Interview with Ravichandran Ashwin: On his book, an ode to Chennai Gully cricket, and why 3 Idiots was a turning point

Watch: Interview with Ravichandran Ashwin: On his book, an ode to Chennai Gully cricket, and why 3 Idiots was a turning point

Ravichandran Ashwin has just hit a pull shot and the ball has landed in a temple next door. On the streets of Ramakrishnapuram in Chennai West MambalamEvery evening between 4 and 6 p.m., street cricket was alive. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the young Ashwin was at the centre of the sporting action.

After a hectic day at school, it was the sight of a bat and ball and his local friends that gave Ashwin the greatest joy. Some days he was a hero and scored lots of runs. Other days he had to beg for Gaaji, a popular word in Tamil Nadu to describe “beating”. And other days he had to face the strict uncle next door who scolded him for breaking the window pane with a monstrous six-piece.

But every day before going to bed, Ashwin dreamed about the events that had unfolded that evening and looked forward to more drama and action the next day.

Ravichandran Ashwin

Photo credit: Shiva Raj S

Today, he is regarded as India’s best off-spinner, with a whopping 500 Test wickets to his name and a winning record in all formats, yet the lure of the streets of West Mambalam is still there. “I would give anything to go back there. The joys of being on those tracks, batting for those 2-3 runs and putting the ball in the hole… all of those are great stories,” he says at the Taj Coromandel on the sidelines of his recent book launch.

Ashwin tells several such stories in his book. I Have the Streets: A Kutty Cricket Story (published by Penguin Random House India), in which he, along with cricket writer Siddharth Monga, paints a candid picture of his days before professional cricket and the little joys of the cricket-mad streets of Chennai. “Writing it gave me several goosebumps moments. Today, people don’t play cricket on the streets as much as they used to. I just feel that after reading this book, I have achieved what I set out to do if someone wants to play cricket outside in the evenings.”

    Ravichandran Ashwin with wife Prithi at the launch of his book

Ravichandran .Ashwin with wife Prithi at the launch of his book | Photo credit: VEDHAN M

Writing approach

The seed of I have the streets was put into Ashwin’s head when he went through many novels – he is a fan of Clive Cussler, Chetan Bhagat and has read all Ponniyin Selvan Books – and also devoured the autobiographies of Australian cricketers Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting. “When I read Ponting’s book, I came to his house in Launceston, Tasmania. When I read it, I thought, ‘Hey, this is what my life was like.’ With my book, I wanted to be very organic and real.”

And so, I have the streets, Apart from being an ode to the Madras of yesteryear,also gives a glimpse into Ashwin’s middle-class Tamil household. His parents and grandfather, all of whom were instrumental in getting him interested in the game, are important characters, as are his friends. It also takes us to his days at Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan school, where he first met his wife Prithi. “The book also shows me having self-doubt and being vulnerable, but that makes it real. A lot of people want to portray themselves as perfect, and I’m not perfect.”

A ticket to happiness

Ashwin is a huge film buff and references cinema in all his content, be it on YouTube or in his book. “I have learnt a lot about life through films. When I watch films, GhillieI would rather understand the friendship between actor Vijay and his family than go to Madurai and fight these fights. That appeals to me.”

He describes the reputation of Aamir Khan’s 3 idiots as a turning point in his career. “I saw this film at the right stage of my life and it made me feel that I was probably on the right path. I was so excited when it was remade in Tamil with Vijay because I really respect the actor as he has a lot of talents in dance, action and comedy.”

Spirit of the game

Ashwin is now widely regarded in the international sporting community as a “thinking, ambitious cricketer”, but he stresses that this has always been the case.

Ravichandran Ashwin at his book launch

Ravichandran Ashwin at his book launch | Photo credit: VEDHAN M

“The game was a way for me to compete. Even today, I am still the same gully cricketer who played on the streets of Ramakrishnapuram. It is the same fighting spirit that I have in me.” Ashwin even mentions “Mankading”, a form of dismissall where the non-batting batsman backs away. “In the book, I remember throwing out my friend Bhuvanesh in street cricket at the non-batsman’s end. Many years later, I threw out Jos Butler in an IPL game. I really don’t care because to me, Bhuvanesh is more valuable than Butler will ever be. The fact that we could hang out in a soup shop that same night and have a great time is what makes gully cricket special.”

Ashwin is keen to remain actively involved in the game in the future. Next month, he will play for Dindigul Dragons in the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL). He is also busy making content for his popular YouTube channel, which is a delight for anyone interested in Chennai’s two great passions, cricket and cinema. He will also soon be releasing a second part of I have the streets and also plans to host a cricket quiz soon.

And if time permits, Ashwin hopes to once again take to the streets of West Mambalam and Somasundaram Ground in T Nagar to play street cricket. “I want to do something called ‘Motta Maadi Cricket’ (Terrace Cricket), just like ‘Motta Maadi Music’, a popular music concept. I want to bring back the fun of playing cricket in the stands.” Chennai, are you ready?

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