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The most daunting test yet for Kuldeep and Chahal

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Last month, when England's fire-breathing white-ball line-up was expanding the possibilities of 50-overs cricket while whitewashing Australia, Sachin Tendulkar sparked a debate over the use of new balls from both ends in that format, calling it a "recipe for disaster".

Virat Kohli agreed with Tendulkar, calling two new balls "brutal" for bowlers, but felt one kind of bowler, a kind India were fortunate to have two of, could still threaten batsmen, even in this unforgiving climate.

"There's hardly any room for attacking cricket left from the bowler's point of view if you don't provide them pitches that assist them with the new ball," Kohli said. "I have played ODI cricket when there was only one new ball allowed and reverse-swing used to be a massive factor in the later half of the innings, which I think as a batsman was more challenging.

"Nowadays it's… honestly I feel it's very very difficult for bowlers with two new balls and the pitch is flat and they literally have no way out, unless you have wristspinners in your side, which can do the job in the middle overs. Not every side has that cushion, so they find it difficult. Probably we have wristspinners, that's why we haven't felt that factor, but I'm sure it's very difficult for bowlers who cannot get purchase off the wicket when the balls are nice and hard."

Kohli made this statement during India's pre-departure press conference ahead of their tour of England. Intentional or otherwise, his words contained a challenge, to both England's batsmen and his own wristspinners, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, on the eve of a short, sharp limited-overs series a year before a World Cup in the same conditions.

This, then, was set to be the defining contest within the bigger contest: between two young, wicket-taking wristspinners and a batting order packed with hitting ability from start to finish.

The T20Is came first, and over the course of three matches, this mini-contest calmed from a rolling boil (Kuldeep's five-for at Old Trafford) to a slow simmer (Kuldeep not featuring at all in Bristol) as India won 2-1.

What bearing those events will have on the ODIs is unclear. England are a far better side over 100 overs than over 40. Since the end of the 2015 World Cup, they have a best-in-the-world 46-19 record in ODIs as against a middling 15-14 in T20Is.

In that time, their batsmen have averaged 59.03 and scored 6.33 runs per over against wristspin in ODIs. No team has come close to that scoring rate, and only India have a better average.

Each of England's main batsmen in this period has a strong record against wristspin, with the low averages of Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali possibly a function of coming in with the mandate to hit out from ball one.


At home, in the same period, England's record against wristspin is even more frightening: a scoring rate of 6.95 and an average of 232.33, with just three dismissals in 16 innings.

Chahal and Kuldeep are yet to face an examination this daunting. So far, their biggest ODI challenges have come at home, against Australia and New Zealand, and their one major away series, in which they took a combined 33 wickets in six matches, coincided with a spate of injuries that left South Africa missing a number of key batsmen at various points. Still, they have passed every test they have been posed so far, and solved niggling issues that had limited India as an ODI bowling team.

India's embrace of wristspin began after last year's Champions Trophy in England, a tournament played on mostly flat pitches where their inability to take wickets in the middle overs contributed heavily to their two defeats - to Sri Lanka in the group stages and Pakistan in the final. They immediately set about changing the composition of their attack, phasing out the fingerspin of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, and bringing in Kuldeep and Chahal over the course of their next two ODI series.

It was a slightly belated recognition of a global trend. In 2015, fingerspinners had bowled roughly 3.4 balls to every ball delivered by a wristspinner in ODI cricket. That ratio has steadily declined, year on year, and the figure for 2018, 2.0, is set to fall further over the next week or so, when England's Adil Rashid will be in action alongside Chahal and Kuldeep.

India's shift from fingerspin to wristspin has been hugely successful. Since the end of the Champions Trophy, they have won 21 of their 26 completed ODIs and claimed six successive series victories.

In that time, their bowlers have taken 116 wickets (not including run-outs) in overs 11-40 in 26 innings, at an average of 29.93. None of the major ODI teams has a better middle-overs average in this period, and only Pakistan has a better middle-overs economy rate than India's 4.83.

Between the end of the 2015 World Cup and the end of the 2017 Champions Trophy, India had been far less effective in the middle overs, averaging 37.90 and conceding 5.09 runs per over.

Comparing the six main specialist spinners India have used since the end of the 2015 World Cup is also instructive. The three wristspinners - the current two and Amit Mishra - have near-identical middle-overs averages, all between 22 and 23, with fingerspinners Ashwin (42.64), Jadeja (61.66) and Axar Patel (36.47) trailing some way behind. Axar has done a job as a holding bowler, conceding only 4.24 runs per over, but both Ashwin and Jadeja have economy rates north of five.

The fact that the wristspinners have been economical as well as incisive might have come as a bonus for India. They were brought in primarily with strike rates in mind, with the hope that they could take wickets even in high-scoring games on flat pitches. Ashwin and Jadeja weren't able to do this in the Champions Trophy, and India wanted bowlers who could, in similar conditions in 2019.

Two recent games stand out for the wristspinners making this kind of impact.

The first came in September 2017, in Indore, where Australia, 2-0 down in the five-match series, were 224 for 1 in the 38th over, with Aaron Finch batting on 124 and Steven Smith on 51. Australia seemed set for 330, but they slumped to 243 for 4, with Kuldeep and Chahal picking up three quick wickets, and eventually only managed 293, which India chased down with ease.

Despite Kuldeep having conceded 55 off his first seven overs, Kohli stuck with him, reckoning he was likelier than the part-timers to make an impact on a road of a pitch, and was rewarded with two wickets that undid most of Australia's momentum. This was a similar game to the Dunedin ODI this March, when Ish Sodhi's legspin precipitated an England collapse from 267 for 1 to 313 for 9. New Zealand chased down 336 courtesy an all-time-great ODI innings from Ross Taylor, but they could easily have been chasing 400 that day.

The other example of the value of India's wristspinners on flat pitches came in Kanpur, in October 2017, in the decider of a three-match series against New Zealand. India eventually won it by six runs. Here, New Zealand were chasing 338 and were serenely placed at 153 for 1 in the 25th over, with Colin Munro and Kane Williamson compiling a century stand for the second wicket. Chahal dismissed both of them with flight and guile, and somehow went for only 47 runs in his 10 overs on a pitch that produced 668 in 100.

It is these qualities that India most love in their wristspinners. Chahal has a real feel for a batsman's intentions, honed over years of bowling on flat IPL decks at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, and knows exactly when to fire it flat at middle and leg and when to dangle it slower and wider. Kuldeep will keep flighting the ball and varying his pace even when he's gone for a few, trusting his own skills to trump those of the best of batsmen.

The ODIs against England will test all those qualities, and show India exactly where they stand as a bowling unit a year from the 2019 World Cup.