Ravichandran Ashwin, the 34-year-old India off-spin great, loves asking questions. When not interrogating the batsmen's technique and patience on the pitch, he goes about learning the lessons of life by merely asking more questions ever—a trait he credits his Chennai school Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan (PSBB) for. In the last few days, after Team India's famous series win in Australia, the penchant for asking questions has turned Ashwin into a YouTube sensation. A set of five video interviews posted on his YouTube channel with members of the team's backroom staff—R Sridhar, Bharat Arun, and Vikram Rathour, India's fielding bowling and batting coaches respectively—reliving the series and revealing a bit of dressing room inside track, have together fetched nearly 5 million views, despite most of the conversations being in Tamil, with only English subtitles.
An inside view
At the best of times, dressing room nuggets and anecdotes of the kind brought out by Ashwin would be cricket journalism gold (the ever-harrumphing Ravi Shastri who uttered 249' shabaashes' as Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari blocked away at Sydney; Bharat Arun recalling so much 'tamarind turning over in his tummy', a typical Tamil expression to connote the heebie-jeebies, that would have made enough sambar to feed all of Chennai; and Rathour's quiet confidence in the 'process' and 'preparation' even when the team was skittled out for 36 in Adelaide). Now, when the touring press pack has virtually disappeared thanks to Covid-19 travel restrictions, Ashwin's videos from the engine-room make for compelling viewing and have somewhat filled the journalism gap. Not only that, they've become the raw material for a lot of "expert" analysis in cricket media. "My idea was to offer cricket fans a snapshot of how the game looks like from the coaches' dug-out. It's a perspective they don't often get," says Ashwin from his bio-secure bubble in preparation for the Test series with England beginning February 5.
Like most celebrities the world over, Indian cricketers too favour Instagram and Twitter, often posting pictures of themselves or anodyne motivational messages. However, Ashwin took to YouTube in April last year, amid the coronavirus lockdown. He had two key motives. "I could see first-hand the gloom all around us during Covid-19. People were losing jobs, some even losing family members. I tried to help some families who were suffering with a monthly stipend. Being an incredibly positive person myself, I thought I could spread some cheer on YouTube," says Ashwin.
Second, he felt that fans usually heard players in the form of small press-conference soundbytes or two-minute video clips put out by the media. "They would often miss the context and the big picture. I thought, why not have a better engagement with them and share my experiences and emotions. As a kid I used to wake up at 7.30 on Sunday mornings to watch Cheeka's [former India opener K. Srikkanth] cricket show at 8 on Raj TV just to hear his recollections of the matches he played," he adds. It's also his creative vent.
Typically, Ashwin's 20-40-minute-long videos combine his cricket nerdary (he's nicknamed Cricipedia), a wide range of interests outside of cricket, and borrow from the vast lexicon of Tamil cinema. The videos are titled alliteratively ('Adelaide Alapparai', ' Sayonara Sydney') or using popular Tamil film titles and comic dialogues ('Aadukalam', 'Hello, Dubaiaah…?'). He often interviews fellow cricketing legends and people from other walks of like such as K Bhagyaraj, the Tamil actor-director whose 1981 comedy Indru Poi Naalai Vaa Ashwin claims to have watched at least a hundred times. "I'm a huge Tamil film fan. Even when playing Ranji Trophy matches in Chennai, I would go to Satyam theatre with teammates and catch the evening show after the day's play, and then go to bed after watching the 10 pm movie on KTV," he says.
The many passions
Unlike modern celebrities dealing with sanitised soundbytes and politically correct platitudes, Ashwin's candour as an active cricketer is rather refreshing. It has helped change the perception of him being an intense and grumpy cricketer. However, Ashwin the YouTuber, has set himself some rules. No instant analysis of matches he's part of, or " kisu-kisu " or gossip questions to his guests. Despite the credo, some on social media wonder if Ashwin's videos may be giving away the team's tricks and tactics. "What we discuss on videos is hardly any secret strategy. Analytics in cricket has evolved to a level where there aren't many secrets now," says Ashwin.
Given his YouTube videos' popularity and the niche that he's found as a fun conversationalist, you'd think his post-retirement career is pretty much sorted.
"I have many passions. I can have a conversation for hours on most things, say Tamil, Chola history or architecture. I don't know what I'd be doing post-retirement, but I have a lot of questions I'd love to explore," says Ashwin.