Marnus Labuschagne recently described facing R Ashwin as being “like a chess game”. It was an interesting choice of words as actual chess could prove to be the off-spinner’s greatest weakness.
Labuschagne was alluding to that to and fro of decision-making between himself and a thoughtful bowler like Ashwin who is trying to dismiss him.
- Ashwin sets a field
- Labuschagne decides on a palette of viable strokes
- Ashwin bowls
- Labuschagne plays a shot
- Ashwin revises his plan
That’s the basic mechanics of their contest. There’s an obvious physical element too, but both men have attained a sufficient level of control in their respective fields that it’s really more a battle of wits.
Bring your A-game. May the best man win.
But then every player has off-field issues that could potentially inhibit their performance at one time or another. R Ashwin is not like other people. We think R Ashwin is vulnerable to chess.
R Ashwin enjoys chess. We know this not just because he has said so, but because he has gone so far as to make a series of online videos with Grandmaster RB Ramesh titled “Learn the Basics of Chess”.
This is not like Netflix paying Brendon McCullum and Phil Tufnell to play golf. This is not a job. This is R Ashwin being sufficiently enthused by chess that he alienates probably 90% of his YouTube audience by making a bunch of videos about it.
And fair enough, you know. He’s a cricketer. One of the most famous cricketers in the world. People don’t go to him for chess any more than they come to a cricket website to hear how a dark comedy about industrial piping is really very great.
But good on R Ashwin for looking after the small fraction of his audience who are happy to be taken to new and unexpected places. We applaud that.
So it’s pretty clear that Ashwin is enthusiastic about chess, but early in his first Learn the Basics of Chess video he goes so far as to describe it as “one of my biggest madness” – and this is where things get dangerous.
Ashwin is not the only pro cricketer with a love of chess. Andrew Flintoff famously played youth chess for Lancashire (and his brother played for England).
But we don’t even have to look that far. Another current India spinner, Yuzvendra Chahal, once represented India at the World Youth Chess Championship and is currently ranked 81,969th in the world.
Also, rather less impressively, here’s Sourav Ganguly sitting opposite Magnus Carlsen at a chess board.
‘Playing chess against Magnus Carlsen’ would be overselling it, even if a couple of pieces were moved.
But here’s the thing with Ashwin. It appears to be a renewed obsession for him. He said he used to play when he was younger, only to give up on the basis that he, “had to think so much and then go and play cricket.”
We suppose what he’s saying is that you’ve only got so much conscious thinking capacity each day and if you’re the kind of cricketer he is, you don’t want to piss that away on chess.
Which begs the question… has R Ashwin started pissing away all his conscious thinking capacity on chess?
In a world where cricketers are repeatedly experiencing burnout, is India’s finest bowler courting mental exhaustion?
“I never thought that it could be so addictive,” he said. “It has becomes such an addiction for me.”
So there you have it. If Marnus Labuschagne has a good series, you know what to blame… the sordid night-time allure of the chequered board.
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