Short Stories: Tracing the rise of talented game-changers who are primed for their time in the sun during this Australian summer.
Yuzvendra Chahal captures our imagination because of what has captured his imagination. At the moment of the release of the ball, a spinner narrows the various geometric options available to him by instinct and imagination. The choices reveal the character and the skill. With Chahal, the question always was: is his art restricted to a clever response to an attack from a batsman? Can he induce mistakes in a batsman not looking to hit out? Or in other words, can he transcend from a limited-overs virtuoso to Tests? Does he have the nous, the patience, the skill, the craft, the temperament, and the fitness for it?
“I have only one big wish left: to play for India in whites, I am ready for Tests,” Chahal voiced his desire to this newspaper last year. His own sparse first-class turnout doesn’t help but increasingly, evidence suggests that he has grown enough to at least be tried.
Watching him bowl in recent times has been a brain- teaser. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Chahal uses the traditional leg-spinner’s skillset to tackle the demands of modern-day cricket.
“He is ready for Tests,” says Narendra Hirwani, former India leg-spinner and the spin coach at the National Cricket Academy. “He is at the last stage of evolution as a spinner. Ab improvement kya bacha hai? He is doing everything. He is reading the batsmen and the conditions. It’s not about his foot, head, shoulder, elbow anymore. He is smart, and he is aware of what he can do. Shaana hai (he’s shrewd)”.
There was enough evidence, during the IPL for Royal Challengers Bangalore and over the past year, of Chahal’s ability to produce the most effective ball from his repertoire against a batsman he wants to fox.
The ego buster
Take the last over of the chase to Chris Gayle when he had to defend three runs against Kings XI Punjab. Gayle doesn’t usually consider the arc from cover point to wide long-off as places to plunder runs against a leggie. He doesn’t binge on inside-out lofted cover drives either. So, Chahal shifted his line to well outside off, from around the stumps. There was neither drift nor dip, but Gayle was dragged out of his comfort zone. He watched the first ball turn into him from a length and without the pressing need to hit every ball, jabbed it to short midwicket. The second and third balls were things of beauty: full of imagination, dare, impishness. They were tossed up high, rather slowly and dangerously wide. And just about spinning back into legal boundaries. Gayle just gapes at the first one that nestles into the ’keeper’s gloves and drags the other to the legside for a single. That line has been attempted by leggies before, but not the pace or trajectory; they are usually fired across, flat, fast, and away from the batsman. Not like this.
This was a tease to Gayle’s ego, presented in an out-of-comfort-zone framework. That combination is Chahal’s speciality. The instinct of a limited-overs bowler, the vocabulary of a Test leg-spinner.
In that same over, there were two dot balls at KL Rahul as well, again tailored to perfection. Two slow heavily- side-spun leg-breaks, starting from middle stump. Chahal must have realised Rahul wouldn’t think of coming down to him nor has the tendency. The only plausible alternative was slog-sweeping, but Chahal raised the risks with his off-stump line. So, Rahul tried cutting and both times, ended up chopping it to short cover. It was left to Nicholas Pooran to do what most batsmen loathe to do against Chahal: rush down the track for the lofted hit to settle the issue. Even then, the final delivery was a magnificent rarity: a tossed-up loopy one, just that the left-hander was brave enough to charge out.
The ‘wider’ one
Batsmen hesitate in rushing out to Chahal after they see others try it out disastrously. Like what happened to Wriddhiman Saha this IPL. He often uses his feet but it’s not easy against Chahal as he can drift it further away from the off-stump. Sunil Gavaskar, on air, let out a deep-rooted appreciative cry of “beauty” when replays revealed the sensuous leg-break had rapidly dipped and turned after drifting away, beating Saha’s expansive ambitions.
That outside-off line continues to be Chahal’s most recognised feature. He has even named it a ‘wider’. He doesn’t merely push it wide as some spinners have done in the past; he drifts it away. A significant difference and the reason why batsmen fail to nail it.
Usually, the drift that a right-hander is used to is the one that comes in the air towards him, sometimes alarmingly drifting further down, opening him up and then suddenly turning sharply across him. This one is different. Right from the moment of its release, it’s going the other way but because of the drift (as opposed to being thrown out wide) the batsmen seem to think they can reach it before it gets too far away from them. A fatal mistake.
Good batsmen end up being lured in. Like Sanju Samson this IPL. Just a little more contortion at the release, a slight opening up perhaps, but otherwise there was no real giveaway. The cocked wrist uncoiled to the left, to the off-side, at release (rather than to the right or straight down) and the ball drifted away with furious revolutions. Samson started to adjust his downward bat swing, the ball kept drifting away, upsetting the timing and the point of impact on the bat, and slicing out as a miscued hit.
MS Dhoni was also similarly taken out. The drift makes the batsman wait that bit longer, a tough demand especially on the front foot as they start to stutter into tiny movements to balance themselves as the wait for the ball stretches. So, Dhoni took the other approach, in total contrast to Samson, to hit a similar ball. He chose to go down on his back knee to hold balance even as he reached out. But the drift isn’t an easy beast to tame. In the end, Dhoni was forced to lunge out a lot more than he had bargained for and couldn’t get enough behind the hit, holing out to long-off.
It’s a ball Chahal typically uses against big hitters, drags them away from their hitting positions, away from their comfort zones.
The orthodox line
He pings the leg- and middle-stump line to batsmen not that good against leg-spin. “Those who have doubts in them, na, he uses that line,” observes Hirwani. Doubts leads to stuttering steps as they gingerly open up and prod at it unsure of the extent of venom in the ball. In his six-for at MCG in January 2019, couple of Australians are swallowed up thus: Marcus Stoinis embarrassed and Jhye Richardson owned.
“Voh Handscomb ka wicket dekha?” Chahal asks. Of the six, he cherished that one. It’s the moment Peter Handscomb, past his fifty and considered good against spin, ended up on a banana peel, stuttering and slipping as the ball skidded rapidly to trap him lbw.
It drifted in from well outside off-stump and swerved in towards middle. “I have always had that drift, that’s key for me,” Chahal says. Handscomb just about leaned forward when the drift made him stop and the left foot started to stutter out as he tried to hold balance. He did it reasonably well but the subsequent speed of the skidding ball that straightened was too much for him.
Or the time Chahal stumped Sam Billings, another batsman with a good reputation against spin, in 2018. It was a classic humiliator: big drift, sharp dip, and rapid turn. Billings was stranded way down the track, done in the air, desperately waving his bat across the line.
Off the field, Chahal is the kind of man who makes the accompanying photographer ask him to hop on to a suitcase placed on a dressing-table mirror and sit cross-legged after an interview. Without either an inhibiting self-consciousness or flagrant showmanship, Chahal wordlessly hopped on it and smiled. There is a level of maturity that only those capable of childishness can reach, critic Clive James wrote, and Chahal’s Instagram moods reveal enough impishness while his bowling art showcases that increasing maturity. His time has come in Tests. Are the selectors tuned in?
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