Putting all the challenges of playing during a pandemic aside, a legspinner like Rahul Chahar might have salivated a bit when the news of IPL 2020 moving to the UAE was announced. He wouldn't have to worry about being mis-hit for sixes at the small Wankhede Stadium anymore or about the flat tracks that are often rolled out in the IPL across India.
Instead, Chahar could toss the ball up almost fearlessly on the bigger grounds in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and attack the batsmen like he wanted to. And to assist spinners further, there has also been evidence of pitches getting slower and offering more turn with constant wear and tear, given the tournament is being played at just the three venues this season.
Chahar's challenge, however, was to still be steady while carrying the tag of Mumbai Indians' frontline spinner, along with Krunal Pandya. Coming into this tournament, Chahar had experience of only 16 IPL games and was expected to play a crucial role at the age of just 21 as Mumbai aimed to defend their campaign.
Initially, Chahar might have been looked at only as an economical bowler, while the wicket-taking job was left for the more experienced quick bowlers. But being an attacking legspinner - in his own words - Chahar has played the dual role of picking up big wickets as well as stemming the flow of runs. Playing on bigger grounds, he has been able to flight the ball more and even pitch it up. It's also the "freedom" that the Mumbai set-up has given him that has helped Chahar pick up 11 wickets at an economy rate of 7.40, just behind the more experienced names of Yuzvendra Chahal and Rashid Khan among spinners in the top 10 wicket-takers this season.
"In the first few games there wasn't that much of a difference [in the UAE and Wankhede pitches] because some wickets looked flat and batsmen-friendly," Chahar said on Thursday. "Now gradually wickets have started slowing down, so I've made length adjustments. Like at Wankhede you've to pull the length back a bit - around the five-metre mark - whereas here, you can pitch it up a bit because the grounds are bigger and pitches are also a bit slower. So you can freely pitch the ball up and attack the batsmen."
Chahar admitted he was being a "safe" bowler in the first few games before he spoke to Zaheer Khan, Mumbai's director of cricket operations, who asked the legspinner to let go of his inhibitions and the "fear factor".
"In the beginning of the tournament, I was being a bit more safe and wasn't attacking as much, so he told me, 'You're a wicket-taking bowler, you should attack more. Don't worry if you're hit for a six'," Chahar said of his conversation with Khan. "He gives me confidence from time to time. He says, 'tu bandh mat, tu khul' (don't restrict yourself, bowl freely the way you want) and takes the fear factor out of me."
Chahar exhibited his attacking quality against the top batsmen of the Kings XI Punjab in their two clashes so far. His victims across both matches included the tournament's top-scorer KL Rahul, and the big-hitting pair of Glenn Maxwell (twice) and Chris Gayle. Chahar thus finished with 2 for 26 in Abu Dhabi before claiming 2 for 33 in Dubai. And what worked against these batsmen was attacking Rahul's stumps, varying his pace against Maxwell who has been desperate for runs, and slipping in a slider for Gayle to have him caught while he was eyeing the boundary. Being a spinner, he also ensures he doesn't pitch the ball too often in the arc of such hard-hitting batsmen.
Chahar says he just can't get the attacking instincts out of his head. "I can do both [attack and contain the runs]. So firstly, it depends if we're bowling first or second," Chahar explains. "If we're defending a total and the required rate is around 10, then my role is to stop the flow of runs. Otherwise, Rohit [Sharma] bhaiya tells me from time to time whether to try for a particular batsman's wicket or just try to be economical against him. We plan in team meetings also which batsman has what weakness.
"I prefer to attack. A legspinner's role is to pick up wickets so even when I'm trying to stop the flow of runs, there's this feeling at the back of my mind that I hope I get a wicket. It's natural for me to attack."
This season Chahar has lived up to the expectations for the second time in a row, even if he has almost gone under the radar with the fast bowlers making all the headlines. After Mayank Markande's impressive maiden IPL for Mumbai in 2018, it was Chahar who led the spin attack last year in 13 games for as many wickets with an economy rate of just 6.55.
The inexperienced Markande may have been found out in his second season by oppositions, and the same could have happened with Chahar too. In their first IPL, bowlers - particularly spinners - can be an unknown entity, with oppositions still figuring out their stock delivery, variations, googlies. But in their second season, batsmen come prepared for them.
Chahar understands these "mind games" and, since he knew batsmen would have plans for him, he was prepared to counter their homework with his own.
"To succeed you also have to be equally smart to read them in the second season and assess how they're batting and where they look to attack," he says. "You also have to remember what you did last year and batsmen would have prepared accordingly. These are all mind games."
Chahar has not had to carry the burden of Mumbai's spin responsibilities on his own, though. Of late, Pandya has been bowling in the powerplay ahead of Chahar who has a role to play in the middle overs. Chahar says he and Pandya have started building a partnership that helps them get wickets together.
They were bowling in tandem after 12 overs against the Delhi Capitals' well-set Shikhar Dhawan and Shreyas Iyer. Once Chahar and Pandya conceded just 12 from the two overs, Iyer attacked Pandya but only found deep midwicket. They finished with combined figures of 8-0-53-2 and the Capitals were restricted to 162, a total that Mumbai chased down with five wickets in hand.
In their next game, against the Kolkata Knight Riders, Chahar started with the eighth over by when Pandya had already bowled five dot balls in his two overs to keep the scoring rate under six. Shubman Gill tried to break the shackles but found long-on for a 23-ball 28, and on the very next ball, Dinesh Karthik chopped on for four off eight. Pandya went wicketless this time for 23 runs from his four overs, while Chahar finished with a remarkable 2 for 18 in as many overs.
"He keeps deceiving batsmen regularly, like by bowling yorkers or some other variations," Chahar says of how Pandya bowls differently. "So after he bowls, he tells me what kind of deliveries to bowl to which batsmen - like who is willing to attack, what not to bowl to whom.
"We've had a good partnership because when we build pressure from both ends, batsmen make mistakes somewhere or the other."
If oppositions thought their main challenge with the bat against Mumbai would come against their all-round pace attack and Pandya's cagey bowling, they now have one more x-factor to deal with: an attack-minded wristspinner.