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T20 World Cup 2021

Could India’s handling of Varun Chakravarthy be more bluff than caution?

Varun T20 World Cup
Aadya Sharma by Aadya Sharma
@Aadya_Wisden 4 minute read

Varun Chakravarthy’s entry into the India team was cruelly stalled on two occasions, but the delayed arrival could actually be beneficial with the bigger picture (i.e. the 2021 T20 World Cup) in play,  writes Aadya Sharma.

Twice in eight months now, Varun Chakravarthy’s dreams of donning an India cap have evaporated due to injury. First, it was the Australia tour, when a troublesome shoulder stopped him from taking a trip. Just days before that, he had been rollicking form in the IPL, running through sides regularly to become the season’s most successful uncapped bowler. Chakaravarthy’s issues reportedly did not affect his bowling but his throwing from the deep.

Four months later, in March, he encountered another obstacle: picked to feature against England in the home limited-overs series, Chakravarthy wait extended when he couldn’t pass the fitness test. There was no release citing the details of his shock absence. Just the previous month, India’s fitness test had been updated to raise the base parameters.

Suddenly, Chakravarthy’s chances of featuring in the T20 World Cup squad didn’t look as promising anymore.

Now, the topsy-turvy ride of an uncapped player wouldn’t normally affect a team in a T20 World Cup year, but India’s spin attack is anything but settled at the moment. In the specialists camp, Yuzvendra Chahal has fallen a notch or two, while Kuldeep Yadav has looked off-colour with the white ball. Washington Sundar has played the most matches (26), but his role is primarily that of a bowler who stifles the run-rate in the powerplay. Krunal Pandya can play the holding role in the middle overs alongside Ravindra Jadeja, with Rahul Chahar too in the mix. However, the lack of an attacking spinner could be a missing link.

Which brings us back to Chakravarthy, as yet untested at the top level, but a fearsome mystery spinner and the proud owner of seven different variations. His entry into international cricket has been halted on two separate occasions, but could there actually be a hidden motive in holding him back for a bigger opportunity in the near future?

Historically, India hasn’t really gambled with surprise packages at big events, instead building up to tournaments by nurturing a core group of players for months or years. Experiments are best left for less-important bilateral tours, they have felt, much like the tour of Sri Lanka that Chakravarthy is currently part of. But could India actually be about to pull off a bold move by unleashing Chakravarthy’s intriguing spin directly at the global event?

In the past, lesser-known spinners have been unfurled by other teams ahead of big tournaments, and sometimes, specifically for them. In 2011, Imran Tahir, having just become eligible to play for South Africa, wasn’t considered for a home series against India, but ended up making it directly to the Proteas’ World Cup squad. His canny leggies saw him end as South Africa’s second-highest wicket-taker in the 2011 edition, snaring 14 wickets at 10.71.

A few later, Samuel Badree and Sunil Narine, less than a year old in international cricket, were unleashed on Sri Lanka’s slow, low surfaces, and picked up 13 wickets combined as West Indies won the 2012 World T20. They defeated Sri Lanka in the final, who had given Akila Dananjaya, a net bowler, his debut in the first game of the tournament after he impressed with his mystery spin.

A few years before that, India suffered at the hands of Ajantha Mendis, who tore through them in the final of the 2008 Asia Cup with a six-wicket haul, having played just two ODIs before the start of the tournament. Steve Smith, now a batting behemoth, turned out to be a vital component in Australia’s run to the 2010 T20 World Cup final, ending as the joint second-highest wicket-taker with 11 wickets. He had played just two T20Is before the competition began.

Unleashing a brand-new bowler is a risky move, no doubt; a surprise entry into international cricket might not go as planned, and on the big stage, a poor performance can prove especially damaging. Chakravarthy has himself experienced a version of it: an obscure name on debut in 2019 IPL, he bled 35 runs in four overs, picking a wicket and not playing a game after.

Yet, it’s the shock factor that makes the proposition all the more exciting. Chakravarthy doesn’t need to carry the burden of India’s spin attack, but can be used in short bursts to trick the opposition. Across IPL 2020 and 2021, Chakravarthy’s bag of tricks got the better of Virat Kohli, Rishabh Pant, Jos Buttler and David Warner among other notable names, with him switching between aggressive and defensive lines seamlessly. With this year’s T20 World Cup on spin-friendly tracks in the UAE and Oman, India won’t mind leaving one spot vacant, just to add an air of mystery.

Chakravarthy’s initiation into international cricket might have been delayed, but it could be a blessing in disguise for him and India’s T20I outfit. At a time when video analysts break down every action and variation, taking the intrigue quotient out of the picture, a fresh action or variation brings much-needed novelty, and can sometimes be the difference between a group-stage exit and a spot in the knockouts.

Whether he was intentionally kept under wraps to be unleashed closer to the World Cup is a theory only to be uncovered later, but if he indeed makes it to the tournament and does well, it could prove to be a masterstroke nonetheless.

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