As far as homecomings go, this will be pretty hard to beat. As far as a sense of the occasion is concerned, it’s difficult to look beyond R Ashwin.
The MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai had hosted its last Test in December 2016. Ashwin’s last Test hundred had come four months earlier, in Gros Islet in the Caribbean. He commemorated Test cricket’s return to Chennai with a spectacular fifth century, an effort that seemed to give him greater joy than his five-wicket haul the previous day, on Sunday (February 14).
The player of the match award was always going to be Ashwin’s for his brilliant ton and his eight-wicket match-winning haul. Not to forget Rohit Sharma’s subliminal 161 knock on day one, which set the tone for India’s series-levelling 317-run victory in the second Test against England. Rohit’s knock was vital to the hosts’ prospects of keeping their World Test Championship final hopes alive; Ashwin’s all-round brilliance was the sucker blow that sent a punch-drunk England crashing to the floor, unable to get up long after the mandatory count of 10 had been completed.
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There is so much to admire about Ashwin, no spring chicken at 34 and yet unwilling to rest on past laurels. Despite 76 Test caps, he is desperate to learn every single day. That desperation manifests itself in hours spent dissecting his game, analysing it threadbare, endeavouring to see how he can keep becoming a better version of himself. In stage two, he translates his thoughts and ideas into practice at nets, be it exploring different but extremely subtle styles of loading, gripping the ball, or imparting the revolutions that either hold the cherry longer in the air or cause it do dip without warning.
One of the numerous gripes Ashwin has had to endure is his overwhelming obsession with the sport he lives and breathes. Miffed at observations that he overthinks the game, Ashwin once told this writer, “No one complains if a scientist or a doctor thinks too much about their respective fields. Why should it be different with a cricketer? This is my profession, my job. Why are people making it out to be a crime to be so passionate about it?”
It’s this passion that facilitates the engineer-by-qualification approaching even a tennis-ball match in his neighbourhood with the same intensity as he would a high-voltage international contest. That he has managed to retain the enjoyment — the reason he gravitated towards cricket in the first place — despite playing, and succeeding, at the highest level for the better part of a decade is a glowing endorsement of his unflagging work ethic and his relentless pursuit of excellence that has undermined many a driven artiste.
A proud Tamil boy who makes no secret of his affinity for his roots and his people, Ashwin chose the perfect way to express his thanksgiving for and appreciation of his fans’ admiration and respect. Three previous Tests in the city of his birth had netted him 22 wickets, including 12 in his first appearance in Chepauk, against Australia in early 2013. But this effort ranks at the very top, as he admitted on Tuesday afternoon.
“As an eight-year-old, I have come here on these very stands to watch cricket with my father,” he said in Tamil at the post-match presentation ceremony, to rapturous applause from the crowd. “I have played four Test matches here and easily this is the most special. I get a hero’s feeling here playing cricket in COVID times, and this knowledgeable crowd came out in big numbers. We were 1-0 without the crowd, and we made it 1-1 with them.”
Later, Ashwin spoke at greater length on what playing at this ground means to him, and why he wore the broadest of grins as he touched three-figures. “It was a dream of mine to play a Test at Chepauk, forget ODI and T20s,” he revealed. “I never thought I would play here and fans will cheer for me. When I played against Australia in 2013 and got 12 wickets, the crowd was encouraging me as a youngster in the team. But the feeling this time was different. I had made my last hundred in 2016. This century came after almost five years. A lot of people had become frustrated that I have batting ability but I am not contributing. I was practising my batting at home during Covid. My reaction was natural, it was an emotional outburst.”
While runs with the bat trigger a surge of emotions, Ashwin is all reason when he slips into his primary role, as the cunning off-spinner whose mind keeps ticking over at a rate his body fails to keep pace with. In that regard, he is like a predator relentlessly stalking its prey, waiting, probing, calculating, and pouncing when the moment is opportune. Like most virtuosos, Ashwin elevates wicket-taking to a fine art. The joy doesn’t stem merely from adding to his impressive tally of scalps, which now stands a tantalising six short of a staggering 400. Ashwin delights in setting up batsmen, working them over in the mind, making them dance to his tune and then unsuspectingly luring them to their doom with a deft twirl of the forefinger or a whippy snap of the middle finger which sends the ball rushing in the exact opposite direction.
For a while a couple of years back, it looked as if Ashwin would have to play second fiddle to Ravindra Jadeja, who fused excellent left-arm spin with a more nuanced approach to batting and electric fielding which has hauled meandering Test matches to heady climaxes. The proud don’t take kindly to such slights; Ashwin went back to the drawing board, refocused and returned a more rounded, complete version whose only competitor was no one but himself. Ashwin has found what they call a second wind; having created an awareness of himself, he is out to express rather than impress. That approach can only end well.