Saturday’s Indian Premier League match between Royal Challengers Bangalore and Rising Pune Supergiants marked the tenth time in the last 19 games that Ravichandran Ashwin has not completed his full quota of overs. In all these 19 instances, Mahendra Singh Dhoni has been the captain.

The phenomenon isn't restricted to just the IPL – it seemed to have started from the crucial India-West Indies semi-final at the World Twenty20, but it actually goes back even further.

In the first 11 games he played in 2016, Ashwin bowled his full quota of overs in nine. And his form was exemplary – after being ranked the world’s top Test bowler at the end of 2015, Ashwin picked up 17 wickets in those eleven games, including returns of 3/14 and 4/8 against Sri Lanka in February, the latter being the best performance by an Indian bowler in Twenty20 international history.

From hero to zero

But it was the much-awaited game against Pakistan that provided a glimpse of things to come. On a furiously turning wicket, Ashwin was given only three overs at the start and was not brought back into the attack. He did bounce back with a spell of 2/20 against Bangladesh (where he bowled a wicket maiden at a crucial stage), but something had obviously changed: against Australia and then West Indies, he was only given two overs each.

It is a trend that has continued in the IPL as well: India's top wicket-taker in Twenty20 internationals has only bowled his full quota of overs in five of Pune’s ten matches so far. In Sunday’s match against Bangalore, he bowled just the solitary over and incredibly enough, it was not the first time this has happened – Dhoni turned to Ashwin for just one over in Pune’s first match of the season against Mumbai as well.

It is not as if Dhoni is not aware of the controversy that is spewing. Earlier in April, it seemed he was backing the star off-spinner when he hailed Ashwin as a “mature bowler” and someone who has bailed him out in a lot of situations. But Dhoni has not walked the talk since then, and Ashwin continues to be under-bowled.

More fuel was added to the fire when Adam Zampa, Pune’s Australian leg-spinner, provided a bewildering case for under-bowling Ashwin in that particular match against Bangalore, insinuating that Ashwin was only given a single over as Bangalore did not have many left-handed batsmen in their lineup.

Virat Kohli had a different approach

That raises a question. Does Dhoni actually feel that one of the world’s leading spinners can only be used against a certain kind of batsman? Because among Ashwin’s more than 200 international victims, he has dismissed AB de Villiers, widely considered one of the best batsmen of his generation, on five separate occasions. And last time we checked, de Villiers was a right hander.

Dhoni's Ashwin strategy could not contrast more with the way Virat Kohli, the captain of India’s Test team, handled the bowler last year. Ashwin was in magnificent form against both Sri Lanka and South Africa, picking up a combined 52 wickets in seven Test matches.

And Kohli was magnanimous in his praise of Ashwin throughout. At a Press Conference after India won the second Test in Sri Lanka, he called him “an asset any captain would love to have in his team.” He also made another telling observation – that Ashwin was troubling even right-handed batsmen, who were supposed to have it easier against him.

Dhoni’s treatment of Ashwin has certainly set tongues wagging, with well-known sports-writer Boria Majumdar darkly hinting on Twitter to sports journalist Gautam Bhattacharya that there was more to it than meets the eye.

However, it is important to remember that this is not just an issue which is IPL-related, but one which affects Indian cricket as a whole. Ashwin is India’s premier spinner. Over the past year or so, he has been unplayable and has matured as a bowler who can hold his own against anyone in the world and on any kind of track. India will host New Zealand and England later this year, and Australia the next. The 29-year old is at the peak of his career and remains integral to India’s results this year.

But by continuously underbowling Ashwin, Dhoni may well be planting seeds of doubt in the off-spinner’s mind. And that would be disastrous for India at a time they have finally found a world-class spinner after the Kumble years. Ashwin is too valuable an asset to be ignored. For the good of Indian cricket, it is vital that Dhoni provides him with the necessary confidence.