Pic: Twitter (@toisports)

Ominous challenges for Chahal. India’s shuddering chances

Yuzvendra Chahal has been going through a brutal rough patch in the recent past. The leggie might want to conjure up ways to weave his magic once again, as a spot in the squad for the T20 World Cup is at stake.

The ongoing five match T20I series between India and England is evenly poised at 2–2, with the decider promising to be a cracker of a game. Both the sides’ form seems to be peaking and dipping on alternate matches, with England winning the first game, losing the second, winning the third, and then going down in the fourth yet again. The series so far has not been one of gargantuan batting totals, with the 185/8 that the Indians racked up in the fourth game being the highest score of the series thus far. Both teams have had their highs and lows throughout the running of this series, but there is one thing that is giving the Indians sleepless nights.

India’s strike spinner and highest wicket taker in T20I, Yuzvendra Chahal, has been thrown out of gear by a well thought out “belligerent from the beginning” strategy worked out by the English batting coach; Marcus Trescothick. And apparently Chahal’s aide; the Indian bowling coach; Bharat Arun is not being able to create the necessary antidotes to this new approach. Result: Chahal has been spun away in the thin air by the English batters and India’s most potent weapon has gone blunt just at the altar of the fast approaching T20 World Cup. There is not much time left to bring back the shine of the armour. A big, severe, sudden and unexpected headache is now ripping through India’s cricket fans. Known to be a bowler with the knack of picking up wickets at important intervals, Chahal received a decent bludgeoning at the hands of the Englishmen in the first three games of the series, eventually being dropped for the fourth. Figures of 1/44, 1/34 and 1/41 are far from what was expected of the man. His combined aggregate stands at 119 runs conceded off 12 overs, at an economy of 9.91.

The Englishmen repeatedly took him to the cleaners in his very first over, if not his very first ball. In the first game, defending a meek 124/7, Chahal got smacked over cow corner off his very first ball by Jason Roy, who later collected another four off the fourth ball of the same over. Roy continued the assault in Chahal’s next over, hitting him for a four and a six off consecutive deliveries before Chahal was rewarded with the wicket of fellow opener Jos Buttler, trapped in front. After receiving some more punishment from Jonny Bairstow, Chahal finished his quota of four overs, giving away 44 runs at an economy of 11.00 per over.

After the drubbing in the first game, India bounced back well to level the series, but Chahal wasn’t quite able to bounce back in the same fashion. Jason Roy, England’s highest run-getter in the series so far, again unsettled Chahal in his very first over, tonking a shortish delivery over midwicket for six. Though India emerged victorious, the sweet taste of victory might have been soured for Chahal as his poor run continued. This new ploy of dominating Chahal from the word go continued in the third game, but this time the aggressor was Jos Buttler, who imitated his opening partner Roy to effortlessly loft a loose delivery by Chahal, his very first of the game yet again, back over his head for a maximum.

Chahal’s risky strategy of continuously flighting the ball and enticing the batsman to go for the big shot, hoping that he would mistime it and hand one to the fielder, seems to be old material now. Either that, or a batsman running down the track only to miss and get stumped, have always seemed to be the main modes of dismissals that Chahal possesses in his arsenal. Though Chahal has produced some magical, unplayable deliveries over the years, the majority of his success has come when the batsmen have tried to take him on, and perished. But when the batsmen are in the zone, and hardly mistime anything, Chahal can be on the receiving end of an embarrassing pummeling, in Twenty20 as well as one day cricket, as was the case in India’s match against England in the group stage of the 2019 World Cup, and against Australia in the first ODI in November 2020.

In the World Cup match, Chahal was brutally scourged by Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow, returning with mortifying figures of 0/88 off his ten overs, setting the world record for most runs conceded by an Indian spinner in ODI history. In the ODI against Australia, Steve Smith handed Chahal the beating of a lifetime, as Chahal put on an expressionless face and resorted to keeping his head low and accepting the humiliation. In the process he bettered his own dubious record, going for 1/89 in 10 overs. As if this isn’t enough, Chahal also holds the unwanted record for conceding the most runs in an innings by an Indian bowler in T20I history. In a T20I against South Africa in early 2018, keeper-batsman Heinrich Klaasen and veteran JP Duminy clobbered Chahal to send him back with figures of 0/64 off 4 overs at an economy of 16.00 per over.

Such ignominious performances tend to send a bowler’s career into jeopardy, but thanks to the constant support of Virat Kohli and a few impressive performances in between these batterings, Chahal has managed to hold his place in the limited overs side. The main problem, however, seems to be the precarious mindset that Chahal goes into a match with, hoping that the batsmen gift their wickets to him. It’s almost always a case of Chahal being given wickets, instead of Chahal taking wickets. Bowling wide outside off stump with flight on the ball is by no means a match-winning strategy, and batsmen have surprisingly been falling into this trap for the past four years. It only takes a matter of time for a code to be deciphered, and now the seemingly safe strategy of Chahal seems to be out in the open for everyone to take advantage of.

Deliveries that seem dangerous to the batsmen are now played along the ground for ones and twos, instead of being hoicked into the air, as was the case earlier. Now batsmen only seem to take the risk of going aerial when they are absolutely sure that the result will be the ball going to the stands and not them going to the pavilion. This increase in acuity has put question marks over Chahal’s future, and a ticket to the T20 World Cup too seems to be in slight doubt for him. Emergence of young spinners like Rahul Chahar, Axar Patel, Rahul Tewatia and Varun Chakravarthy has also piled pressure on Chahal to perform. His performances in the IPL for the Royal Challengers Bangalore have also been irregular, to say the least. On some days he single handedly changes the course of a game, while on others he goes back to being the run-leaking villain.

Despite these hurdles, Chahal has never failed to pick up wickets, which is probably one of the reasons he never gets ostracized from the team. Though there have been exceptions aplenty, more often than not Chahal picks up the two or three key wickets of a team and breaks their backbone, be it while conceding runs at nine per over. But his tendency to leak runs more or less nullifies his success in the wickets column. As the batsmen blast their way to a quickfire thirty or forty before falling prey, the run rate is never entirely stalled. A mixed character is what Chahal has become, providing breakthroughs, but immensely paying for the success too.

Now the balanced equation seems to be gradually shifting to more runs conceded and fewer wickets taken, which can prove to be hazardous for Chahal’s future. Such intricacies of the game are often overlooked, but now Chahal’s ploy has been blasted open by Jason Roy, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow. A complete reinvention of approach, mindset and strategization is necessary for Chahal if he is to continue being India’s leading spinner in limited overs internationals. His inclusion in the ODI squad for the oncoming series against England poses a golden opportunity for him to set the record straight. He is at that edge where only being creative can see him crossing over safely. He has to urgently start swivelling his arm and spread his fingers still more enormously to work up some lethal skidders and top spinners; lest the downward spiral spins him away forever.

It doesn’t take much time for an Indian spinner to vanish into oblivion. Some extraordinary talents like Narendra Hirwani, Maninder Singh, Rajesh Chauhan and even Laxman Sivaramakrishnan perished when their code was broken and they were found wanting at conjuring a new weapon. If Yuzvendra Chahal wants his pride to be restored, he is going to have to work hard to stitch together a rope of wickets, and descend into the dark abyss where his glorious and bright past lies, to try and retrieve memories that can provide him with motivation. He can choose to let himself get sucked deeper into the unknown, or he can emerge from that abyss a victor full of confidence, ready to get back to winning ways. But he has to do it at a frantic and hysterical pace.

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Divyaj Tomar

Divyaj Tomar

High school student in Bangalore. Cricket, tennis, films fan. Can’t help notice typos. Interested in areas of sustainable progress and rural sports development.