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Match Analysis

Axar Patel and the chicken-and-egg problem of being India's third spinner

It is hard to get enough overs because of which it is hard to get into rhythm because of which it is hard to get enough overs

In the days leading up to it, all the talk surrounding the Border-Gavaskar series revolved around India's spin attack, and how Australia would handle its triple threat. R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel were inevitably mentioned in one breath.
Ashwin and Jadeja came into the series with vastly more experience than Axar, of course, but it didn't seem like there would be a clear pecking order in how India would use them. Axar, at that point, had taken 47 wickets in eight Tests, at the ridiculous average of 14.29. Three wickets in Nagpur would have made him the joint-fastest Indian bowler, alongside Ashwin, to 50 Test wickets.
Nagpur has come and gone, and so have Delhi and Indore, but Axar is still waiting for his 50th wicket. He's only taken one wicket in the series, at an average of 103.00.
Ashwin, Jadeja and Axar continue to be spoken of in the same breath, but that's usually when their batting is being discussed. All three have made important runs in this series, most of all Axar, who is India's second-highest run-getter with 185 at an average of 92.50. He's passed 50 twice in the series, a feat managed by only one other player on either side, Usman Khawaja.
Axar's contributions in Indore summed up the weirdness of his series. He bowled 13 overs in an Australian first innings that spanned 76.3 overs, and none in their brief chase. He was not out twice, scoring 12 and 15, and was left stranded both times by Mohammed Siraj's seeming lack of game awareness. In the first innings, Siraj was run out, late to respond to a call for a gettable second run that would have kept Axar on strike. In the second, Axar watched helplessly as Siraj was bowled slogging at Nathan Lyon.
At that point, Axar turned his back on Siraj and marched to the dressing room, his partner remaining a pitch's length behind him as the players made their way off the field. Being stranded was irksome enough; in that second innings, Axar was left stranded after being demoted to No. 9, behind Ashwin.
India may have had sound reasons for this choice. It may have had something to do with Axar's left-handedness. Or they may have felt that Ashwin and Axar were both capable of constructing a partnership with a set Cheteshwar Pujara, but reckoned that Axar's six-hitting ablity would make him the handier option if one of the allrounders had to bat with Nos. 10 and 11.
India may have had their reasons, but if you had watched Axar bat through this series, and seen how organised he had looked both in attack and defence, you may have wondered why he wasn't batting at No. 7, above KS Bharat.
Instead, Axar had come to occupy the strangest of roles: high-performing batter and occasional bowler slotted at No. 9.
These things can and do happen when teams have multiple allrounders. It's hard enough managing three spinners even if they can't bat. They typically bowl a lot of overs, and often need to bowl long spells to get into rhythm, so when a team has three of them, it's natural for one to be underbowled.
In that sense, captaining Ashwin, Jadeja and Axar in India is nothing like captaining Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc in Australia - a comparison Rohit Sharma made after India went 1-0 up in Nagpur. Rotating three fast bowlers is far easier than rotating three spinners.
Rohit alluded to this himself on the eve of the Indore Test.
"Look, Ashwin and Jadeja have bowled really well so I've to continue to make them bowl as much as possible. If you have three spinners, you know that the third spinner is always underbowled. This time it has been Axar in these two Test matches; you never know who that guy will be in the next two Test matches.
"Because if guys are getting wickets from both sides, you have to continue to bowl them, as simple as that. That's how it is. When Axar, Ash and Washington [Sundar] played in Ahmedabad against England [in 2021], Washi was the one who was underbowled. Probably didn't even bowl too many overs. That's how it is.
"When you have guys taking wickets and are in good rhythm, you can sense that they need to bowl longer spells. Like fast bowlers, they take a little bit of time to get into rhythm. You need those fingers to come good for you. So you need at least 3-4 overs to get into that rhythm. Then the spinners can bowl longer spells than the fast bowlers."
It's not necessarily a slight on Axar's ability, then, that he's only bowled 39 overs in the first three Tests, when Jadeja has bowled 106.1 overs and Ashwin 95.1.
But over the course of the series, it's become a chicken-and-egg situation. Because Ashwin and Jadeja have bowled well and taken wickets, Axar has only got to bowl short, infrequent spells. He has bowled his 39 overs over 11 spells, of which only two have lasted longer than five overs. Four have spanned just one over - he may only have bowled those overs to allow Ashwin and Jadeja to swap ends.
By bowling so little, it's possible Axar has lost a bit of rhythm, and that in turn has hurt his chances of getting longer spells. As the series has worn on, Australia's batters have just looked more comfortable against Axar than against Ashwin and Jadeja, and ESPNcricinfo's control data bears this out. Where they've managed control percentages of 75 and 79 against Ashwin and Jadeja, they've gone at 88 against Axar.
It isn't just Ashwin and Jadeja who've troubled batters more through this series than Axar has. All three of Australia's frontline spinners have, too. This, perhaps, has led to a situation where Australia's captains have found it easier to rotate their three spinners than Rohit has.
Steven Smith spoke about the challenge of rotating three spinners after the Indore Test.
"I spoke to the spinners on the morning of day one, that they have to take their egos out of play," he said. "For them, the pitch is spinning and they want to be bowling. But we've got three of you. If I take you off, it doesn't mean you're bowling badly. It's just that someone else may be able to do a better job at that point of time. When you've got three spinners, you have to work them that way and keep them as fresh as possible. I was pleased with the way I handled the three spinners."
Rohit hasn't been able to do this in quite the same way, and Ashwin and Jadeja have ended up bowling extra-long spells. In Indore, both struggled for control at times, and while this may have had something to do with the difficulty of adjusting to the sharpest-turning pitch of the series, it may also have been because they weren't always at their freshest, physically or mentally.
In the second innings in both Nagpur and Delhi, Axar was underbowled because Ashwin and Jadeja were running through Australia. Ashwin and Jadeja weren't always at their best in Indore, but Rohit still felt they were likelier to get him wickets than Axar.
It's a far-from-ideal situation for India, and it's partly a consequence of the pitches they've played on. Flatter pitches that produce longer innings lead to situations where the third spinner, if picked, bowls out of necessity, and this can give someone like Axar a chance to bowl himself into rhythm. On turning pitches, the pressure to take quick wickets is constant, and a third spinner who isn't causing the batters as much discomfort as the other two won't get to bowl much at all.
India will hope they can use the time they have between the third and fourth Tests to get Axar into better rhythm. If that happens, they can distribute their spin-bowling workload more equitably, which will only increase the collective potency of their attack. It'll encourage both India and Axar that the fourth Test will be in Ahmedabad; it's his hometown, and to say he has a good record there is perhaps the biggest understatement in all cricket.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo