Less than a year ago, England’s batting coach Graham Thorpe had reportedly texted his friends and county coaches to find him a leggie and a left-arm wrist-spinner. “It doesn’t matter if he’s young or old, playing county or club. I need him,” his message read. A day before, he had asked the stadium upkeeps to dismantle ‘Merlyn’, the spin-bowling simulating bowling machine, installed to enable his wards to get a hang of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, England’s tormenters in the T20 series that preceded the ODIs and Tests. “The machine doesn’t have hands or fingers,” Thorpe quipped in a pressser before the second ODI in Leeds.
He had his reasons. Merlyn didn’t prepare the England batsmen to face the Indian slow bowlers. Left-arm wrist-spinners were as rare as a horse’s teeth, as Thorpe likened Kuldeep’s tribe to. Chahal isn’t a throwback leggie either — he doesn’t flight or make the ball drift as much, but still purchases ample turn. In the first ODI in Nottingham, they had the Englishmen poking around. Joe Root had missed Kuldeep’s whirring chinaman by almost six inches. Jonny Bairstow played down the wrong line of a wrong’un and was trapped leg-before, Eoin Morgan misjudged Chahal’s length, urging Thorpe to reject the machine in favour of humans hands.
He reasoned with a tinge of resignation: “Playing spin comes with real-match experience. The more you face the trajectory, the flight, the speed of the ball, they’re the things you pick up. You’ve also got to set up against it; your method, your footwork, your position on the crease. You have to react quickly, especially in one-day cricket.”
Whether Thorpe had his text messages answered or not, in the space of less than 10 months, the English batsmen seem to have imbued his message. Against India at Edgbaston, the Englishmen demonstrated quick footwork, quick thinking, exceptional reaction speed and single-minded steel to not only rein in the wrist-spin torment but also dominate them. The same pair who combined to snare 11 wickets, conceding just 4.71 runs an over in three games last year, ended up shipping 160 runs in 20 overs, picking just a sole wicket, which owed more to the athletic brilliance of Ravindra Jadeja than Kuldeep’s guiles. Even if one weaves in the IPL-influenced familiarity, the hours spend with the video analysts and the labour at the nets (facing man or Merlyn), England batsmen’s transformation was swift.
Decisive footwork was the most obvious difference, eschewing their old flaw of looking to play the spinners from the crease. Whether shimmying down the track or hanging on the backfoot, they were tactically firm. Roy, who began the onslaught on Chahal with a brace of boundaries, would wait for him deep in the crease and depending on the line, would target either cow corner with bludgeoning slog-sweeps or the slash, rather than cut, through the covers. Chahal reacted by bowling fuller and flatter, which hardly harmed them. So quick they were on their feet (and with their mind) that the flatter trajectory didn’t throttle their run-scoring. Even for milking singles, they used their feet masterfully. It was enough to send Chahal off-kilter, he just became reactive, trying to fire in leg-side bound flat darts, happy giving singles. But English batsmen were far more intuitive, as Roy unfurled the reverse sweep and Bairstow resorted to powerful slogs-sweeps. Chahal was bowling much faster than he does -between 84.7 and 91.5 kmph.
If Chahal was guilty of being hyper-reactive, and going flat-out defensive after a point, Kuldeep was naive. England kept attacking him, a deliberate ploy as Eoin Morgan later emphasised, but Kuldeep kept attacking them even more. True that wrist-spinners seldom flinch from their trusted methods, but there are times when they have to modulate their aggression. An odd improvisation here, a tactical tweak there. But Kuldeep was strategically static, vindicated by his pitch-map, a cluster of balls in the full/goodish length area, pitching mostly on the fourth-stump line, striving for spin both ways. Fundamentally, he was bowling the same over 10 times.
Maybe, a quickish slider. A top spinner. Something un-Kuldeep-like might have worked. The strokes the openers chose was another difference. So versatile were they that they weren’t strait-jacketed into using a few select percentage strokes. They were lofting and clumping them with as much ease as they were slogging or reverse-sweeping them. Even reverse-sweeps weren’t entirely the same. Bairstow executed three subtly different reverse-sweeps to Kuldeep. The first was more of a reverse glide, going fine past the vacant third man. The next was squarer and more power-packed as Virat Kohli had just placed a third man. Three balls later, he lashed one through the background. Later, Ben Stokes reverse-slog-swept Chahal over point. Such mastery of the reverse-sweep hitting has seldom been witnessed in an ODI. Ravi Shastri might have remembered the day he and his colleagues were ruthlessly swept aside (the conventional way) by Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting in the 1987 World Cup semifinal. But it wasn’t just a reverse-sweep carnage. Bairstow was glorious in lofting them, especially Chahal, over mid-on. Roy would then bring out the slap cuts, Root would nonchalantly drive them through the covers. Stokes would blend sophistry and brute force. Chahal and Yadav were left gasping, exhausted and exasperated, a day they would have required a Plan D to stop the Englishmen on a surface that had little assistance for them. Then, aren’t the wristies expected to find their way through in most circumstances?
Maybe, it was a rare off day for both. For it was just a couple of weeks ago that Kuldeep had flummoxed Babar Azam, with a ball-of-the-tournament contender. It was just three weeks ago that Chahal was making Faf du Plessis and his chums look foolish. It was just 10 months ago that they’d sent Thorpe SOS-ing. After all, it might have been an off day, as both Chahal and Kuldeep have been quite deceptive, even sporadically magical, in most of the matches this World Cup. The next match, they might resoundingly bounce back.
Nevertheless, it has thrown open the possibility of both wrist-spinners enduring an off day, as much as it does present a case for Jadeja, who can pile on the dots and create pressure and coerce a wicket; besides bolstering the batting depth. It might be construed as a defensive strategy, there’s no denying that it isn’t. But his addition affords India a safety net, grit amidst flash, fight amidst fantastical. There are times when being defensive is not just utilitarian but indispensable. The England match was one. There could be others. As for Merlyn, it might be gathering dust and dirt in the Leeds attic.