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Feature

Yuzvendra Chahal aims for glory in the UAE 'heaven'

The legspinner talks about the concerns of losing his rhythm, working on new tricks with Adam Zampa, mentoring younger players, and more

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
02-Oct-2020
Yuzvendra Chahal celebrates a wicket  •  BCCI

Yuzvendra Chahal celebrates a wicket  •  BCCI

Yuzvendra Chahal showed off his dance moves on TikTok, tickled many funny bones, and bantered with Rohit Sharma and Virat "bhaiyya" on Instagram during the lockdown. But all along, he was, just like KL Rahul, worried about his "rhythm". Would he able to land his stock ball properly? Will he be able to deliver those "googles" with pin-point accuracy as he usually does?
He resumed training in July with moderate intensity, but it wasn't until he landed in the UAE - "heaven" in his own words, because of the bigger boundaries - that he actually tried to work on his concerns. Two months on, he's happy with where his game is at. All the hard work in the nets, he says, is paying off.
"During the lockdown, I practised for just ten days and before the first match, I was just worried about my rhythm," he says, sipping a hot latte in his plush hotel room in Dubai. "For the past six months, I didn't bowl in the match and I was a little bit nervous before I played the first match.
"Compared to the earlier matches, there were 20 to 30% more nerves because I didn't know how my rhythm will go. When I bowled my first over, then I was like 'okay, my rhythm is there only where we stopped six months back'. I was worried especially about my googlies, the variations, whether they will be there or not. But I was very happy the way I bowled in the first match and that gave me so much confidence."
In the three weeks leading up to IPL 2020, Chahal was identified to be part of Royal Challengers Bangalore's leadership group, alongside Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers. Mike Hesson, the director of cricket, has been particularly impressed with Chahal's game sense, his ability to read different situations and adapt to different scenarios.
"I was worried especially about my googlies, the variations, whether they will be there or not. But I was very happy the way I bowled in the first match"
Chahal on his concerns during the lockdown
He often referred to "big heart" while talking of Chahal, a striking feature of the wiry bowler who has in many ways been programmed to tailor himself to the shorter boundaries at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium. He tosses the ball up again and again with a "no fear" attitude. After all, he has been conditioned all these years to not worry about being hit for sixes. Wherever else he bowls, it naturally "feels like heaven".
This "flighting the ball" generously allows him to disguise the googly well. Unlike Anil Kumble's or Rashid Khan's, his is a lot slower through the air. And when the training resumed, Chahal was only focused on landing them at the same spot he lands his stock ball. In his first game of the season, against the Sunrisers Hyderabad, he waited until his third over to bowl one.

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Jonny Bairstow is deceived in the flight as he swipes only to get beaten. Josh Philippe, the rookie Australian wicketkeeper, doesn't read it off the pitch and misses it altogether. It goes away for four byes. Chahal grimaces before going back to his run-up with a wry smile. He knows he has won that contest but the match is still to be won. The Royal Challengers are on a sticky wicket having started poorly with the ball in defence of 162. Eventually, it's Chahal only who gets Bairstow by messing with his mind and deceiving him in the air with a superb legbreak. All Bairstow can manage is an ugly hoick against the turn. He misses it completely and is bowled.
Now as he gears up to bowl to Vijay Shankar, Kohli has a quick word with him. He lands the ball on the fourth stump. He gets it to dip on Shankar, who lunges forward to play what he believes is a legbreak. This one fizzes back in to beat the inside edge. Gone, first-ball duck. The game has been turned. The Sunrisers are in trouble. Chahal is back in full rhythm. The lengths, the wrong'uns don't seem to be a worry anymore. His natural instincts have taken over.
"When I got Vijay's wicket, I think that was very important because it's always a dream for a legspinner to bowl that delivery," he says with a smile. "That gave me more confidence. Before that, I bowled it two-three times in the nets. I spoke to AB sir and even he told me he is not able to pick my googlies, so he told me 'please use your googlies, but depending on the situation. Batsmen are not able to read you.'"
So when does he plan what delivery he's going to bowl? If Chahal is to be believed, his mind is blank until he goes to his run-up, and firms up only as he runs in. Again depending on the match situation. If he's bowling in the powerplay, he likes to mix them up. In the middle, he gives it good air and loves to bowl his googly, as he did against the Sunrisers, or the Kings XI Punjab when he dismissed Mayank Agarwal with a superb wrong'un. At the death, he likes to fire them wide, bowl sliders or tossed-up deliveries out of the hitting arc. This didn't work in his final over - the 18th - against Kieron Pollard, though, in the game where the Mumbai Indians nearly chased down 90 in the final five overs. Anyone else would've been worried, not Chahal. Because he has the clarity of thought.
"I think you should understand the situation very well," he says, when asked about how he plans to unleash what kind of delivery. "In one over, you may want to flight [the ball] or you may want to go flatter. You should know which weapon [to use], which batsman you want to give singles to and who you want to attack. For me, I have three-four variations so, if you use them well, it becomes difficult for the batsman to judge."
Over the course of his time so far in the UAE, Chahal has made use of every practice session to learn new tricks. The funny man image that he portrays to the outside world is just one part of his persona. Behind all that, there's a man behind nerdy spectacles who desires to be the best version he can possibly be. He came to the UAE in 2014 as a rookie wanting to prove himself. Six years on, he's retention material, talked about as part of a core group. These days, he also mentors young players, leads team meetings and is happy to work on his game to get an edge.
He's been talking a lot to Adam Zampa, the Australian legspinner who has somewhat become a limited-overs specialist. "We chat all the time, at training and in the team room," Chahal says. It was during one such conversation that Zampa asked Chahal if he'd ever considered bowling a quicker googly to the right-handers. It's a suggestion Chahal took on board and has tried to work it out at the nets, bowling to Kohli and de Villiers.
"We keep talking, not just at nets but also in the team room. We are together, we decided how we can bowl at grounds where one side has shorter boundaries," Chahal explains. "So it becomes hard bowling stump-to-stump. I'm enjoying talking to him. I've learnt a couple of things with him, when we go to the nets, we discuss depending on how the wicket is. I watched him play for the Australian team. I've tried to bowl quicker googles in this IPL. It will give lesser chances for batsmen to hit sixes, and it's easier to get them than out."
While learning and developing his game has been important, Chahal's personality and easy-going attitude make him the go-to man for the young players in the squad. The Royal Challengers have consciously tried to veer away from their old habits - like having only the select 15 travel to match venue while the rest stay back at the hotel. They have tried to make the younger players open up at team meetings, karaoke nights and even at team dinners. One junior player is paired with a senior - and the two go about working together for the rest of the season. The primary reason is to get players to communicate better, and voice their thoughts without hesitation. This is a role Chahal is particularly enjoying.
He has been working with Shahbaz Ahmed, who plays for Bengal in domestic cricket but hails from Haryana, Chahal's home state. Ahmed is a tall left-arm spinner who has gained the reputation of being a consistent bowler in domestic cricket, apart from having the ability to hit big lower down the order. For Chahal, these small steps in mentorship have also helped him evolve as a cricketer and "take his game to the next level".
One of the first lessons from the Chahal's rule book that he is trying to advocate his younger colleagues is to bowl without worrying about being hit. "You should always back your plans, no matter what," he says. "Last match I went for some four overs, 45 or 48 something, but I was fine that because if it's happening once in five-six matches then I'm fine with that. If it's happening in three games out of six, then I'm doing something wrong. Then I'm not bowling well. I always back my strength and for me, I want to read batsman, what he's thinking of my bowling. If he hits me for four or a boundary, then I'll plan according to that."
The lessons, the mateship, the communication and vibe have all left Chahal dreaming of the possibilities of doing something special. "Our aim is to win the trophy and this year we have a more balanced side, especially in the bowling [department]," he says. "We've won two matches out of three and we are very positive. This year, not me, everyone's saying... AB sir, Virat bhaiyya... there is some different feeling. We are getting that feeling after 2016. Something is there this year, one positive energy from all of the group, from the management side and we are very excited. For me, whether I'm playing or not playing, my goal is to win the trophy for RCB."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo