Ravichandran Ashwin picked up five wickets against South Africa in the first Test. Photo: ICC

After having last played international cricket in December last year, Ravichandran Ashwin returned to the Indian side with a song in his heart and a seven-wicket haul to his name.

In the first Test match against South Africa at Visakhapatnam, the 33-year-old took the first two wickets of the innings to put the visitors on the back foot early on and came back later in the day to halt the opposition's fightback as they responded to India's 502/7d, led by Mayank Agarwal's gritty double hundred.

"I am elated to be back. It is always special playing for India," beamed Ashwin, who spent his time away playing county cricket, the Tamil Nadu Premier League and league cricket in Chennai. "There is nothing like picking up a five-wicket haul for your country. This place is very special for me. But I enjoyed a five-wicket haul for Nottinghamshire (in county cricket) too. One is not too lesser than the other.

"For me, it is about playing the game and I have realised that the joy of the game has to be back in my heart," he pointed out. "I have made sure that I can enjoy the game wherever I go and play. That, I thought to an extent was quite visible when I played also.

"Most people who spoke to me said 'you looked really happy'. I don't know if it was guessing but I did feel genuinely happy to be back there and to be bowling again."

Ashwin, who plays for Kings XI Punjab in the VIVO Indian Premier League, sent back Aiden Markram to give the hosts a breakthrough and accounted for Theunis de Bruyn later with the Proteas finding themselves at 63/4 soon after. A 115-run partnership ensued before Ashwin ended it after forcing Faf du Plessis to play one at leg slip.

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South Africa's tail, though, wagged firmly with a solid stand between Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock. Ravindra Jadeja ended the partnership by getting Elgar out, and then Ashwin ensured de Kock's exit.

A little later, Ashwin bowled Vernon Philander to grab his 27th fifer of his career. At the start of the fourth day, he then went on to grab the remaining two wickets ending with figures of 7/145 off 46.2 overs with South Africa registering 431.

"It's a proper Test match pitch... I thought they batted very well," Ashwin observed. "I thought Elgar and de Kock batted really well. Even Faf. We might have given few too many runs in the morning session... You expect a good side to play like the way they did. So, credit has to be given where it needs to be given.

"We came back in the back half of the day. That is how Test cricket is ideally supposed to be."

Ashwin opened the bowling in the second innings and took 1/44 in 20 overs, ending with a match haul of 8/189, as India won the match by 203 runs thanks to Mohammed Shami's five-wicket haul in the second innings.

The off-spinner's wicket of Theunis de Bruyn was his 350th in Test cricket, reaching the milestone in just his 66th match, the fastest in the format equalling the record set by Sri Lankan great Muttiah Muralitharan.

"I've been very lucky in my career with where I've got with these records," Ashwin said. "But it's important to stick to the process every single day and try and stick to the basics, try and keep it as simple as possible, because that's what makes it easier for you every time you go into the next game."