Somebody must have invented an invisibility cloak for Ravichandran Ashwin.
Since his debut, Ashwin has performed many miracles on the cricket pitch. His mantelpiece is full of trophies, records and stumps carried home from matches won. And the statistician's book is full of several firsts by this unassuming man who looks more like an IT geek than an assassin with a ball and a fighter with a bat.
Yet, Ashwin has gone about his job largely unnoticed, as if saying his abracadbra from behind a veil. He has, so far, remained the unsung hero of Indian cricket.
Consider Ashwin's record: His 17 five-fors (Sunil Gavaskar once jokingly compared them with Michelle Pfeiffer) in 33 Tests are the highest by any spinner at a comparable stage. The only bowler to have taken more five-wicket hauls, 19, after 33 Tests was the pacer known for his legendary toe-crushers, Waqar Younis.
Compared to Waqar's toe-crushers, Ashwin's carrom balls are a different genre of ammo. To Waqar's lethal scuds, they are a gentle warrior's rubber pellets. Yet, his impressive record shows it isn't impossible to cause mayhem on the field if you have the brains and guile to plot a carnage.
When Ashwin scored a century in the first Test of the ongoing series against West Indies and then bowled out the opposition in the second innings, he achieved a feat credited to a cricketing legend. Before him only Ian Botham had scored a ton and returned with a 7-for in a Test.
But, statistics is only half the story in cricket. Many cricketers have burst on the Indian scene in a blaze of records only to wither away. Vinod Kambli started with a string of hundreds and double-hundreds, proudly claiming that he had caught up with Sachin Tendulkar in spite of taking the stairs. Ajit Agarkar, the gentle boy who somehow found enough strength in his sinews to masquerade as a pacer, was the fastest to 50 wickets in one-dayers. And then they fizzled away, some into notoriety and others into the drudgery of labouring in the Ranji Trophy.
Ashwin has the air of an athlete who wishes to run the marathon. For that he is willing to do what many cricketers forget to do after having ''made it." Unlike the Agarkars and Kamblis, Ashwin is eager to evolve, present to us a new, improved version of himself every few months.
When he was promoted up the order in West Indies, it wasn't one of those "dekhte hain kya hota hai" decisions that have characterised Indian cricket. There was a time when the "dekhte hain" school of thought was dominant in Indian cricket, leading to decisions like promoting Javagal Srinath as "pinch hitter" (often the ramifications of decision would pinch the captain's butt) or using Manoj Prabhakar as an opener or a spinner (remember 1996 World Cup match against Sri Lanka?)
It is well-known that Ashwin is a huge fan of Rajinikanth. As the joke goes, if Rajni sir had been a cricketer, rain would have stopped because of the play. His fan, by that logic, is entitled to lesser achievements and miracles.
But, Ashwin's story is of hard work and long hours on the net. In West Indies, his promotion was based on the sound cricketing logic of the what the captain and the coach saw during practise. For the past one year, Ashwin had worked hard on his running between the wickets (lazy, confused, rabbit in headlights were some of the adjectives used earlier), changed his stance, worked on getting the location of his off-stump right, concentrated on the art of leaving balls in the corridor of uncertainty (just inches outside off stump) and set himself targets that a regular batsman does. In Sanjay Bangar, rumoured to be the Buddha of the current Indian team, he found an eager coach and mentor.
Just a few months back, Ashwin was being seen as a failure in the IPL. Since he was not taking wickets, his captain MS Dhoni was not giving him enough overs, leading to speculation that Ashwin is now past his prime. (Others argued he was not getting enough overs to take wickets).
But, now that he is back with a bang and a Bangar, his evolution as an all-rounder is great news for the Indian team. With Wriddhiman Saha still struggling to bat less like Dhoni and more like Syed Kirmani, it gives the Indian team a batting option that has been missing since the days of Kapil Dev. And Ashwin the option of chucking his invisibility cloak and showing to the world the wonder that he is.