Being left-handers' kryptonite could see R Ashwin edge Axar Patel out

Despite his Player-of-the-Series performance against Australia, Axar might not be in the XI against South Africa

R Ashwin has been economical against both left-handers and right-handers in T20Is since the start of last year's T20 World Cup  •  Associated Press

R Ashwin has been economical against both left-handers and right-handers in T20Is since the start of last year's T20 World Cup  •  Associated Press

Eight wickets at an average of 7.87, and an economy rate of 6.30. Incredible numbers by themselves, but even more remarkable given that Axar Patel was bowling to an Australia side that posted totals of 211 and 186 either side of scoring 90 in an eight-overs-a-side shootout.
Three days after winning the Player-of-the-Series award for that effort, however, there's a chance that Axar might not feature when India open their three-match series against South Africa in Thiruvananthapuram. It sounds preposterous, but it's a distinct possibility when you look at potential match-ups. Matthew Wade was the only left-hand batter in Australia's top seven; South Africa's will quite likely include three, in Quinton de Kock, Rilee Rossouw and David Miller.
While commentators routinely scoff at match-ups, the facts lay out a clear case for respecting them. This year, in all T20 matches for which ball-by-ball data is available, left-arm spinners have an economy rate of 8.12 against left-hand batters as compared to 6.86 against right-hand batters. Offspinners have gone at 6.60 against left-hand batters, and 7.28 against right-handers.
And because there are significantly fewer left-hand batters than right-hand batters going around, it's fairly straightforward for teams to hide left-arm spinners away from unfavourable match-ups. Axar, for example, has only bowled 857 balls to left-hand batters in his T20 career (economy rate 8.58), as compared to 2385 to right-hand batters (6.68).
Ordinarily, the composition of India's attack might allow them to play their left-arm spinner regardless of opposition. But with Hardik Pandya rested and Deepak Hooda injured, they will most likely have no sixth bowler, which means the five main bowlers will have to deliver four overs each, no matter how favourable the match-ups are.
And India have no need to force-fit Axar into their XI, given that their squad contains one of the world's foremost exponents of bowling to left-hand batters. Since the start of last year's T20 World Cup - when he came back into the T20I side after a four-year absence - R Ashwin has an economy rate of 6.05 against left-hand batters - the best of all India bowlers to have sent down at least 50 balls to left-hand batters in this period. His average against left-handers in this period, 13.25, is the second-best behind Arshdeep Singh's 12.00.
Axar, in comparison, has gone at 8.92, and Chahal at 8.10.
Ashwin, of course, isn't just an offspinner in T20 cricket. To right-handers in particular, he uses his front-of-the-hand variations - the carrom ball, and the reverse-carrom ball, which behaves like an inswinger - so often that you could label him a mystery bowler, except the mystery isn't the point as much as the use of a wide range of tools to tie down the batter.
It isn't just left-hand batters who've found him hard to get away, as a result. Since the start of last year's World Cup, Ashwin has been just as economical against right-handers, going at 6.13. Ravindra Jadeja is the only India bowler, among those who have sent down at least 50 balls to right-handers, to have done better (5.55).
If you look at the above table, you might wonder why Ashwin isn't India's first-choice fingerspinner in T20Is regardless of opposition, but there's an obvious answer to that question. Jadeja and Axar are proper allrounders who bat left-handed, and can bat at No. 7 or move up the order: either to break up India's largely right-handed top six, or to allow Dinesh Karthik his preferred entry point close to the slog overs. Ashwin, over the last year or so, has turned himself into a versatile T20 batter who can pinch-block as well as pinch-hit, but he's not nearly as good a six-hitter as Jadeja or Axar, and he bats right-handed.
Against South Africa, the pluses of Ashwin's bowling against a left-hander-heavy line-up should outweigh his relative shortcomings as a lower-order batter. India will most likely replace Pandya with Rishabh Pant, which means they probably don't need a left-handed floater down the order. And Ashwin needn't necessarily bat at No. 7 either, with Harshal Patel also likely to be part of the bowling attack. There is, of course, the option of India leaving out Chahal, playing both Ashwin and Axar. and lengthening their batting significantly.
But in case India do leave out the guy who just won a Player-of-the-Series award, don't be shocked. It's no slight on a terrific cricketer; it's just a reflection of India's squad depth.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo