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Whatever happened to Piyush Chawla?

by Sarah Waris 6 minute read

A member of the victorious 2007 T20 World Cup and the 2011 World Cup squads, Piyush Chawla’s start-stop international journey is in contrast to his glittering Indian Premier League career. Sarah Waris charts the leg-spinner’s journey to fame and back to oblivion.

It is difficult to believe that Chawla, who last represented India in 2012, is only 33, an age when spinners peak, having navigated through the initial hurdles of adjusting to various conditions. Chawla, already been sidelined, has taken up a commentary stint after a career that arguably remained unfulfilled.

Having made his debut for India under-19 in 2003, Chawla first emerged into limelight in 2005, when he played an age-group Test match against England. Two games fetched him 13 wickets at an average of 12.23 and helped him earn a place in the squad for the under-19 ODI series against Australia. India won the series 4-1; Chawla starred again, with a tally of eight wickets.

The wickets of Sachin Tendulkar – with a googly – Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni in the 2005-06 Challenger Trophy final brought him quickly into limelight. India lost the 2006 Under-19 World Cup final against Pakistan, but Chawla grabbed 4-8 in 8.1 overs. The selectors gave him a maiden call-up for the Test series against England in 2005/06. It was an unusual call, as the XI already featured Anil Kumble – but then, Kumble and Chawla bowled different brands of leg spin.

A topsy-turvy international career

Chawla’s career with India could not live up to the hype. India’s second-youngest Test debutant picked up a solitary wicket – of Andrew Flintoff – in his maiden appearance for India, but did not play another Test in another two years. However, he got a longer rope in ODIs, consistently featuring in the XI from his debut against Bangladesh in 2007 until the Asia Cup the following year. However, he could not make the opportunities count, with India on the lookout for a first-choice spinner as Harbhajan Singh’s fortunes plummeted.

In his first 21 ODI games, until 2008, Chawla picked up 28 wickets at an average of 32.53, going wicketless on eight occasions. He was part of the squad that won the 2007 T20 World Cup, but did not feature in a single game. It remains the sole highlight of his career in the format.

His subsequent appearances for India remained sporadic. The emergence of Pragyan Ojha and Amit Mishra kept him out of Test contention for good. He played only two more Test matches, in 2008 and 2012. His last Test appearance came on a Nagpur dustbowl when India, desperate to level the series, went in with four spinners against England in 2012/13. The game also marked the debut of Ravindra Jadeja and featured R Ashwin; both men went on to cement their places over time, edging out the other contenders over the next few years.

In between, Chawla added another glistering feat to his cabinet. Long forgotten in ODIs after 2008, he got a surprise call-up to the set-up in 2011, weeks before the World Cup, when hosts India wanted a leg-spinner alongside the two off-spinners, Harbhajan and Ashwin. Chawla played three games in the tournament, but the excellent left-arm spin of Yuvraj Singh gave the India the liberty to go in with an extra pacer as the tournament progressed. Chawla never played an ODI for India again.

His IPL career made up for his India journey

However, as Chawla struggled with regular game-time for India, his IPL stocks were on the rise. With eight franchises on the lookout for at least one Indian spinner in the XI, Chawla was in demand, more so for his batting abilities. He was one of the first names on the team sheet for Kings XI Punjab (now Punjab Kings). Before the first mega-auction in 2011, he had taken 41 wickets in three seasons. Punjab signed him up again for the fourth season, this time for USD 900,000.

Three years later, he moved to Kolkata Knight Riders, forging a memorable spin partnership with Sunil Narine. His ability to bowl in the Powerplay was unusual for a leg spinner. His discipline – he first bowled a no-ball in the IPL in 2016, after almost 386 overs – made him an asset. Chawla kept his cool to pull Mitchell Johnson for four to help Kolkata Knight Riders win their second IPL title in 2014, and continued with the team until 2019, following which he was signed up by Chennai Super Kings in 2020. He moved to Mumbai Indians in 2021 but played once, and was not picked by any team in 2022 as younger prospects rose through the ranks.

Over time, Chawla has stamped his legacy in the league. With 157 wickets (average 27.39, strike rate 21), he is the third-highest wicket-taker among spinners, and just one of nine bowlers to pick up 150 or more wickets. With an economy rate of under eight, Chawla managed to make the most of his chances when given regular game time, holding onto his own for more than a decade despite the emergence of a younger generation of spinners. A long rope was something that he failed to get in the Indian team, and his IPL success only makes one wonder if more opportunities could have helped him earn a glittering international career as well.

He continues playing his trade in domestic cricket having switched teams from Uttar Pradesh to Gujarat, though he did not feature in the 2021/22 Ranji Trophy. Probably aware that an India call-up is well out of reach, Chawla took up commentary during IPL 2022, dissecting and analysing even cricketers senior to him. It could have been him, he almost blurts out during the broadcast.

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