20s have had a huge impact on cricket. Reverse sweeps seem common in Test match cricket, whether through T20 cricket or just through natural evolution of batting. Power in T20 cricket has become a big part of that. Being able to be a powerful athlete, having more of a sort of baseball-style hitting mode, as opposed to a sort of traditional sort of high-elbow MCC coaching manual mode, is what the change has been about. Guys like AB de Villiers have really transformed the game and what’s seen as possible in terms of batting. I don’t know how much further it gets taken and where we’ll stop. Maybe it’ll get to a point when batters are just as good at batting completely left-handed as they are right-handed, like some bowlers now bowl with both their arms.
Main man is back in his habitat. 💗#RoyalsFamily | #TATAIPL2022 https://t.co/oVwHYRrymw
— Rajasthan Royals (@rajasthanroyals) 1648032931000
Is it a challenge to keep innovating at a personal level?
Buttler: You have to be open-minded, knowing yourself as a player and where you can improve. One of the things about IPL I love is that during practice there are a lot of young players who you have not played before, and at times two with teams practicing and you can see the opposition train. By observing, you start to see things with certain players trying something different. IPL is a melting pot for information.
Ashwin, is the idea of a stock ball fast disappearing?
Ashwin: The concept of the stock ball has already gone. It just needs to leave the commentary box!
In today’s 𝑀𝒶𝓈𝓉𝑒𝓇-Class… 👨🏫#RoyalsFamily | #TATAIPL2022 https://t.co/3RqvIHp89i
— Rajasthan Royals (@rajasthanroyals) 1647848311000
How difficult is it to play carefree all-out attacking brand of white-ball cricket?
Buttler: It’s not tough if you have the backing of the right people. In England, we knew we had to do something very different. We had to change pretty drastically from where our white-ball cricket was. And we’ve picked players who we thought could achieve that. And we’re brave enough to play in a certain way. And you have to give a lot of credit to Eoin Morgan, Trevor Bayliss and Andrew Strauss that there was no fear of getting dropped. You were encouraged to play an aggressive brand of cricket. If you were caught on the rope, people said next time you just needed it a bit further. To be able to play in such a fashion is all about the leaders in that group being very consistent with their message and selection. When you see a captain play in such a fashion it’s, it’s very easy to follow.
Ashwin: It’s very important that you do what’s in the best interest of the team. And obviously, over the years, I have got the backing of certain captains about how I want to go about go about my business. Australia and England play different brand of cricket. But when you come up against England, you need to understand that they’re going to do that to you. And it’s always important to run the run the metrics inside your head and also going into the planning for a game about the risk versus reward ratio. How much how much you can risk the risk of particular delivery and try and come out on top and what is in the best interests of the team. For a top-order batter, the requirement of the game is a slightly different to a bowler. I don’t look at it as a four-over stint. I look at every single delivery as a win or a loss on my account and directly proportionate to the team’s result as well.
There is talk India’s selectors will be keeping an eagle eye on IPL performance, with the T20 World Cup coming up…
Ashwin: How an IPL and a T20 World Cup happens is entirely different. We are going to be playing in Mumbai. Some of the grounds are going to be small and with a lot of dew around. When we go to the T20 World Cup in Australia, are we facing the same conditions? For me, be extremely useful to your team and get the job done and rest will take care of itself.
Jos, you are a Rajasthan Royals veteran now. How do you see this season shaping up?
Buttler: We’ve got loads of experience in the team. I’m really excited to see Ash bowl alongside Chahal, two top performers in the spin-bowling department. Sanju (Samson) is another year into his captaincy journey. We know what a talented player he is. Someone like Trent Boult brings in a lot of experience, having won the IPL with Mumbai Indians. As a franchise, we have underperformed in the previous years. This year could be different.
Playing IPL in two cities and no flights to take…
Buttler: I prefer the old style in the pre-pandemic days, seeing the country. It was hectic of course but playing in different stadiums, places and going back to grounds where you have done well in the past was special. Every team has a fan base in their home cities. We are grateful the tournament is going ahead and the fans are coming back to the stadiums.
Ashwin, this is your fourth IPL team…
Ashwin: (laughs). As long as I have the opportunity to play the game, it doesn’t matter where and with whom I am playing. As a professional, you must be happy to representing teams that are respecting you. RR has always bid for me in the auctions and I am extremely happy to be representing them.