In an evening packed with drama and sub-plots that would put any prime-time soap to shame, Piyush Chawla's vital contribution to Kings XI Punjab's one-run win might easily be overlooked. He took a solitary wicket in Mumbai Indians' chase, but, as Yuvraj Singh, his captain, acknowledged later, Chawla has delivered the goods when he's thrown the ball to him. At the Wankhede, his two tight spells revived Punjab's hopes when Mumbai were going along smoothly.
Chawla's first spell came immediately after the Powerplay. At 68 for 1, Mumbai had built a solid platform, and their latest signing Dwayne Smith was able to tick along the scoring along with Sachin Tendulkar without too many risks.
Facing his second ball from the legspinner Chawla, Tendulkar showed why teams are wary of him. He played late, and fine, and Mahela Jayawardene, positioned at wide gully, was rendered redundant. Irritated, Chawla settled down to bowl a tight line, and the next over persisted with the legbreak. Tendulkar twice tried to deflect the ball into the gaps but failed and on the third ball he pushed it to Yuvraj at mid-off. Smith rushed for a quick single, but Tendulkar sent him back, and in a chase where almost ten were needed an over, Chawla had given just two, and the pressure led to a wicket.
Yuvraj kept Chawla for later, and got him right after Abhishek Nayar and Tendulkar had carted VRV Singh for 19, bringing the required-rate down to nine. Tendulkar deftly placed the ball into the gaps and found the boundaries, and with Nayar pulling off the big hits, Punjab's chances were dwindling, with just 63 needed off the last seven overs, and seven wickets in hand.
That's when the go-to man delivered. Sensing Nayar's intent, the street-smart Chawla tossed it full on leg. When Nayar's slog-sweep landed in the hands of Tanmay Srivastava at deep square leg, Punjab got a much-needed breakthrough. Yuvraj said he was not at all "happy" with his bowlers but reserved praise for Chawla. "Whenever we have been in disarray I have tossed the ball to him and eight out of ten times he has delivered."
Legspin has always been hard work, and Chawla understands he still is an apprentice, and has showed the willingness to learn. After two average games at the start of the tournament, he bounced back in Punjab's first victory against Mumbai with 2 for 16 in four overs, followed it up with an economical spell of 4-0-29-0 against Delhi Daredevils, and subsequently claimed three wickets in successive games: 3 for 28 against Deccan Chargers, and 3 for 25 against Bangalore Royal Challengers. He is in the top ten wicket-takers, a creditable feat given Shane Warne is the only other spinner in the list.
There was a fear that spinners would be hard hit by the Twenty20 format, with the premium on saving runs, but the likes of Warne and Chawla have still managed to hold their own, like Daniel Vettori did at the World Twenty20. Terry Jenner, Warne's coach, speaking on the dearth of quality spinners said "to spin it you actually have to flight it up, and if you flight it up there's always that risk of overpitching and the batsman getting you on the full, and therefore the risk of runs being scored. So if you consider the general mentality of a spinner trying to bowl dot balls and bowl defensive lines, then you can't spin it".
Warne and Chawla, though, have been able to spin the ball, restrict the batsmen with disciplined control and curb the scoring by picking wickets. A case in point was a delivery Chawla bowled to Robin Uthappa, his India team-mate. Uthappa was tempted into the drive, but he was done in by the flight, and only a quick retreat ensured he wasn't stumped.
The greatest spinners have always believed in bowling at the batsman and not to them. Chawla has tried to maintain that as his thumb rule. In the process he has gone for runs, but he has never resorted to defensive techniques. Today was further proof of his ever-improving learning curve.