A scene from an ODI in September 2017. Glenn Maxwell was threatening to go after him and Yuzvendra Chahal, that wiry mastmaula, started pushing the ball outside off stump. Not one was in line of the stumps. Any regular IPL watcher would have recognised the pattern. That Chahal operates in two lines: either relentlessly homing in on the stumps with the outside-off as a variation, or a relentless pinging of the outside-off line. Maxwell must have known what was coming, and yet his restlessness kept increasing. “My plan to Maxwell was not to bowl at stumps,” Chahal would say later. “I know that if I can bowl two-three dot balls, he will step out and play an aggressive shot.” The step-out happened but Chahal had slowed it up a touch, and still kept it outside off and Maxwell would end up miscuing the slog sweep. Gone.
A scene from the second ODI against South Africa on Sunday. Chris Morris had just lapped Kuldeep Yadav to the legside boundary but he still flighted up the next one. It floated across almost like a full toss and Morris must have thought six when he started to swing down his bat, but it dipped so rapidly on him that he couldn’t get any wood on the leather. “I felt I could get him, the six didn’t faze me,” Yadav would say later.
The common link between the two of them is their self-confidence. It would have been understandable if they had been cagey: both are replacing the well-established pair of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, but instead, they have been almost gung-ho in the way they have sought to express themselves. It’s that trait that has now made them seal the ODI spots.
And it won’t be a surprise if Yadav goes on to even nail the Test spinner’s spot: if there is space for just one spinner in the team in overseas conditions, time will surely come, and pretty soon, that it would be Yadav. Such has been the rapid rise.
Chahal used to be an Indian summer phenomenon: seen in two months in April, May during IPL and poof, he would vanish. No first-class cricket, no whispers about him until his reappearance in the next IPL. All along, you would be left scratching your head at his disappearance: here was a brave legspinner who revels when the batsmen go after him (two years back there was this insane stat about him: Eight times he had dismissed batsmen who had hit him for sixes on the previous deliveries), a intuitive spinner, consummate mastery over variation of pace, and yet, we had to satisfy ourselves with the annual sighting. There was a reason, of course, behind the vanishing act. On Haryana’s pace friendly home pitch of Lahli, there was, at best, only one slot for spinners in the team. Legspinner Amit Mishra was captain, and ipso facto would occupy that.
Royal Challengers Bangalore skipper Virat Kohli’s ascension to India’s limited-overs captaincy in January 2017 coincided with Chahal making a mark in the T20Is against England. This ensured that after IPL 10, he didn’t simply evaporate.
Chahal’s calling card is his cricketing intelligence: the streetsmartness that enables him to rise to the occasions when the batsmen go after him. Cricketing skill-wise, the notable part is the clever change of pace. Unlike some, he doesn’t change it all that much — varies it from 85 kmph to 95 kmph. And that’s how he confuses the batsmen. Some legspinners change the pace dramatically between googlies and conventional legbreaks or topspinners, but he doesn’t. It’s all a minor tweak here and there, and batsmen end up mistiming their shots. He hardly bowls short to the right-hand batsmen — and when he does it, such is the growing reputation that the batsmen almost wonder if there is something more to it. Would the ball skid on quicker, would it be a toppie, and end up not taking full toll. In other words, he has earned that respect.
Yadav, on the other hand, has been settling every little doubt or word of caution that his IPL mentor Brad Hogg, a left-arm wrist spinner himself, had. 18 months ago, Hogg had talked about how Yadav was prone to lose his action — “get his body locked” when he tries to increase the pace on the ball under pressure. That no longer happens. Six months ago, Hogg talked about how Yadav should get the stock ball going more often so that his variations turn more effective. He has already done that. Yadav’s googlies are something Hogg would be proud off. Fans would recall how Hogg had hoodwinked Freddi Flintoff and had him stumped with a peach of a googly, that came after a series of regular break-ins. Yadav’s googly moment came in the Dharamsala Test in March against Australia when he left Maxwell looking ridiculously out of place even as the ball pegged back the off stump.
In some ways, it’s a pity that South African team hasn’t really tested the two. Some of the batting has been almost club-class, but there is enough evidence already to suggest that these two should be, and will be, India’s main spin weapons in next year’s world cup.