Ashwin and Kyrgios: villains or genius?

26th Mar 2019


Reading through my twitter feed last night and this morning there were two major sporting stories dominating the posts. Both were complaining of unsporting behaviour and how things 'weren't in the spirit of the game'. I was intrigued and began to dig deeper into what had gone on. Whilst I am all for players looking to gain whatever advantages they can, I am a firm believer in staying within the rules of the game – and more than that, playing in a way which should inspire youngsters and not cause any self-doubts over your own integrity.

So lets take a closer look at the two incidents in question. First up is Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios, a controversial figure anyway based on his history of outbursts on the court and times when he has clearly not been trying to win. This time he is being called unsportsmanlike for serving underarm (twice) which caught his opponent Dusan Lajovic off-guard and resulted in a Kyrgios winning the points. Responses to this have varied from him being called a genius to disrespectful and belonging in a circus. My view is that he played within the rules to find a creative way to win a point. With players standing so far behind the baseline waiting to receive serve it has always surprised me that fewer players take advantage of this and play more gentle shots to force their opponents to move. In any sport, one of my favourite things to watch is players being creative and forcing their opponents to problem solve on the pitch. It really sets apart those players who can think for themselves and those that only know how to operate 'Game Plan A'. A similar example was how Conor O'Shea sent out his Italian team to disrupt the England game plan a couple of years ago in the 6 Nations. England spent the entire first half confused, lacking ideas and understanding. At one point even the referee had to say to them something along the lines of 'I am here to enforce the rules, not to coach you' as disorder reigned among the players. Admittedly, after a half-time team-talk and reorganisation, England found a way to counter the tactic and ran out winners of the game, but the way the Italians managed to create such chaos and discomfort in a team far superior in playing ability was fascinating to watch. I find the idea of the underarm serve in tennis not dissimilar. As Judy Murray put it 'the whole point of tennis competition is to disrupt ur opponents game by applying pressure through changing the speed, spin, direction, depth or height of the ball…'. I would go further and suggest, this is the whole point of any sport. Disrupt your opponent (within the rules), make them uncomfortable. That is when you find out who the true geniuses of the sport are.

The other big talking point from yesterday appears to be even more contentious and divisive. In an IPL cricket match Ravi Ashwin controversially ran-out Jos Buttler by running into bowl, stopping his run-up just short and instead knocking Butlers stumps off as he had ventured outside of his crease. The rules of the game state that the non-striking batsman must stay in his crease until the ball has left the bowlers hand. Butler therefore had broken this rule and Ashwin was completely within his rights to run him out in this way. This hasn't stopped the internet (including a huge number of former players and pundits) calling Ashwin 'shameful', 'a villain', and a 'cheat'. The decision was sent to the video umpire who made the decision that in fact Ashwin was not a cheat and that he was within the laws of the game to get Buttler out in the manner he did – so should this kind of thing be encouraged, or is the internet right to be enraged and say it is not what we should be setting as an example to young players? My opinion is that Ashwin was well within his rights to remove Buttler's stumps. Buttler had stepped outside his crease – which is the only rule which was broken in this whole debate. Yes, it was marginal, yes, it took out of the game a player who was showing fantastic form, and yes, it probably swung the whole result – but is that not the point of sport? To (within the rules) use your vision and intelligence to beat your opponent. If the cricketing world is against this kind of act then they need to examine the rules and not allow a torrent of abuse against one player.

The reason for my personal interest in both of these stories is that the chief instigators of the controversy both managed to win their respective battles by displaying superior visual skills. Kyrgios could only win points through playing underarm serves because he had spotted his opponent standing behind his own service line, and probably with his weight going backwards, not forwards towards the ball. He then displayed exceptional timing and deception to take advantage of this. Similarly Ashwin will have spotted through his peripheral vision that Buttler tended to step outside his crease before the ball had been released. This allowed Ashwin to take advantage of this and gain the dismissal. Many other bowlers would never have noticed this and so not had the opportunity to consider whether they would use it for their own gain.

When people think about improving their visual skills they really only consider individual skills such as improving reaction speed or eye-hand-co-ordination. These cases show that good vision can involve far more than that. It can also influence technical and tactical play and enhance all round performance in a much broader sense.

To conclude, there are many ways in sports that players do act in unsporting ways to gain an advantage which I am absolutely against. The play acting, shouting at officials, brandishing imaginary cards – all acts which I loath. The cricket match which is only being talked about because of Aswin's dismissal of Buttler also saw the return to play of former Australian captain Steve Smith – who has rightly been serving a ban for ball tampering. That is an example of illegal and unsporting behaviour. The two examples I have discussed are, in my opinion, examples of creative players, using their vision to spot opportunities (within the laws of the game) to outwit their opponents – and in doing so, both went on to win their matches, even if they have not won the hearts of those watching.

About the author

Dr Zöe Wimshurst is a world leader in sports vision and for over a decade has worked directly with some of the best athletes and sports teams on the planet.

Dr Zoe Wimshurst