HARARE WINTERS are nippy but not chilly. Sunday was different, to the extent that the even the locals were left a tad bemused and shivering in surprise. It was officially the coldest afternoon in the last few years here. At the rooftop pool-deck of the artistically archaic Meikles Hotel in the city-centre—with a wonderful aerial view of the Zimbabwean capital—you were only more desperate to wrap your hands around your body with as many contortions as possible. The equally unexpected stiff breeze beneath the darkening skies was only making matters worse.
It was stiff enough for you to feel a tad worried about Yuzvendra Chahal’s well-being as his scrawny, slight figure emerged from the fire-escape. But he hardly seemed bothered by any of it. Even as everyone around him was draped in as much warm-clothing as they could have gotten their hands on—hoping they had more on—Chahal looked serenely comfortable in his Indian team training jersey.
It’s something you have to come to expect from the wiry 25-year-old leg-spinner though. No, not being able to deal with inclement weather. But this ability to never look frazzled or overawed in any situation or scenario he’s put into. For all his wicket-taking and batsman-deceiving skills, this composure is what has made him Virat Kohli’s go-to man at the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) over the last two years in the IPL—where he’s picked up more wickets than any other spinner. And on Saturday at the Harare Sports Club, Chahal made a seamless transition from India hopeful to India player with a spell of great control and maturity, returning figures of 1/27 in 10 overs on debut.
A day later, he confesses to have been a tad nervous, not so much because of donning India colours for the first time, but more so because of playing under MS Dhoni.
“Before I met him, there was a fear about how he will be. But he’s really simple. You can ask him anything. Even on the ground I never felt like he was a captain. I felt like dealing with a friend,” he says.
To his credit, like he’s done so often for his IPL franchise, Chahal wasted no time in understanding exactly what his captain expected of him, and also delivered it to perfection. With Zimbabwe having lost half their side in the early going, they were never going to chance their arm against the leg-spinner. But Chahal bided his time by giving nothing away to the hosts, before Richard Mutumbami finally succumbed to the temptation in his final over and handed him his maiden international wicket.
“I had told myself that even if I don’t get wickets my job is to be economical. And in my last over, I knew he would come after me, so I bowled outside off-stump,” he explains.
It was an important spell in more ways than one for the youngster. If anything it put to rest the running joke in Indian cricket circles about how not many have seen Chahal bowl a fifth over in his spell—or bowl more than his usual four-over quota. Over the last two years he’s more or less been a seasonal character over a two-month period of the IPL before disappearing out of sight and then returning the next summer. For the record, in the last four years he’s appeared in only 12 50-over matches and 8 first-class matches in domestic cricket. In that same period, he’s clocked up 57 T20s and taken a lot of wickets in them too.
But Chahal sees the lighter side in it. He has no choice. In a country that’s suffered from a draught in terms of leg-spinners, he happens to play for a team that possesses the only established one of that ilk in Amit Mishra. To make matters worse, Haryana also tend to play most of their home matches on the greenest surface in the land, at Lahli.
“You can’t play three spinners. Jayant (Yadav) has been doing well and Mishra bhaiya is always there. So mostly I play T20s and one-dayers more, and those matches mostly don’t come on TV so people think I disappear maybe,” he says with a giggle.
But despite having to contend to show his wares in the shortest format, what Chahal has achieved is mastery over what he does best. He puts it down to ‘intuition’, a trait that he believes to have been nurtured during the days he outthought and outmuscled—not something you generally associate with him—opponents on the chess-board. His days as India’s national junior champion and representative at the World youth championships in Greece have always been credited for his strategizing skills, but it’s this nous to be a step ahead of his rival that makes Chahal a big threat. It comes through in the sharpness with which he discusses his wares. Even as he was castling all-comers, the boy from Haryana was idolizing Shane Warne and getting interested in castling his opponents in a different fashion altogether.
“It’s been 13 years since I quit chess. But yes I think this intuition has developed as a result of those experiences. I bowl at the stumps. I get an intuition that the batsman’s going to do something. If you bowl four-five dot-balls, then pressure is on him. At that point, you have time to decide whether to bowl a googly or outside off-stump. My mind is on that, and always trying to guess what the batsman’s trying to do and it helps me a lot,” he explains.
“When you play chess, patience is vital. Many times you don’t get wickets and you concede runs, you need to remain patient. So it’s about being calm, and I’m mentally strong and it makes a big difference,” he adds. It’s not like he’s completely turned his back on chess, and still indulges in online battles when he’s bored or in his room.
Last year, Chahal dismissed batsmen on eight occasions of the very next ball after he was hit for a six. And he did so by tossing the ball up as high as the previous delivery. Often the temptation to repeat a six-hit is what often leads to a batsman’s demise—hence the old adage that celebrates taking a single after hitting a six—and the fact that Chahal doesn’t get intimidated and keeps testing the batsman’s temperament instead makes him an even more dangerous threat as a spinner,
It’s a case of bravura he reveals to have developed after taking a hammering in one of his early RCB matches, where he was smashed for 50 runs in four overs.
“It had never happened before to me. But that day I realized it’s not possible for it to get worse and for me to go for more runs, and I decided there was no point playing it safe,” he says. Chahal never has looked like your quintessential international sportsmen. There’s no air about him, and of course there’s not much of him either. He’s all bones. But there’s an impish charm to him—like that naughty kid in class who you always knew was up to something—and it’s not surprising that he’s always ended up being the most popular member of every team he’s ever been a part of. He not only gets away with calling Chris Gayle his ‘uncle’ and even nearly decapitating AB de Villiers, he was the first guy even the biggest stars of the Mumbai Indians dug-out ran to during his bench-warming days at the franchise. He offers a shy smile while trying to ascertain the reasons to him being Mr Popular in every dug-out he enters.
“I was the quickest in the team, so I was the one running out during drinks’ breaks, that ensured I was always visible. That’s my nature. Ghoomta rehta hoon, masti karta rehta hoon. And that ends up creating a nice atmosphere, I guess that’s why,” he says.
It’s still very early days though for Chahal though in the Indian dressing-room. For now, he’s glad to have overcome the nerves of that first meeting with his new captain. But if his recent rise is any indication, he could well be one to look out for as the winds of change take over Indian cricket.