The metamorphosis of Ravichandran Ashwin over the last 7-8 years as one of India's greatest matchwinners has been fascinating, to say the least.
Ashwin is a student of the game of cricket like no other. The Chennai man's records speak for themselves, and his latest gig against the West Indies in Dominica in the first Test has been a reaffirmation of his credentials.
With match figures of 12/131, the fourth-best for any bowler in a Test match and his best away from home, Ashwin has stamped his dominance in a place where historically pacers have ruled the roost.
To understand a bit about how Ashwin's mind functions while he is plotting the downfall of a batsman, the spinner's assessment of how he bamboozled Kraigg Brathwaite on the third and final day is a case in point.
For a bowler of Ashwin's experience and calibre, the effort that he puts into his deliveries is incredible. Taking the Brathwaite example, Ashwin illustrates in his own words how he went about it methodically.
"I'm thinking constantly like a batter when I'm bowling," Ashwin said. "[During] the first few overs, I'm settling into a nice rhythm. I'm looking for different angles, trying to see whether my round-arm ball spins, or the up and over spins, or the flatter trajectory spins. I try and gauge the pitch, I try and gauge the right pace to be bowling with, and then I'm looking at the batter."
This ability to think differently is what sets Ashwin apart from the rest of the bowlers operating in international cricket. Not to say other great bowlers are not using their mind but probably not to the degree that Ashwin is and that's simply because Ashwin is Ashwin. Someone who has an academic-like interest in the intricacies of spin bowling and pretty much all other aspects of cricket in general.
The 36-year-old bowler dissects what angles he is bowling at constantly. His release points constantly keep varying as he is adjusting his line and length to help himself, he looks at the pitch and gauges how to go about his deliveries. Another factor is the pace.
Ashwin spends a fair amount of time trying to get the pace right for his deliveries as pace is a crucial aspect as far as spin bowling is concerned. Pace and flight need to be well coordinated to get the right revs and eventually fox the batsman.
When he has covered all these aspects concerning his own bowling and ticked all the boxes in his head, he turns to the batsman. There are chinks in the batsman's armour that he is minutely looking to exploit and capitalise on.
"That's the next phase for me - where is the head moving, where is he looking to score those runs, is he falling over, is his front leg coming over? - those are the things I'm looking at. Today, when I was bowling at Kraigg Brathwaite - it was something I was working on in the first innings as well - I felt like when the round-arm action was coming in, he was losing his head."
What makes a spinner like Ashwin extremely dangerous for any batsman is his ability to extract the inside edge as well as the outside edge.
This has been made possible by his natural variations that change at a frequency that makes it difficult for a batsman to adapt and adjust in the last moment.
Also, what Ashwin has done over the years with his dominating wicket-taking abilities is to put fear and doubt in the minds of the batsmen.
When Ashwin is completely in control and getting those inside edges and outside edges from batsmen at regular intervals, there is harakiri in the opposition think-tank.
"I've played so many Test matches, right? It's always about getting those one or two dismissals early on in these pitches," Ashwin said. "One caught the outside edge, one catches the inside edge, and suddenly the team walking in, they're thinking, 'Okay, here I am; can I defend, can I go forward, should I go back?','' Ashwin explains his point.
They don't really know how to play him and that applies to some of the most accomplished batsmen as well. With 486 Test wickets and fast closing in on a landmark 500 Test wickets, India's spin warhorse has been off-late the High Priest of Spin Bowling and also it's Favourite Student with his intuitive approach to the craft.
Hopefully, Ashwin's supremely thoughtful approach to the game will enrich India's cricketing ecosystem in the years to come. One also hopes he will leave a legacy beyond all the numbers and records that he will anyway own.