Yuzvendra Chahal was crying in a hotel room in Zimbabwe. It was June 2016. He had just made his debut, picked a wicket in his last over, and was browsing YouTube when he stumbled on a television interview of his parents. Surprised, he clicked and saw his parents crying – tears of joy that their son was playing for India. His mother Sunita had woken up at 4 am and as ever sat in the mandir, a small temple in their terrace, praying for her son. In the evening when the match began, she grew increasingly frantic as her son wasn’t taking a wicket. Back to the mandir. Finally, the cathartic-release moment came in the 10th over and the father would roll back the years in his mind.
Krishan Kumar Chahal was worried about his son, the youngest of three kids. The usual small-town worries of a middle-class family, aggravated by fears that his son might stray, influenced by the bad elements in the neighbourhood. “Voh bolte hain na, kharbuje ko dekh kar, kharbuja rang badalta hai,” he says. This idiom about melons changing colour gets lost a bit in translation. But suffice to say here that he was worried that the company of unruly kids in neighbourhood might derail his son’s life.
KK Chahal is an advocate, who works at the district magistrate court in the small district in Jind in Haryana, about one-and-a-half hours by road from Rohtak. Cases of matrimonial issues, forgery, bank-loan defaulters —dealing with petty crimes was his world and it worried him further about his son. “Those boys were the ones who would abuse their own mothers and I didn’t want my son to be influenced.” He first changed the school to DAV, and then came up with an idea of introducing chess as a character-building exercise to his son.
The family of five were living in single room, a result of the father’s stubbornness and principles. “I was a different sort of guy, I had married according to my family’s wishes but didn’t want to take dowry or any money from anyone. It led to a few misunderstandings with family and I moved out. Otherwise, my family was decently well-off.” A grandfather was an Armyman, his own brother a brigadier – the ripples perhaps reflected in Chahal’s emotional outburst of war-cry to settle differences with Pakistan. More on that later, back to chess.
A chess board was procured and the father would teach the game to his son. “Just in hope that he would be interested, get addicted, and would not spend hours in the streets with those friends.” It worked like a charm. Initially, the father deliberately lost a few games to ‘Sunny’, as Yuzvendra was called at home, to spike his interest. “Papa ko haraane mey kis bache ko mazaa nahi aata?!” But within a couple of months, the father was losing for real. The son was hooked and a life began to turn.
Since this isn’t the story of Yuzvendra the chess player, we need to fast forward to the moment when it ended for him. That day came after he represented India in a chess tournament. The days were fine but the nights weren’t. 64-squares of nightmares. In his sleep, Yuzvendra found himself staring at the chequered gameboard, sweating about moves.
“I couldn’t just shrug it away,” says Yuzvendra. “It was always running in my head, all those hours playing and thinking about it was now affecting me.” When the nocturnal life became black-and-white squares, he went to his father and told him, “Papa, you wanted me to play for India. I have done it. Can I now play cricket, please?”
The father laughs at the memory: “He played chess just for me; I always knew that and I knew a time would come when he would tell me he has to go his own way. After all, I did name him after a cricketer Yajuvindra Singh, who took seven catches in a Test match. I just changed the name a bit but that cricketer was the reason.” So the life once again turned. Thus ended a phase wherein he who would stay for months with his chess mentor Himanshu Sharma, in his house in Rohtak and would travel mostly alone across the country (at times his father would take time off from work and travel with him—a three-month trip across Southern India stands in his memory).
“Did you see the ball I got Peter Handscomb lbw in Australia?” It was the third ODI in Melbourne where Handscomb would become his fifth victim – the ball seemingly drifted in towards middle and leg, luring Handscomb into try working it to leg side but it straightened late to trap him lbw in front of middle stump. “That drift is natural to me. Especially with the newish ball. But that particular ball I had pushed it out a bit more, tweaked it out, even though the seam was still like the usual drifter and that got him,” he says with obvious relish.
Then there is the front-of-the arm slider that he manages to camouflage a bit—rather can use a similar grip to make the ball turn just a bit on odd occasions to keep the batsmen honest. The thought that front-of-arm doesn’t always mean the ball is going to slid on straight with the angle is enough for doubts to kick in – that’s what Chahal wants. “Bas, the batsmen should just keep thinking. The more he has in his mind, the better it’s for me.”
His is an interesting cricketing mind to say the least. Two deliveries in particular comes to mind, and he uses them invariably in every game. The one that he regularly tosses full and well outside off stump and the really full ball on the legs. The ball on the leg, it turns out, is something almost Glenn McGrath-ish in its thought. He uses it to give a single to the better batsman on the day to get him off the strike so that he can attack the other. “There is no ego in this. If he is already settled in, I use that ball – I have the field on the leg side to make sure it just goes for a single. Of course, it can go for a four now and then but the idea is to give a single.” Just like McGrath surprised his team-mates in IPL, when he would tell the mid-off fielder that he is going to tail this one on the pads and would declare, “single to square-leg” just as he was about to run in to bowl. It would be, of course, a single to square-leg.
The full ball outside off stump is to tell the batsmen that he better be ready for any line of attack. “Just to let him know that I can bowl it. I can bowl anywhere. It’s not all going to be on the stumps and he can’t size me up for big onside hits. Just to keep him thinking what I am up to. You have to be street smart, this is not about ego but being self-aware and intelligent. Sometimes giving a single is better than risk being hit around. You can then attack to take wickets.” Both balls developed as a reaction to being hit around by the batsmen. “My biggest strength is the way I vary pace without any change in my hand-speed. The batsmen can’t make out.”
One day, as a teenager, he was walking up to the crease to bowl a leg break just like his idol Shane Warne. He realised something was amiss. He didn’t have his hero’s physique to continue with that action successfully. “I would get a lot more spin with that (Warne’s action) but accuracy wasn’t great. In the nets, I would see spinners like Piyush Chawla bhai or Amit Mishra bhai running in to bowl. I decided I am going to change my run-up and begin to run in to bowl.” Validation arrived next game with five wickets. It also told him that he could depend on his gut instinct and let the street-smartness flourish unhindered.
We don’t discuss much cricket in the chat with him as one was in search about Yuzvendra the man but there were enough revelations that confirmed that he is one of the more intelligent bowlers in world cricket. Saddled with a self-depreciating trait that perhaps hasn’t allowed him to be the bowler he could have already become but hopefully would become in the years to come.
“In Jind, you are not going to find girls in shorts or women smoking.” Chahal is talking about how he wants his parents to move with him in the house he is building in Gurgaon. He wants them to broaden their mind, experience cultural changes and life as it’s now lived by youngsters.
The circle of life and all that jazz. “My parents have lived all their life in Jind. The people you sit with are the ones you see all the time. When they come to Gurgaon and Delhi, they see new things–I take them to malls, here and there, and their world also expands. You see women working hard, you see people struggling and you see them just living – all that helps.”
Like stopping his father from getting worried about the cost of wood in his new house. “I tell him, rehne do, it’s one big house we are building, let’s put in as much good quality elements as possible papa! Don’t worry about the expense.” The father laughs when that’s mentioned. “He has spent a lot on that house. Yes, now the time has come for us to shift there and help him settle down. He doesn’t ask about what I do with his money. He gives it to me and I try to invest as intelligently as possible. He is now 28 – an adult, he is his own man now and I don’t have to worry about him.”
There were moments, even in the not-so-distant past, that they were worried. Remember that kharbuja idiom? It has sort of shadowed Chahal into his adulthood. The penchant for “masti” has at times dragged him to trouble and kept mentors like his father and Anirudh Chaudhry, the BCCI treasurer and the man who runs Haryana Cricket Association that produced Chahal, concerned at times. Anirudh’s hand in the rise of Chahal was quite important. “He calls me even now if he thinks I am straying, “Chalo, bas, vapas line pey aa ja (fall in line again)”.
Anirudh talks about the gang of friends that Chahal would end up with – the partying life and the spill-over effects on his reputation. “He is a good emotional boy. You just need to keep reminding him now and then; just keep an eye, you see. It’s just that I think he is the best legspinner in the world now and he can achieve a lot more.”
Chahal admits: “I have never let the personal life affect my professional life. Yes, in the past, there have been times when I have been casual and sort of let things drift but I pulled back as soon as I realised. Anirudh bhai is always there to remind me otherwise!” And so did his father.
The senior Chahal remembers a day around 2011 when he did the father-son talk – the last serious one that he remembers. “Aiyashi karna hai ki life mey aage jaana hai? Work hard now, you have all your life to have fun. You want fame for just one year or you want it for life. It’s in your hands. I told him that cricket isn’t our family’s fiefdom (baap-pardada ka zagirdaari nahi hai!). I think he listened!” the father says.
Yuzvendra remembers that moment well. “What could I say? I was quiet. Kaam hi aise kar chuka tha! I knew I had to throw myself back into the game. What he told me has stayed with me. Masti toh rehti hai but I know what to do when. I don’t want to play for India for one or two years. I want to play for 10 years. That’s my focus now.”
So, these days, he moves within a close circle of his friends. A couple of them professionally manage him. One had him nearly killed, though!
In Goa, once on a scooty, Chahal stopped at the end of a road and turned, but froze when he saw an Innova rushing towards him at 100kmph. “I mumble, Patty, what to do now? I see that my friend has gotten down and gone across the road! Luckily, the car braked inches from me. And he tells me, “Should I save myself first or save you!” And he laughs. “My friends are good. They tell me straight if they feel I am doing something wrong.”
A couple of days after our chat, he was in news with his statement that India and Pakistan should do “aar-ya-paar” fight on the battlefield to settle the differences. The father sees it as an emotional reaction from a boy who is filled with love for the Army. “If you ask him what he would have become if he didn’t play cricket, he would tell you that he would have joined the army. He has always loved that side of it and is genuinely affected by what happened.”
Chahal is close with a few Indian cricketers of course (he calls Rohit as Rohitaaa-Sharma and Kuldeep as Majnu – the reasons he doesn’t want to divulge) but it’s his relationship with Andrew Symonds that’s interesting. It developed in the Mumbai Indians days but’s intact to this day. In Australia, he went for three days to Symond’s house and went out fishing. “We talked about life, he advised me on my game, what I do should, how to bowl better and generally about cricket. Then you feel you’ve caught the fish and you pull up the string!” Knowing his fondness for butter chicken, Symond’s wife prepared it for him one day. “He is such a good man. So is his family.”
Sometimes, the tattoos reveal a man’s personality. Chahal has five. A compass with an anchor on his arm (“Whatever be the situation in my life, I won’t drown”). The name of his sister’s son Shivansh on his shoulder (“family is special”). An elaborately inked Shiva (“I believe in god even though I don’t pray in temples every day like my mother”). A lion roars on his chest (I am Leo). On his back, a warrior tribal tattoo (It’s said that in those days when tribal warriors went to war, they would make a sign like this design).
“Life means there would be struggle. You need the passion. You have to believe that I want to do this and go ahead and do it. In chess, I wanted to play for India. I did that. In cricket, when I retire, I want to be satisfied that I gave my 100 per cent. Test cap is No.1 for me. I have to perform and I am just waiting for my chance. Ek hota hai na.. yeh Test player hai – I want that feeling.”
Life also means fun. Going around the world playing cricket, meeting people, rubbing shoulders with Bollywood celebrities or fishing with Australian cricketer – or just reaching a stage in life where he can sit down and tell his parents to chill. “My father has worked enough in life. Now, it’s time for him and my mother to come and live with me.”
Life also means the ability to look back and laugh at hardships.
“Even then I didn’t even see them as hardships,” he says. Travelling in unreserved compartments for chess tournaments, waiting for “TT to come to do some setting and get one seat”, and when that setting doesn’t happen, sitting in the space between the door and the toilet as he did on a long trip from Vijayawada to Delhi. With cricket, life has changed in that sense.
The day he wore the coloured jersey for India is still fresh in his memory. In that hotel room, he took out the full gear— jersey to shoes, and walked up to the mirror to stare at himself. For 15 minutes. He took selfies. His own personal I-am-finally-here moment. He called his parents and had a video chat. He walked around in the room.
“One day I want to wear that Tests ka whites. No one should say he is just a one-day and T20 bowler; being a Test player is a different feeling altogether. I want that.”
EXPLAINED: Chahal’s Deceit
Same action, different directions: Chahal has a deceptive front-of-the-arm slider. But with a similar action and grip, he can make the ball turn a bit.This keeps the unsuspecting batsman guessing, as he can’t commit to the shot assuming that it’s going to skid straight on. It’s not a massive degree of turn we are talking about, but minute deviation.
Full down the leg-side: The batsman would think it’s a loose ball, full and flat down the leg-side. While it clearly is not a wicket-taking delivery, it’s done deliberately, to concede a single and keep the better batsman off the strike. He understands the need to choke the run-flow in short-form cricket, and fire in as many deliveries as possible to the less-competent of the two batsmen. What he does cleverly is that he doesn’t flight the ball as much, and all the batsman could manage would be a single down to long-on.
Tossed up outside the off-stump: This time, he tosses the ball full and wide outside the off-stump, at least half a foot outside the stumps. It serves two purposes. First, it’s his way of telling batsmen that he can change his line at will, and that he would often mix up his lines. Secondly, it discourages batsmen from sizing him up through the leg-side, that they can premeditate against him.