Once an indispensable part of India’s white-ball set-up, Yuzvendra Chahal has been overlooked for the upcoming T20 World Cup, but it does not necessarily mean the end of the road for the spinner, writes Sarah Waris.
As Yuzvendra Chahal dismissed Kolkata Knight Riders’ Nitish Rana in Royal Challengers Bangalore’s third game of the IPL earlier this year, the cameras panned in on his group of supporters in the stand, who were unable to control their emotions as the bowler got his first wicket of the season. The bowler too allowed himself a moment: looking upwards and uttering a silent prayer before embracing his joyous teammates.
For a man who has faced extreme highs and the deepest lows in just five years in international cricket, Chahal’s muted celebration belied any deep angst within him after a below-par run-of-form for India. With two T20 World Cups scheduled in the span of a year, the Haryana bowler’s dip could not have come at a worse time, but there was always hope.
He had after all, ended IPL 2020 with 21 wickets, the most by any spinner in the competition, and was Virat Kohli’s most-trusted player in the middle overs yet again. His economy rate remained impressive too: at 7.08, despite playing on the flat tracks of Sharjah for most parts. The mainstay had perfectly complemented the faster bowlers as RCB ended third in 2020, but his lack of effectiveness in the next few months all but sealed his feat for the T20 World Cup. In the 2021 edition so far he has claimed just four wickets, conceding more than eight an over for the first time since 2016 with an average nearing 50.
Kohli, who had time-and-again stated that the bowler has a big heart and is willing to risk going for runs in order to pick wickets, finally lost faith. His lack of effectiveness all but sealed Chahal’s fate for the T20 World Cup.
The dip after a successful start
Chahal, who made his debut in 2016, was almost unstoppable in T20Is in 2017 and 2018, picking up 41 wickets in just 24 matches. He was the second-highest wicket-taker in the format in these two years, picking up a wicket every 13.6 balls. He combined with Kuldeep Yadav to win a number of games for India, with the left-armer’s presence allowing Chahal to attack even more in the middle. The pair earned the moniker ‘KulCha’ for their effectiveness in tandem.
In 49 T20Is, Chahal averages 25.30, which falls to 15.73 whenever he plays with Kuldeep. In a sample size of 10 games, Chahal’s strike rate falls from 18.2 to 11.8 when Kuldeep is in the XI. The presence of MS Dhoni behind the stumps further bolstered his performance. Helped by the wicketkeeper’s signals, Chahal had a meteoric rise in international cricket, which translated into exceptional returns in the IPL, as he soon became RCB’s go-to bowler even though he bowled on the flattest wicket in the tournament season-after-season.
Despite not having the most threatening googly or the ability to turn the ball big, Chahal’s chess mastery seeped into his bowling as he started deceiving batsmen by using drift and staying away from the batsman’s arc. His skill of getting enough revs on the ball despite being slow in the air meant that he could vary his speeds according to the situation. His control while bowling the leg-spin, googly, and the flipper made him lethal but as the batsmen became familiar with his method, his incisiveness waned, which meant that his economy rate — never really his biggest suit — increased further.
Since the beginning of 2019, Chahal has picked up 19 wickets in 22 games at an average of 40.47 and an economy rate of nearing nine. After the IPL last year, Chahal returned to play in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy for Haryana but picked up just five wickets in six matches and conceded more than eight runs an over on three occasions. His returns in the T20Is against England that followed were abysmal: he gave away 119 runs in three games to end with an alarming 9.91 runs an over. He picked up just three wickets and was eventually dropped for the remainder of the series.
Though he did fare decently in the ODIs against Sri Lanka, he picked up just one wicket in the two T20Is that he played, which effectively put an end to his T20 World Cup dreams. Chief selector Chetan Sharma stated that Chahal’s speed, or the lack of it, which had once fetched him success, was the reason for his omission. “You want a spinner who can deliver with more speed. We have seen Rahul Chahar bowling with speed. The selectors’ view was we need a spinner who can find the grip off the surface on the wickets and deliver with slightly more speed, and while we had a lot of discussion on Chahal, we eventually went with Rahul Chahar.”
With not many variations, Chahal’s predictability to go with his slow speeds allowed the batsmen to stay back and play for the turn.
But, it’s not the end
The return of Ravichandran Ashwin in the T20 World Cup for the first time in four years highlights the improved showing of the off-spinner but also goes on to show the lack of options available for India at the moment. While Rahul Chahar has improved massively to displace ‘KulCha’ as the primary spinner, Varun Chakravarthy looked off-colour against Sri Lanka, and it remains to be seen if he can carry over his IPL mystery on to the big stage. Ravindra Jadeja has bowled just 30.3 overs since 2017 in the format, picking up eight wickets in the interim, and there is no reason why a few good spells cannot bring Chahal back in the reckoning.
He displayed a number of subtle variations and angles during the series against Sri Lanka, in which he showed sparks of his former self, but all Chahal needs now is to not let the disappointment of missing the T20 World Cup affect him in the upcoming IPL. Unlike Kuldeep, who has totally fallen off the radar, Chahal has displayed his threat in phases in the recent past, and all he needs is self-belief to make a strong comeback and return where he truly belongs.