Before mastering the art of off-spin, Ravichandran Ashwin had to surmount a few twists and turns early in life. No wonder this 24-year-old speaks with a maturity way beyond his age and never looks flustered under pressure on the field.
A humble upbringing with middle-class ethos, a solid academic background and his early tussle with health - Ashwin has been toughened by all this in his single-minded pursuit of his passion, cricket.
At 14, he was diagnosed with a ligament problem in his left leg, which required surgery and threatened to smash his childhood aspirations. Recalling those days, his parents, Ravichandran and Chitra, say initially they were in tears.
"From the time he was very young, we knew he wanted to become a cricketer. So when the doctor told us that the surgery could threaten his and his father's dreams, we were shaken," says Chitra, who works for a private firm.
Ravichandran was a club-level fast bowler who couldn't make it to the Chennai first division. And one reason why Ashwin was never discouraged from playing was because it was this Southern Railways employee's dream to see his son make that grade.
So, instead of opting for surgery, the parents sought a second opinion. "This doctor said surgery wasn't needed, but he would require bed rest for two months. We decided to go by that advice because we wanted Ashwin to play," says Chitra with a smile, which might have sprouted from the satisfaction of a decision well taken 10 years ago.Ashwin vividly remembers those days but says he didn't think much about it. "I was just a kid, too young to worry what future had in store for me, or what were the implications of my injury. But yes, I remember that my parents were upset."
He was off cricket for eight months after that period in bed. "To begin with, I was limping. Gradually, it got better. When I finally played a match (an inter-school one), I scored a half-century and took three wickets. I was happy because I was back doing what I wanted to."
Soon after came the biggest turning point of his career, when he changed schools, moving from Padma Seshadri Bala Niketan to St Bede's. A cricket academy at St Bede's was the reason behind the shift, and it was here that Ashwin met CK Vijaya Kumar, a coach who remodelled him from a medium-pacer into an off-spinner.
"We needed a spinner for limited-overs matches and I thought he could do the job for us," recalls RI Palani, who was in charge of the academy when Ashwin joined. "Technically, he had a balanced action, and also a brilliant temperament for a spinner. He went on to win a lot of matches for us," says Palani, who now looks after the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association Academy.
The school had no problem granting Ashwin leave whenever he was away playing. "Because he was equally good at studies, it was okay with us," says T Amalraj, the assistant headmaster of St Bede's, who saw Ashwin from close quarters in the two years he spent there. "Most of our students who play cricket are from the arts faculty but Ashwin was an exception on that count too. That he had to miss classes never reflected in the marks he secured."
Amalraj remembers Ashwin as a normal, well-behaved boy, who used to mix with everybody. "He never had any status problem. Normally, cricketers in the school walk around with an air about themselves, but Ashwin was just like any other boy, even when he was the U-19 captain of the school."
Ashwin has retained that simplicity, something that could easily have vanished with his entry into the glamorous and lucrative Indian Premier League with all the hype around it.
He welcomes strangers to his house, and goes around like any other neighbourhood boy, without any airs of a star. This may have something do with the fact that he is still so engrossed in cricket. Even as he speaks, reclining on a sofa in his drawing room, he is fiddling with a cricket ball, tossing and catching it while watching South Zone play Central in the Duleep Trophy, on TV.
A down-to-earth cricketer, an avid reader with an impressive academic record; he is a rare breed in this squad.
But then, Ashwin is different. Not too many have bowled the doosra at the international level without their action being questioned!