Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
Since India's tour of England which began in August, the team has played four Tests and six T20Is, including the first game of the ongoing series against New Zealand. If told at the start that R Ashwin would feature in four of those international games, how many people would have predicted zero Tests and four T20Is?
Ashwin, a bonafide candidate in discussions of an all-time India Test XI, has suddenly got a new lease of life in white-ball cricket. A door that appeared slammed shut after mid-2017 is now a window full of possibilities.
Not that the white-ball skills were lacking. In the IPL, Ashwin regularly showed how effective he could still be in limited-overs cricket. IPL 2018, the first one since his limited-overs exile, was a decent outing. But from IPL 2019 onwards, Ashwin has been among the top bowlers in the most competitive T20 league on the planet. He's done it with guile, nous and a fine control. The door might have appeared shut, but Ashwin kept knocking on it.
It is the mark of a good team that there will always be quality players on the outside, hungry to get in. Ashwin was one of those players for India's limited-overs teams in the recent past. It is also the mark of a good player that once in, he'll make himself difficult to dislodge. When Washington Sundar's injury meant he wouldn't be there for the T20 World Cup, that opportunity came Ashwin's way. It wouldn't have, if he hadn't stacked up the performances he did leading up to that. And once back, Ashwin has bowled his full quota of 16 overs in four T20Is, taking 8 wickets and giving up runs at just 5.375 per over.
More than the limited sample size of his recent T20Is, it is the IPL that reveals Ashwin's value and effectiveness.
The middle overs of T20 cricket are spinners' bastions, but a bowler versatile enough to be effective elsewhere is gold-dust. Since IPL 2019, no spinner has bowled more in the powerplay than Ashwin's 38 overs. Not coincidentally, no one has taken more than the 10 wickets Ashwin has in the powerplay in this period either. In the middle overs, Ashwin has taken 22 wickets, which seems at first glance a tad less for 105.5 overs bowled, especially when set against fellow spinners like Rahul Chahar (37 wickets in 128 overs), Yuzvendra Chahal (50 wickets in 127.1 overs) or Varun Chakravarthy (27 wickets in 84 overs). However, Ashwin's role has often been to enforce control for his team, and he's been excellent at doing that. Ashwin remains a bowler who seeks wickets, but he does so while also keeping one foot on the opposition's run-rate.
What the bare figures don't account for, is Ashwin's impact even when it comes to wicket-taking. That is something Smart Stats brings into focus, with an algorithm that takes into account the quality of batter dismissed, and the match situation in which the bowler operates and assigns a value to a wicket in accordance with that. In IPLs since 2019, Ashwin has the third highest difference between the Smart Wickets he's taken and the conventional ones. He has 35 wickets in 42 innings, but in terms of Smart Wickets, the figure is 50.1. Among spinners, only Chahal has a bigger difference in that time frame, with his 57 wickets worth 74.27 Smart Wickets. Ashwin's strikes have had game-changing impact, because he's gotten top order batters early. And he's done it while keeping the runs in check too.
He illustrated exactly those qualities against New Zealand. Brought on for his first over within the powerplay, he gave up only six runs. In his second over, immediately after Martin Guptill and Mark Chapman had taken 15 off Deepak Chahar, he conceded seven runs. And that too, was because bowling first and one over in the powerplay meant he had to suss the pace of the pitch by degrees.
"It is kind of tricky, right, in a T20 game, how much do you toss it up? When do you toss it up? The windows for attacking the batsmen are pretty less, so you need to find them and then deliver those balls," Ashwin would tell host broadcaster Star after the game. "Line and length, you can't miss much of it.
"Identifying the right pace is always a challenge when you're bowling first in a T20 game. I bowled my first over inside the powerplay, so the pockets of change of pace had to be much lesser than what you did later on in the game. Identifying that pace took a little bit of time for me. I probably slowed it down once or twice in the first two overs I bowled, and then I realised if you slowed the ball down the purchase was better on this pitch."
By his first two overs, Ashwin had figured out that slowing the ball through the air and landing it correctly would get him more bite. And when he was brought back for his final over - the 14th of the innings - he did what he often has, prising out wickets to cause an inflexion point in the game. Chapman was done in by a classical off-break, while Glenn Phillips got a carom ball that pinned him in front after two off-breaks. New Zealand had lost two wickets, one of a set batter who was accelerating and another of a big-hitter who could have wrecked India's death overs.
Guptill, who lashed 70 from 42 balls in New Zealand's total, summed up the difficulty of facing Ashwin in reply to a question from ESPNcricinfo. "He's a wily bowler, got a great control of his line and length," Guptill said. "And he just doesn't bowl bad balls. I don't remember him bowling any bad balls. He's just very difficult to get away. His change of pace is so subtle and so well controlled, he's just very hard to get away."
The T20 success for Ashwin is not unexpected, given the pedigree he has shown. He also gave a teaser of what could be coming New Zealand's way on this tour, bowling a more classical pace of off-spin and finding bite in the surface. If he could do it with a white ball, given only four overs, what might Ashwin do with a red ball, with more overs and more purchase, with wickets to make up for after having sat out four Test matches?