Ashwin turns it on for Chennai
When Muttiah Muralitharan (ODI economy rate 3.91, Twenty20s 6.24) is part of a team, his accuracy and variations almost guarantee that he will be their most frugal bowler. However, for Chennai Super Kings in this IPL, Murali is not even their most miserly offspinner - that spot is currently occupied by local boy, R Ashwin.
Ashwin hadn't got too many chances in the IPL before this season, but since last year's tournament in South Africa, he has progressed enough to earn call-ups to both of India's limited-overs squads. He has worked on a carrom-ball as well, leaving batsmen guessing which way the ball will turn.
That has opened up more opportunities for him this season. He started off well, keeping the runs down in the opening week, before a poor spell culminating in a savage assault from Robin Uthappa at the Chinnaswamy left him on the sidelines. That came on the heels of the Chennai choke against Kings XI Punjab, where they tumbled to defeat after being in control for much of the game, with Ashwin failing to score the winning single off the final two deliveries.
After being benched for two weeks, he returned as Chennai was forced to leave out Murali in an attempt to shore up a limp pace-attack by including two overseas quicks in Thilan Thushara and Doug Bollinger.
Since then he has been Chennai's finest bowler, solving their new-ball blues with a series of tight spells, taking seven wickets in three matches at the priceless economy-rate of 4.25. "I was pumped up, waiting for an opportunity," he says when asked about his mindset after being dropped. "The decision to leave me out was probably correct and it got me in right frame of mind."
In his comeback match against Mumbai Indians, he got rid of dangerman Kieron Pollard and allrounder Ryan McLaren in successive overs to help snap the table-toppers' winning streak at five. He backed that up by confidently taking the new ball against Deccan Chargers, nipping out the openers, Adam Gilchrist and Mohnish Mishra, with offbreaks.
But his finest game of the tournament so far was the crunch match against Kolkata Knight Riders at the MA Chidambaram Stadium on Tuesday. Both teams came in knowing a defeat would put them on the brink of elimination, and Ashwin's three top-order wickets were blows Kolkata couldn't recover from.
In a single over, he winkled out their biggest hitters - Chris Gayle and Brendon McCullum. Gayle walloped him over long-on off the first ball of the third over, but Ashwin had him stumped with a short delivery that turned away from an advancing Gayle. Four deliveries later, McCullum tried to clear short fine leg with a sweep but could only top-edge to Murali.
Things got even better for Ashwin in the next over. With the first ball he removed another enterprising Twenty20 player, David Hussey, with a leg-side delivery that left the batsman overbalancing. He could have topped off the dream spell with a hat-trick had umpire Simon Taufel noticed the glove Angelo Mathews got to leg slip off the next ball. When Ashwin bowled out, Kolkata were 30 for 4 after seven overs, the slowest start made in this tournament.
"It feels good to have put my hand up in such a crucial game," he said after his Man-of-the-Match effort pitch-forked Chennai to second spot. "I got the blame for the Kings XI Punjab match [in Chennai] and it feels good to have made up for that."
With left-arm spinner Shadab Jakati also having a good IPL, Ashwin's form leaves captain MS Dhoni the luxury of leaving out his leading wicket-taker, Murali, to bolster other departments of the team with a foreign recruit as the tournament heads to its climactic phase.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo