'Ashwin has bailed me out in a lot of situations' - Dhoni
R Ashwin has now bowled only five overs in his last three Twenty20 matches. These are the kind of numbers that spawn social media memes and conspiracy theories. Ashwin seemed annoyed as well by questions on the dew denying him his full quota in the World T20 semi-final against West Indies. Questions are being raised as to whether MS Dhoni still sees Ashwin as a potent weapon.
Dhoni, for his part, has reiterated that Ashwin is still his go-to man, who can "do well at any time".
"As I have said, Ashwin has bailed me out in a lot of situations - whether bowling in the first six or in the slog phase," Dhoni said at a promotional event in Mumbai. "It's a subject, like revealing strategy. Ashwin is a mature bowler. He can bowl at any point of time."
In the opening match of IPL 2016, the seamers of Rising Pune Supergiants were delighting in the comforts that the Wankhede pitch had on offer. There was generous bounce and the ball was darting around off the seam. Dhoni stood well behind but Ishant Sharma's bouncers were still torpedoing into his gloves. And then there was Mitchell Marsh providing the perfect contrast with his full and dipping late movement. Between them they had four wickets in the Powerplay.
When the quicker men were given time off, medium-pacer Rajat Bhatia slipped into the middle overs and got one to cut back into Kieron Pollard's pads for a first-ball wicket. Bhatia's stingy spell of 4-1-10-1 put Mumbai's innings on sedatives. Concurrently, though, there was second-guessing about when Ashwin would be introduced. He was at first slip during the Powerplay, catching Jos Buttler's outside edge, but there wasn't much else required of him.
When spin was introduced for the first time in the 11th over, it was the legspinner M Ashwin, on IPL debut, who was given the ball. At the end of that first over, which produced a wicket, R Ashwin, who himself had been bowling a number of legbreaks at practice, walked up to his namesake and Tamil Nadu team-mate, possibly to offer feedback on his first over. The mini-meetings between the Ashwins happened after almost every over the young legspinner bowled.
When R Ashwin was finally introduced in the 16th over it was clear he was going to go another game without completing his quota. His first ball was short and Rayudu, who had nurdled his way to 22 off 26 balls, shaped to pull the ball in front of square. But, his shot went fast and low to Faf du Plessis at short mid-wicket, making R Ashwin the fourth bower in the evening to take a wicket with his first delivery. He bowled five more balls for seven runs, but he wouldn't get another over. M Ashwin bowled the 17th over, and Mitchell Marsh, RP Singh and Ishant were tasked with bowling the last three overs.
While it would be hard to fault the decision given the seam bowlers had done everything asked of them, it opened up a debate on R Ashwin's role in the side. Dhoni had said in January that R Ashwin was a "great asset" across formats, and that he was his failsafe when the fast bowlers didn't do well.
Dhoni also pointed out the importance of giving M Ashwin a decent run in a low-pressure situation, which prevented R Ashwin from getting more of a bowl. "It was a very good platform for legspinner Ashwin to come in. Since you watched the game, you would have seen he is not someone who bowls a lot of short deliveries, but he was feeling the pressure," he said.
"I thought it was more important for me to give him those four overs as, in the longer run, I need him as a wicket-taking option, and I felt at that point of time if I can give him the four overs it will give him the confidence to come back probably in the second and third game.
"It was a process of giving him confidence, but at the same time we were attacking from the other end. Rajat Bhatia was bowling well using the conditions, that was the reason. [R] Ashwin bowled one over and after that I thought going with fast bowlers was a better option [in the end overs]."
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun