With the long Indian home season now approaching its last leg, the four-Test series against Australia will be an opportunity for a certain Ravichandran Ashwin to once again make merry on conducive wickets by running through the opposition batting order.
While the Indian team has been at its dominant best in the five-day format for the last six months or so, winning every game that came along the way, save for a draw at Rajkot against England, it would not be too far-fetched to say that Ashwin, along with Ravindra Jadeja, has been the toast of India's performances, and we're not just talking about the bowling department here.
Ashwin got his first foray into international cricket in 2010 during the tri-series also featuring Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, before finally making his Test debut against West Indies a year later. His selection into the side was on the basis of consistent performances in the domestic circuit as well as in the Indian Premier League (IPL), and it was in the Border Gavaskar Trophy in 2013 that he made his first big breakthrough, collecting 29 wickets to become only the third Indian bowler ever to take 25-plus wickets in a Test series.
He was also among the leading wicket-takers in the Champions Trophy later that year, although the tournament was one of the few occasions where spin partner Jadeja outshone him by a distance.
His rise in the Indian team, however, meant that Harbhajan Singh had to deal with intense competition for the lead spinner's slot, and eventually lost the battle over a period of time under the captaincy of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. While Harbhajan, who himself has 417 wickets to his credit, can hope of making a comeback in the limited-overs scene, it is safe to say that it would be a very difficult prospect to remove Ashwin from the longest format.
He is no mug with the bat either, as two centuries in the Caribbean last summer as well as four half-centuries against England would suggest. Such had been his form with the bat in recent games that he was even promoted ahead of wicketkeeper-batsman Wriddhiman Saha, keeping his fluent strokeplay in mind. His innings have especially come in handy when the team has been in the doldrums after a top-order collapse. The fact that he started his career off as an opening batsman in the U-14 and U-17 levels might have something to do with his willow-wielding skills.
While he has had his share of lows in recent times, with the 2014-15 tour of Australia as well as last year's IPL being two such cases, Ashwin has largely been riding a wave of success in the last two years or so, which has not only made him indispensable to India's plans as far as home tracks are concerned, but has also made him the No 1 ICC Test bowler and all-rounder (and got him the 2016 ICC Test Cricketer of the Year Award as well).
His dominance began with the tour of Sri Lanka in 2015, followed by the four-Test series against South Africa, in which he sent the Proteas into a tizzy by collecting 31 wickets as the Indians romped to a 3-0 series win. And it has only grown in leaps and bounds in the last six months, in which he finished as the highest wicket-taker both in the Test series against New Zealand and England.
Against Alastair Cook and Co, he was instrumental in triggering collapses on deteriorating pitches that fully assisted him in foxing the batsmen with his variations, which played a vital role in the visitors' 0-4 series loss.
While he was the second-fastest to 200 Test wickets, such was his form in the home Test season that he soon became the fastest to 250 career wickets in the format, surpassing Dennis Lillee's record by three matches during the recent one-off Test against Bangladesh, dismissing Mushfiqur Rahim at the end of the first innings to get there. The Tamil Nadu off-spinner will hope to get as close to the 300-wicket milestone as possible. He has another 10 Tests to break yet another record held by the Australian pace legend, which is the fastest to 300 Test wickets.
While he had Kane Williamson's number in the Tests series against New Zealand, England's Ben Stokes was his bunny in the subsequent series, and he removed the Englishman five times in as many Tests. It remains to be seen who Ashwin targets in the upcoming Tests against Australia, with captain Steve Smith and vice-captain David Warner being two of the most formidable batsmen among the visitors.
While the Australian squad for the upcoming series has a quality player of spin in Smith, there are quite a few members in the side who have a lot of distance to cover to perfect that art, something that Ashwin will be hoping to take advantage of in order to preserve his status as the leading Test bowler with another 20-plus haul in the series. Given his run in recent times, it would be safe to say that he certainly stands out as a favourite to achieve that, as are India's chances of completing a 4-0 whitewash in the series.