Double Googly

Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper: A Definitive Account of India’s Greatest Captains
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India’s wrist spinners Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav might hold the key to the World Cup, something which Virat Kohli foresaw two years ago


A DAY BEFORE THEIR first game in Southampton, Virat Kohli took stock of India’s preparation for the 2019 World Cup. Only, he wasn’t talking about how they were raring to go for this game. Instead, it was about how the Indian team had built up for this tournament as a whole, a process that started almost two years prior when Pakistan beat India at the 2017 Champions Trophy final. From that day onwards, social media was rife with pictures of Kohli happily chatting away with Pakistani players even after a defeat. That’s a part of sportsmanship the Indian skipper takes seriously. Away from it all though, his mind was already thinking up how to improve his squad for this World Cup. In every sense of the word, that Champions Trophy had proven to be a dress rehearsal, highlighting what areas needed to be strengthened (third pacer role, number four, et cetera). Most importantly, that loss underlined a glaring weakness in the Indian bowling attack—spin in the middle overs.

R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja were India’s primary spinners in the 2017 Champions Trophy, and their returns were paltry. Ashwin took 1-167 in 29 overs across three matches, while Jadeja returned 4-249 in 42 overs across five matches. It impacted India’s ability to break down partnerships in the middle overs, particularly if the pacers didn’t garner early wickets with the new ball. The former aspect was exposed against Sri Lanka in the group stage, but more costly was the latter aspect, when Pakistan amassed 338-4 in the final and rode to victory.

That match—on June 19th, 2017—was the last time team India took the field without a wrist spinner in their playing eleven.

Kuldeep Yadav’s international story didn’t begin in blue. In fact, it happened six months prior to his ODI debut in the West Indies, when he was drafted in the fourth Test against Australia at Dharamshala. India looked to win a bitterly fought home series, and with Virat Kohli out injured, the team management decided to field an extra spinner.

He delivered, of course, with figures of 4-68 in the first innings as Australia lost the Test. It kick-started his journey to the top, which would see another pivotal step in the Caribbean. After the Champions Trophy, as team India flew straight out from England, Kohli brought in an important change—either Ashwin or Jadeja combined with Yadav as the spin attack in those five ODIs against West Indies.

“Virat bhai believes in wrist spinners,” says Yadav. “The way he spoke to me in the West Indies where I made my ODI debut inspired me a lot. He gave me freedom with field settings, and how I wanted to bowl. If the skipper has confidence in you, it is the biggest inspiration for a player.”

Yadav belongs to a rare breed, and he knew it from day one. It didn’t happen by chance though—he wanted to be a left-arm fast bowler. His junior coach identified a better career option in spin, and he adopted that idea readily. Bowling on cement wickets in hometown Kanpur, Yadav’s skill bore fruit. Indian cricket hasn’t had too many left-arm wrist spinners, and this unique identity got attention even as he entered the Under-19 level.

His first taste of success came at the junior World Cup in Dubai (2014), when he took a hat trick against Scotland. “I am Kuldeep. I only want to take wickets,” he proclaimed afterwards, as if announcing himself to the world. It worked— Kolkata Knight Riders signed him up for $66,000 USD in the IPL auctions. Prior to that, he had been part of Mumbai Indians’ set-up and had famously troubled the legendary Sachin Tendulkar during net sessions.

For a change, IPL exploits only did so much. He had to wait, as the selectors were patient enough with their crop of spinners. It was in the 2016 Duleep Trophy that he delivered a knock on their door that couldn’t be ignored any longer—17 wickets in five innings, and he had bought a ticket to the Test squad against Australia in February-March 2017. Within six months, Yadav had debuted for India across all three formats.

“When I started out, there were hardly any left-arm wrist spinners around. Nowadays there are a lot more—go to any cricket academy, and you will easily see 8-10 such bowlers in the nets. It is a happy feeling that people have recognised this skill seeing my success,” Yadav says, with chutzpah that belies his 24 years.

“As long as batsman are attacking me, I know there is a chance for me to get them out. If you don't take wickets in ODIs, you cannot win,” says Yuzvendra Chahal, cricketer

A chess player converted to a leg spinner, Yuzvendra Chahal had a much straighter road to the Indian team, in comparison. He first made the cut picking 34 wickets in the Under-19 Cooch Behar Trophy in 2009, and made his first-class debut for Haryana. In 2011, he was picked up by Mumbai Indians and spent three years with them, albeit his time with the franchise saw only one highlight—the now defunct Champions League T20 final in 2011.

In 2014, Royal Challengers Bangalore picked him up in the players’ auction and it provided the necessary impetus to Chahal. Perhaps the biggest benefit was playing with Virat Kohli. It is an understanding that took shape three years before Chahal’s international debut as the spinner went on to finish as the team’s highest wicket-taker in the 2015 and 2016 IPL seasons.

Chahal wasn’t surprised when he was included in the T20 squad against England (2017). Nor was he surprised when he was picked ahead of old-timer Amit Mishra, also a leg spinner, in the very first game at Kanpur. Before the week was over, Chahal had written his name into the record books, picking 6-25 at Bengaluru as England lost the series.

“The IPL is as intense as international cricket. Playing with high profile international stars allowed us to gain confidence. Both of us share this common trait,” says Chahal.

In September 2017, during the tour of Sri Lanka, the Indian team management decided to start on the road to the 2019 World Cup. Their first order of business was to shape a new spin component of the Indian bowling attack—both Ashwin and Jadeja were dropped. Chahal and Yadav were in.

On September 3rd then, in the fifth match of that bilateral series, Chahal and Yadav became the first wrist-spin pair to play together in India’s then 922-ODI history.

By end of 2017, Yadav had picked 22 wickets, an average of 24.77 in 14 matches against West Indies, Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand. In the same duration, Chahal had picked 21 wickets in 14 matches, an average of 28.57. More or less, it confirmed their spots for the near future, and thereafter it was a matter performing well in overseas conditions.

Early in 2018, during India’s tour of South Africa, Chahal- Yadav wreaked havoc against the Proteas and together picked 33 wickets in six matches as the visitors won 5-1 in the six-match series. It was at this precise moment in India’s experimentation that Ashwin was completely cast aside from the selectors’ World Cup plans. The two wrist spinners were given an extended run in the ODI arena—they have played 31 matches together since the Sri Lankan tour, spearheading India to victory in 22 games.

“Kohli gave me freedom with field settings and how I wanted to bowl. If the skipper has confidence in you, it is the biggest inspiration for a player,” says Kuldeep Yadav cricketer

“It is a great advantage to have two wrist spinners in the eleven, especially when both are so different to each other. Both can pick wickets in the middle overs. That is the most important thing in one-day cricket. You can have as many dot balls as you want, but if you cannot pick up wickets, you can go for 10-12 runs an over,” explains Kohli.

He may be one of the greatest ODI batsmen of all time, but when on the field, Kohli is still restricted, as any captain is. The bowling attack then becomes a vital element, and it doesn’t really matter how many runs you and your fellow batsmen have put on if you do not have the bowlers to contain or dismiss the opposition. In the Champions Trophy defeat, Kohli learnt it the hard way. Ashwin-Jadeja were content with a containing job in that tournament. The skipper wanted wickets and thus this change was warranted.

At this juncture, the question arises. What does a wrist spinner bring to the table? Why can’t world-class Test spinners— Ashwin and Jadeja—make the same magic work in limited- overs’ cricket? Why is wrist spin such a premium in white-ball cricket across the world, whether in the international arena or in the umpteen T20 leagues (Afghanistan’s leg spin sensation Rashid Khan is the most sought after freelance cricketer today)?

“Off-spinners [or left-arm orthodox spinners] are nowadays caught between containing runs and taking wickets. They are unable to find this balance and thus are having trouble adapting to white-ball cricket. They try to control runs and do not take wickets. If you take wickets, you will automatically contain runs,” says former Pakistan spin legend Saqlain Mushtaq. “When you look at wrist spinners, they have three different variations for each ball—leg break, googly and flipper. And then there is the fourth factor that batsmen are always looking to attack you. When you have four things in your head as a batsman, the execution will fail, which is why wrist spinners are finding more success and every limited-overs’ team is looking to deploy them more and more.”

In that, India perhaps enjoys a distinct advantage. Barring South Africa, they are the only team in this World Cup that deploys two wrist spinners. Even so, Imran Tahir and Tabraiz Shamsi do not play as regularly as Chahal and Yadav do. For example, they did feature in India’s opening game of the tournament at Southampton on June 5th. It was more a pressing concern over injuries to their pacers that forced South Africa’s hand than proper spin ability.

Compare that to the impact Chahal and Yadav had on the game, as they shared five wickets to completely rout the South African batting line-up. And it isn’t a one-off—barring England away (2018) and Australia at home (2019), India have won every ODI series since they featured atleast one wrist spinner in the playing eleven from June 2017 onwards.

Much of the credit for their meteoric rise is also due to Virat Kohli. A wrist spinner needs to be unleashed and an aggressive captain is just what they desire at all times

What separates Chahal-Yadav from other wrist spinners, though, is their quest for wickets at every possible turn. Ashwin- Jadeja deployed the clutch-control tactic—dry up the runs and the wickets might come. In contrast, the two wrist spinners want wickets and don’t mind going for extra runs in the process. The Indian skipper backs this ploy—he provides the fields they ask for. Much of the credit for their meteoric rise is also due to Kohli. A wrist spinner needs to be unleashed and an aggressive captain is just what they desire at all times.

And then, there is the MS Dhoni factor. From behind the stumps, the former skipper marshals the duo as if they are his protégés. Give him a slow track and two good spinners, and he could turn the game on its head. With Chahal-Yadav, it is almost as if Dhoni has found new weapons even when liberated from the burdens of captaincy.

He works out the differentiation between them, and uses their strengths to the team’s benefit. For instance, Yadav likes to use a lot of variations in flight and at times can get hit for runs. In such circumstances, Chahal provides the control and shields his partner. Of the two, he has more control over line and length, and uses more variations in pace than flight as compared to Yadav.

THE SIMILARITY THOUGH is in one mode of thinking—wickets and more wickets. “I cannot bowl to restrict runs. If I do that, I will end up conceding more runs. I like to flight the ball so the batsman can attack me, because that will give me more chances to get him out. If you are not taking wickets, you are an ordinary bowler who is of no use to the team,” says Yadav.

“I don’t mind giving 10-15 extra runs. As long as batsmen are attacking me, I know there is a chance for me to get them out. If you don’t take wickets in ODIs, you cannot win,” says Chahal.

Yet, it is not just about one-mode bowling at all times. Consider India’s second match against Australia (June 9th), for example. Chasing 353, the Aussies were careful in saving wickets and this helped them play the spinners better. In their first spell, Chahal-Yadav conceded 1-40 from their first eight overs. It was different, in that they are used to picking wickets in a bunch and going on a roll.

And this is where the experience from playing together for two years kicked in. A rarity, Chahal-Yadav tempered their bowling method and went defensive. They bowled restrictive lines, cutting off the boundary percentages, and as a result, their next 12 overs combined produced 1-77. It showcased how they can attack, or defend, whether as a bowling pair in tandem from both ends or individually.

This connexion in thinking is what makes this pairing unique, and a potent weapon. It backs the basic principle from a couple years ago when the decision was made to ‘rest’ and then ignore Ashwin for selection. Jadeja might have forged his way into the 2019 World Cup squad on account of his utility as a lower-order all-rounder. Even so, he will only serve as a replacement for the spinners, should an injury transpire.

“Since the Champions Trophy, we have plugged a few areas that we needed to. We have brought in wrist-spinners to take wickets in the middle overs and that has been a reason for a lot of our success in the last couple of years,” said Kohli, in his pre-tournament press conference, explaining just why India have been a better ODI side in the recent past.

The progress of Chahal-Yadav over the last two years is the single-biggest credit to his captaincy thus far. In turn, they might just deliver the World Cup for Kohli.