R Ashwin: The original Chennai Super King comes home

The local boy is no longer part of his hometown franchise, but he still lives and breathes the city. Will Chepauk continue to cheer for him?

MS Dhoni and R Ashwin strike a pose, Kings XI Punjab v Chennai Super Kings, IPL 2018, Mohali, April 15, 2018

MS Dhoni and R Ashwin strike a pose  •  BCCI

Before MS Dhoni became the Thala he is today, R Ashwin was the original Chennai Super King. He secured a contract with Super Kings even before he graduated from college, fronted up to bowl in the Powerplay, and soon became a fan favourite.
Ashwin and Dhoni would combine to snaffle batsmen down the leg side by deploying a leg slip. There was a time when he dismissed Chris Gayle for fun. He brought the sodukku (carrom) ball from the streets of Chennai and made it sexy.
Super Kings were then suspended for two years, and both Dhoni and Ashwin moved to Rising Pune Supergiant(s).
Super Kings marked their return to the IPL with their third title in 2018, but a familiar face was missing. Super Kings had raised the paddle five times for Ashwin, but Kings XI Punjab bid more furiously for him and scooped him up for INR 7.6 crore in the auction.
Kings XI made Ashwin their captain, but he admitted to being a "tad disappointed" to part ways with Super Kings. With protests over the Cauvery river water dispute forcing games out of the MA Chidambaram Stadium last year, Super Kings' Kings XI's Ashwin did not line up in Chennai.
For the first time in the IPL, Ashwin will line up at the Chepauk on Saturday as part of the opposition. Quite a few things have changed in Chennai and at Chennai Super Kings. For starters, the summer keeps getting hotter. The metro rail is up and running; Ashwin himself had taken a ride in it to avoid the traffic and get home after the ODI series against England in January 2017.
Super Kings, meanwhile, have rebuilt their side with old pros and Harbhajan Singh has caught the attention of fans with his offbreaks as well as his poetic tweets in Tamil, the local language. Dhoni's popularity has swelled to a crescendo. You all watched that video.
You can take the Super Kings out of Ashwin. But you just can't take Chennai out of Ashwin. In various interviews, he has proudly said: "I own the space around Chepauk". His first spectator experience here was the Test match between India and England in 1993, when Sachin Tendulkar made 165 in a series-clinching victory. Ashwin and his father Ravichandran have been regulars at Chepauk since. Ashwin then became a regular for Tamil Nadu and India in the Test set-up as well.
In his first Test at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, he picked up 12 wickets in front of his family and rattled Australia. Whether it is a first-division club game or a Ranji Trophy game or a one-day game, Ashwin relishes playing in Chennai. Heck, he even relishes playing street cricket here. Back in the day, Ashwin was in such demand in street cricket that a certain group from the opposition sort of kidnapped him just to stop him from playing a game.
Even before Ajantha Mendis introduced the carrom ball to the wider world, Ashwin was using that variation in tennis-ball cricket. He mastered it at the Super Kings nets and took to the new ball like a magnet, becoming Dhoni's Powerplay specialist. In addition to his tricks on the field, his tricks off it impressed the Chennai faithful. On social media, he reels off inch-perfect punch dialogues of Rajnikanth and Kamal Hassan, Tamil cinema's biggest icons.
A massive movie buff, Ashwin also used to watch videos of the famous Tamil comedian Goundamani with team-mates L Balaji and S Badrinath at Super Kings, and is adept at pulling off impressions of him as well.
Ashwin continues to live in West Mambalam, the low-profile locality he grew up in. Usually, top-tier Tamil Nadu cricketers tend to move to posher localities along the beaches off East Coast Road, but Ashwin still retains the image of the guy every Chennaiite can connect to. He owns a lower-division team in the TNCA league and despite his packed schedule, he is actively involved in coaching young players at his academy Gen-Next.
When the city was ravaged by floods in December 2016, Ashwin was helping India win a Test in Delhi, but he did his bit for Chennai too.
From being the face of Chennai, Ashwin is no longer part of Super Kings. But the shift has helped him realise another dream: captain a high-profile side. From plotting with Dhoni against Gayle, Ashwin plotted with Gayle against Dhoni and even outsmarted his old mate when Kings XI met Super Kings in Mohali, in 2018. Yeah, the IPL is a strange tournament.
In the return fixture in Pune, Dhoni unleashed "chaos theory" and trumped Ashwin. Dhoni promoted Harbhajan Singh and Deepak Chahar up the order and upset Ashwin's plans, knocking Kings XI out of the playoffs.
Ashwin had got a taste of his own medicine - he is used to inverting his batting order and bumping up pinch-hitters in domestic cricket. Against Rajasthan Royals last season in Jaipur, Ashwin promoted himself to No. 3 in a chase of 159, but he fell for a duck. More recently while leading Tamil Nadu in the 20-over Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy that preceded the IPL, Ashwin bumped up tailender R Sai Kishore to No. 3. He fell for a duck too, but that won't stop Ashwin from venturing whacky captaincy moves.
These are still early days in this IPL season, but it has already been a dramatic one for Ashwin. He reignited the spirit-of-cricket debate when he mankaded Jos Buttler, and there could be more drama when he returns to Chepauk - a place where he feels "even the air talks" to him - as the opposition captain.
How will the crowd react to him? Some might still cheer for him. Some might still have a soft corner for him. Some might give him the cold shoulder and only get behind Dhoni. Ashwin will look forward to all of this and will be eager to show Super Kings what they are missing.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo