India v England, 1st Test, Nagpur February 27, 2006

A new spin on things

Piyush Chawla: will he get a chance to spin his web? © Getty Images

"Line and length," says Piyush Chawla with not a moment's hesitation, when asked to assess his greatest strength as a legspinner. "I'm not a big turner of the ball," he adds, "but I can bowl with a little variation." The confidence with which the words come out is revelatory, and it peels away the layers of speculation to reveal just why India's selectors and team management have taken such an outrageous punt on a youngster who was starring for the Under-19s in the World Cup final just eight days ago.

Chawla is just 17 (looks more like 15) and hails from the university town of Aligarh.He may have just a season of first-class cricket behind him - an unforgettable one in which Uttar Pradesh annexed the Ranji Trophy for the first time - but the whispers about him have been doing the rounds for quite a while. The country at large learnt of his potential during the Challenger Trophy final at Mohali before the start of the home season , when his three wickets included the big fish - Sachin Tendulkar. "That was a good experience," says Chawla earnestly. "To play in a final and take three wickets, and especially Sachin Paaji's."

When asked how it felt to outfox Tendulkar with a googly, his face lights up. "It was a great moment. It's the dream of every bowler to bowl to him, and to get him out was very special." He didn't bask in the glory though, doing the hard yards as UP fought back from a disastrous start to the campaign to upset Mumbai and then Bengal in the climactic stages of a Ranji season in which the form-book was ripped apart.

"I learnt so many things," he says, when asked to look back. "I learnt how to bowl longer spells. Indian pitches are quite good to bat on [already a master at understatement?], and there was a lot of bowling to do."

'I'm not a big turner of the ball, but I can bowl with a little variation' © Getty Images

He refused to be drawn on the matter of childhood heroes, though he did say that he watched every legspinner on television when he had the opportunity, singling out Anil Kumble and Shane Warne for special mention. Already though, those at the helm of affairs are talking of Chawla as the future of Indian slow bowling, ignoring the claims of a generation that has toiled in Kumble's slipstream. Strangely enough, given the crazy schedules that exist in the modern game, he didn't actually meet Kumble till yesterday. "There was not much chance to talk," he said matter-of-factly, before revealing that he had more of an opportunity to listen and learn today.

Chawla said that he first experimented with the art when he was 10 or 11, going on to credit KA Gautam, his coach, for the rapid strides that he made subsequently. "He was the first person to encourage me to go out there and bowl, not worrying about whether I went for 70 runs in seven overs."

While admitting that he felt a bit of pressure in the wake of the sudden surge of expectation, his demeanour spoke of everything but nervousness. Confident without being cocky, he gave off the air of someone who didn't expect to fumble if called upon to give it a twirl. "It's not in my hands," he said when probed about whether he might play a part in the first Test. "I can only try to give it my best."

After his stunning spell in the U-19 World Cup final - he picked up 4 for 8 and struck 25 runs in a lost cause - the rumour mill had been churning overtime about his elevation to higher echelons. "I thought there might be a chance," he said shyly, "but I wasn't sure." Quite a confession from one so assured.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo