One is 43, rotund, muscular, a little clumsy; the other is 23, agile, so thin he could slip in through your keyhole. One grew up in a famed nursery of cricket, the other in a place without quite the same tradition. But they have much in common.
They practice a fascinating but difficult art, they have been consigned to relative obscurity and they are lighting up IPL-7. In what has been a good tournament so far, I find myself waiting for Pravin Tambe and Yuzvendra Chahal to bowl. And I wonder, if it hadn’t been for the IPL, would they have ever had a stage to perform on?
Tambe’s is the more dramatic story. Till he was spotted at a camp for the Rajasthan Royals at the age of 41, he was among the foot soldiers of our game; among the many who toil so that one, often someone else, can make it big. There wouldn’t have been a footnote for him, even in the history of Mumbai cricket. When the IPL came along, he was at the DY Patil Stadium, checking if the arrangements for the cricketers, other cricketers, were good enough.
He gave himself the opportunity by turning up at the trials and allowed someone to notice that he spun the ball, that he bowled the wrong ‘un, that the ball came out of his hand well. You have to salute his spirit but you have to stand up and applaud the attitude of the Rajasthan Royals that they noticed only the ball coming out of his hand, not the age of the shoulder that delivered it.
They have been a great club and have offered many like Rahane, Samson and Binny among others, the opportunity and the freedom to earn a name and a living. Each of those learnt their cricket elsewhere but the IPL gave them a stage and you must never underestimate the importance of that.
Tambe was a curiosity at first but now everyone knows what he can do. That is a different challenge but at IPL-7 he is standing up to it and succeeding.
It helps that people have no choice but to take him on, and that is what a leg spinner loves. But see what else he offers. Very little. He is slow in the field and at this level, he can’t bat. If he doesn’t bowl very well, he is easy to drop.
Tambe could have looked at everything that he can’t do but I suspect he chooses to look at what he can. I don’t know him but he must be feisty and optimistic.
Chahal has age on his side but so do many others. He comes from Haryana where some nice things seem to be happening. But unlike Tambe’s Mumbai, Chahal’s Haryana is not a traditional nursery of cricket. Even there, in 4 years he managed only 14 first class games and took a mere 25 wickets at 35 each. And he doesn’t bat. Like Tambe he would have been easy to drop. But in T20 cricket, he takes a wicket every 22 balls and concedes less than a run a ball. He too bowls a good leg break, has the googly and gets the ball to hasten off the deck. And he doesn’t seem worried about the ball ending up in a pick-up truck outside the small ground in Sharjah.
So what is happening in T20 cricket that the likes of Tambe and Chahal, and at a different level Sunil Narine, are becoming important? Because you only have 120 balls, batsmen cannot pick you off for two and three runs an over. Bowlers have to be attacked and that means the batsman is dropping his defence. Perfect for the spinner who has the variety, the turn and the guile, to confuse a batsman. Without that they would be clattered.
It is no coincidence that Sunil Narine has struggled to pick up wickets in test cricket, that Pravin Tambe’s Ranji Trophy debut was uneventful. They cannot yet go past a patient defence. So do they have a lesser skill? No, just an appropriate skill for a new format! It must be as respected as much.
Rahul Dravid, and now Shane Watson, at Rajasthan Royals have respected Tambe’s skill and given him the platform. Virat Kohli at the Royal Challengers is giving Chahal the freedom to be an attacking bowler, as indeed he is with Varun Aaron. It is so important to have the right captain.
There are other stories too. Shahbaz Nadeem, Mohit Sharma, Sandeep Sharma. But there is a different kind of joy watching leg-spin bowling. And Pravin Tambe and Yuzvendra Chahal are providing it.