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Snub no deterrent for crafty Yuzvendra Chahal

After missing out on a T20 World Cup berth, he is again underlining his importance in an era of quick legspin

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Yuzvendra Chahal first got Kieron Pollard with a perfect wrong'un, before nearly managing a hat-trick  •  BCCI

Yuzvendra Chahal first got Kieron Pollard with a perfect wrong'un, before nearly managing a hat-trick  •  BCCI

In the team meeting prior to Sunday's first ODI, India's captain Rohit Sharma revealed to Yuzvendra Chahal that he had noticed something from afar that may have been missed. The googly seemed to have gone missing from Chahal's repertoire in South Africa, and the importance of bringing it back, because he usually executes with great success, was underlined again.
When Kieron Pollard walked out to the middle three balls into Chahal's first over, Virat Kohli quickly ran in to say something to the bowler. There was a slip, leg slip, short midwicket, mid-on and mid-off stationed. Was Kohli reminding Chahal of a plan? Perhaps. But what followed next wasn't utterly unpredictable.
Chahal landed a perfect wrong 'un on fourth stump. Pollard attempted a biff into the leg side but was far from the pitch of the delivery. The ball dipped on him and beat his swing to crash into the stumps. It was ODI wicket No. 101 for Chahal. Only a ball earlier, he had Nicholas Pooran misjudging the length to be given lbw to a full delivery. He had bowled a straighter line - the legbreak coming out of the front of his hand - with more sidespin.
"If I missed my length, there was an 80% chance of Pollard hitting me for six with that one," Chahal told Rohit in a post-game chat on "As you pointed out, I also realised [that] the more I mix it up, [and] the more I googlies I bowl, the better my legspin is."
The ball that followed Pollard's dismissal was another wrong 'un. A short leg was specifically placed for the lob. When new man Jason Holder stabbed at it without any conviction, the ball took the thick inside edge only to fall short of the fielder. Chahal was now in his element. Using the crease well, varying his trajectory and angles. The wrong 'un was coming out of the hand superbly.
Across 29 overs in South Africa, Chahal had bowled just 22 wrong 'uns for one wicket. The South Africans had taken him for 6.27 to the over with the googlies, much higher than his overall economy of 4.42, variations included, since July 2018. It wasn't as if the higher economy was made up for with more wickets; he managed just two in three games. But on Sunday, inside one just over, he had bowled two rippers and created two chances - one resulted in a wicket, the other missing narrowly.
Legspinners the world over speak of their craft as being a confidence game. Sure, it may be true of every other facet of the game too, but legspin bowlers in particular need that much more going their way because their margin of error is at the bare minimum on surfaces largely tailored for batters. This margin for error reduces further when dew kicks in. This confidence only comes from having executed repeatedly, and with a great degree of success.
When Chahal was left out of the T20 World Cup squad, it appeared from the outside that the selectors had lost faith in his modus operandi of bowling loopy legbreaks mixed with his wrong 'uns. Suddenly, "more pace on the ball" became the buzzword. In giving a rare peek into selection, Chetan Sharma, the chief selector, said they "needed a spinner who can find grip off the surface and deliver with slightly more speed", while explaining the Rahul Chahar-vs-Chahal debate.
When the World Cup started, Chahar found himself on the bench. It wasn't long after that India were knocked out of semi-final contention and Chahar eventually got a look-in. Four wicketless overs for 30, and off he went. He went with the India A squad on the shadow tour to South Africa and finished his only four-day outing with figures of 1 for 125 across 28.3 overs. And Chahal, who appeared to have fallen off the radar, was back again for the home T20Is against New Zealand.
Between his axe and recall, the selectors had a first-hand view of Chahal during the second leg of last year's IPL. When the IPL came to a grinding halt in May due to Covid-19, Chahal had four wickets in seven games at an economy of 8.26. But when the league restarted in September, he was bowling at another level, finishing the season by picking another 14 wickets in eight games at an economy of 6.13 while in the UAE. It is perhaps these numbers and his performances at large that dictated his selection, even though his numbers in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20s that followed were far from impressive: one wicket in five games at an economy of 8.47.
The one thing Rohit has stressed on repeatedly has been the need to give role clarity to players and give them a long rope to ensure they don't feel the axe hangs over them. This is perhaps why they went with Chahal's experience in Ahmedabad, considering they also had two spinners - Washington Sundar and Kuldeep Yadav - coming back from injuries.
There would have been the temptation to play the rather quicker legspinner in Ravi Bishnoi, but in giving Chahal the first go, it seemed a clear sign of Chahal continuing to be a key member of the squad. And his Player-of-the-Match 4 for 49 was merely another reiteration that in an era of quick wristspin, bowlers like him who bowl slower through the air can equally make a massive impact.
Rohit's words to Chahal at the end of the same interview were particularly revealing. "You're a very important player for us. I want you to play with the same mindset. There will be ups and downs but it's important to have the right mindset."
As an experienced bowler who is rediscovering some of the lost mojo, this is all you want to hear from your captain.
With Stats Inputs from Sampath Bandarupalli

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo