Despite having a good county stint last year with Worcestershire, Ashwin's Test record in England until Wednesday had been negligible: three wickets at an average of 33.66 from the two Tests he had played on the 2014 tour. Those numbers aligned with his lean form overseas outside of the subcontinent. With Ashwin now being consigned to play Test cricket only, this tour carries huge significance for him.
Ashwin did not need to wait for long. Virat Kohli threw the new ball to his offspinner as early as the seventh over. Curiously, Kohli had mentioned at the toss he would have elected to bowl, as if to justify picking four seamers, including Hardik Pandya, in the five-man bowling attack.
What would have certainly influenced Ashwin's early introduction was not just Umesh Yadav spraying the ball in his first spell of three overs, but also the slowness of the pitch. But Ashwin has bowled with the new ball in the past and he would have fancied bowling when the pitch still had some moisture in its surface.
It did not take him long to bowl the best ball of the day. The pitch was still damp when the match started under cloud cover. He had the advantage of bowling to two left-handers in Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings. And he started from round the wicket, an angle from which Cook has succumbed on many occasions in the past. He was well aware of Ashwin's plan, but he got sucked into it all the same.
With the fourth ball of his second over, Ashwin bowled a fuller delivery on the off stump which Cook drove in front of square for no run. He'd been pushing him back at first, and had now started to lure him forward. He had got the batsman playing.
One ball later, Ashwin floated down an offbreak at around 55kph. The ball maintained its middle-and-off-stump line as Cook leaned forward to defend, but you could see that Ashwin had put a lot of revolutions on the ball, as the seam was coming down almost straight. Sure enough, it landed on the seam, and the dampness in the pitch allowed it to grip. There was bounce from the new ball along with the turn, enough to beat the outside edge of Cook's bat before it hit the off stump. It was a beautiful delivery. Ashwin was joyous.
And that set the tone for Ashwin's day, for despite there being not much turn off the surface, he managed to gain an upper hand by imparting a lot of revolutions on the ball, subtly changing the pace on the delivery and sticking mostly to a tight line around the off stump. His average speed today was 54.8 kph, but Ashwin did fire in the quicker one that goes with the arm to keep the batsman rooted to his crease.
Ashwin is at his most dangerous when he is attacking the stumps with aggressive lines. Out of the 150 deliveries he bowled today, 118 were pitched on a good length or or just short of a length. The one time he dropped short, he was duly cut by Joe Root for four. The other strength Ashwin has is he can read batsmen quickly. When Jos Buttler arrived at the crease, Ashwin understood that the right-hander would be more circumspect as he continues his return to Test cricket, and not as free-flowing version as he is in limited-overs cricket.
Ashwin bowled a slow, loopy delivery on a good length on off stump; Buttler was slow to move into position. That momentary delay was enough for the ball to hit the pads and catch him plumb in front. And when Ben Stokes arrived, Ashwin left the allrounder restless by locating a no-man's land of width and length, that he could neither attack nor defend convincingly. Eventually Stokes left embarrassed, after flapping a nothing shot back to the bowler. And his fourth wicket of the day was a classic sucker punch - a slower and wider delivery to Stuart Broad, following up with a quicker arm ball that had the left-hander plumb lbw.
Ashwin not only created pressure, but also played the role of an impact player. Although Virat Kohli can claim the honour of creating the turning point in the match, Ashwin has proved that he can take advantage of the slightest opening.
But Ashwin will admit he could not do the job single-handedly. There was another man that maintained the pressure on England, and that was Shami.
Shami had gone wicketless in the three-day warm-up against a second-string Essex side last week. However, that was the first match Shami had played since mid-April after he injured his hamstring playing for Delhi Daredevils during a four-match IPL stint. The last time Shami had played for an extended time was during the three-Test series in South Africa, where he bagged a five-for in the second innings of India's victory in Johannesburg.
A crisis in his personal life was another issue for Shami to surmount. He did not make the cut for the one-off Afghanistan Test due to fitness doubts, but once he cleared the mandatory yo-yo tests, the selectors named him in their squad for the first three Tests in England. But the Indian think tank still had some nagging doubts.
Was Shami mentally ready to return to the Test arena? Did he have enough stamina in his legs and core to sustain the grind of bowling so many spells? Most importantly, could he catch that rhythm without any cricket under his belt?
His first over today was a maiden, and a perfect one as well. He started with a short-of-a-length delivery that forced Root on the back foot. He then followed up with a fuller-length outswinger and was soon landing the ball on the seam at will.
Considering Shami was returning from injury, Kohli bowled him in shorter spells. That isn't necessarily the ideal way to use him, seeing as Shami is a rhythm bowler, unlike Umesh or even Ishant, who can be patchy. His strength is his ability to land the ball on the right length consistently, the type of bowler who needs to deliver his stock ball consistently. In the end, Shami pitched 81 out of his 114 deliveries between short-of-a-good-length and a good length.
But he was not shy of testing batsmen with a bouncer, or a yorker-length delivery fired into the toes. What Shami did not allow the batsmen was a short ball that could be cut and pulled. Virtually every second or third delivery, Shami would raise his hands to his head as if he nearly had his man. It was not a ploy to distract the opponent, instead it telegraphed Shami's dominance over the batsmen. And his average speed was in the high 80s throughout.
The two wickets he got on Wednesday, of Keaton Jennings and Dawid Malan, were virtually identical: both balls were angled in from wide of the crease. Both were on a good length and moved in sharply off the seam. Both left the batsman unable to respond. The Indian think tank might have been anxious in the absence of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah, two bowlers who contributed to India claiming 20 wickets in each of the three Tests in South Africa. But Ashwin and Shami have shown evidence they can do that job, too.
R Ashwin and Mohammed Shami. Two men who kept India safe on the first of day of the Test summer. Two men who will keep proving their worth.