On a day that India found it cool - in August 2017 - to do the dab, and on a day that statistically-minded Indian fans concocted another measure to celebrate - the double of 2000 runs and 250 wickets, to which R Ashwin is the fastest - Ashwin did provide a cool and real statistic by the time he was done with his first over. In the period since ESPNcricinfo began to maintain ball-by-ball statistics, Ashwin was now the most successful spinner with the new ball. Upul Tharanga was his 56th wicket in the first 20 overs of an innings, going past Rangana Herath's 55. Just to add more depth to the number, Ashwin is also the most successful spinner when opening the innings, his 96 wickets two ahead of Hugh Trumble.
Of course, the DRS has helped with the lbws, but statistically at least Ashwin is the best spinner with the new ball, averaging just 22.85 in the first 20 over of Test innings. The old maxim of trying to score your runs before the ball loses its shine in Asia doesn't hold anymore because bowlers such as Aswhin are attacking both edges of the bat, especially with the new ball. It is not all down to Ashwin alone, but a measure of this changing phenomenon is that visiting openers' average in India dropped from 35.63 to 30.45 from the five years immediately preceding Ashwin's Test debut in India.
And when the ball is turning as much as it is at the SSC, Ashwin makes the life of left-hand batsmen a living hell. For Tharanga and Dimuth Karunaratne, it was a matter of when and not if with that new ball. Ashwin has all the toys once it starts turning that much. He also gave it considerable more rip than the Sri Lanka spinners so it was not just the more used pitch at work. He bowls that beautiful arm ball with the new ball, which goes seam-up and swings into the left-hand batsman. Karunaratne, who said he was watching for the straighter ones only, was nearly done for with the arm ball at the end of the fourth over, which he only picked off the pitch.
Then Ashwin plays around with the seam of the ball to give it the best chance to not turn. It is an absolute nightmare when one ball turns a mile, and the other one with the same seam position just goes straight on. Tharanga was a little unlucky in that the catch just stuck in the short leg's midriff, but Ashwin had already sown seeds for slower judgement by following up a ripping offbreak with a straighter quicker delivery.
For Karunaratne's wicket, Ashwin had to wait a little longer. As Karunaratne said, he tried his best to not follow the big offbreaks. He was only keeping an eye out for the straighter ones, which is the new maxim: when batting against a spinner meant to take the ball away from you, don't get beaten on the inside edge because the ones turning away sharply will likely miss your edge and go safely to the keeper. Karunaratne said he tried to pick the straighter one from the drift; if the ball drifted in, he looked to play the angle. So the big offbreaks kept beating him, but the edge didn't arrive.
This was now looking like Pune where India repeatedly beat Australia's batsmen without actually taking the edge often enough to win the Test. In that match, Australia bowled at an average a metre fuller than India. One can't be certain if Ashwin was conscious of that but he did try to bowl fuller, but ended up bowling a half-volley, which Karunaratne drove for four. That, though, was closer to the three-metre mark than the business area of four metres from the stumps. Therein lies the problem: suddenly shifting from the ideal spinners' length of about five metres to a fuller length can result in half-volleys.
So Ashwin went back to the natural length. He kept beating the bat again because the ball had time to turn past the bat. Until he finally bowled the perfect four-metre length. And with that came the edge off Karunaratne's bat. In the whole innings he bowled only three balls fuller than that: a four, a single and a dot.
That wicket taken, in the final few overs, Ashwin opened up other wares too: the carrom ball, the legbreak. He was having a ball with the new ball. Ashwin looks more energetic at the crease than against Australia, which was at the end of a long season. There are a possible 98 Sri Lankan wickets to be taken on these wickets before India go to South Africa. Ashwin is going to keep statisticians busy.