Legspinner Amit Mishra was a key part of India's last full strength first-choice Twenty20 international XI before the start of this series against South Africa. India play so few Twenty20 internationals, though, that the said side took the field in the World T20 final in April last year. For the only T20I in England in August 2014, India did not pick specialists in the format, and the two games in Zimbabwe this year was a chance to try players for the future.
Mishra was India's second best bowler in that World Twenty20 and since then he has made a comeback in Tests and ODIs too. He is an attacking option, and in the first T20 against South Africa in Dharamsala, where R Aswhin was turning the ball despite damp conditions, Mishra might have been a better choice than left-arm spinner Axar Patel, who relies on accuracy and the batsmen taking risks for wickets. The debate is mutually exclusive of the 22-run over from Axar that turned the match in South Africa's favour.
It is a marginal call and depends on the captain's preference. The same captain who preferred Mishra's wicket-taking legspin is now backing Axar's containment with quick left-arm spin because he wants to pick a better batsman among "equally good" bowlers comprising a five-man attack.
"About Mishra, you have to consider the top seven," Dhoni said after India's seven-wicket defeat. "Where one can fit. Ideally you want six specialist batsmen, and a seventh who can bat a bit. Then maybe people who can do a bit with the bat. It is very important to put runs on the board. You are playing with five specialist bowlers, all of them are equally good, so I don't see any reason where I can drop one of the spinners and pick Mishra unless it is a specialist spinner [seamer] I have to get rid of."
It will be difficult to drop a seamer because of the 7pm start time for the T20Is, which means there will be significant dew at venues in India, making the ball difficult to grip. Despite that India looked in control when their spinners were bowling, except for the Axar over that cost 22.
"We will have to see how much dew is there," Dhoni said, when asked if India would consider playing a third spinner. "If there is considerable amount of dew it will put a lot of pressure on the spinners. Not to forget the first six overs are very crucial. At times spinners can do a really good job for you, but if there is no assistance in the pitch, with just two fielders outside, if you go for too many runs in the first six, the game gets out of your hand.
"If you take Axar's one over out of the game, I felt he bowled really well. It happens in T20. Once the batsman is set you have seen good bowlers go for runs, even the best in the world. This was a one-off game where Axar went for runs, because if you see he is somebody who is consistent with his line and length. He doesn't give you loose deliveries so you have to play the big strokes to get runs out of him. I was quite happy with him apart from that one over."
Dhoni's assessment of Axar was spot on, in that he often makes batsmen attempt big shots, but he stressed on the need to do damage control after getting hit. "You will have bad overs but you have to restrict it to 12 or 15 runs because that will really help the other bowler coming after you," Dhoni said. "Gives him that cushion of extra five or six runs. You have to keep choking the opposition."
Where does that leave Mishra then? It can be argued that in a 20-over game, six specialist batsmen are enough, because the No. 7 will play only a handful of deliveries more often than not. Those deliveries, however, are at a critical time and the depth a batsman at no. 7 offers can allow the specialists up the order to be more attacking.
When Mishra played in the World T20 he was the third spinner after Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Axar has now taken Jadeja's spot and there was no place for a third spinner in Dharamsala. Whether India persist with a defensive spinner who bats, or picks an attacking legspinner, will be interesting not just in the context of this series but for the World Twenty20 at home in March.