How Chahal rose to the top of IPL's all-time wickets chart

In the era of the fast, stump-to-stump legspinner, he has shown that his subtler style still has a place in T20

It didn't exactly go unnoticed, but it got a little lost amid all the late drama of Sunday night's improbable finish at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium, where Rajasthan Royals lost a game they really shouldn't have, to Sunrisers Hyderabad. Yuzvendra Chahal bagged a four-wicket haul that would have been match-winning on any other night, and in the process drew level with Dwayne Bravo on top of the IPL's wicket-takers' leaderboard.
Who could have predicted it, when this slightly-built legspinner struggled for game time in his three years with Mumbai Indians, his first IPL team? He showed a spark in those limited opportunities, but it never seemed to be enough. He played every match of Mumbai's victorious Champions League campaign in 2011 and finished with an economy rate below 7, but had to wait until 2013 to play his only IPL game for the franchise.
Who would have thought, then, that Chahal would be where he is a decade later - joint top of the IPL pile - with 183 wickets from 142 games? He has played fewer matches than Piyush Chawla, Amit Mishra, R Ashwin, Sunil Narine, Harbhajan Singh and Ravindra Jadeja, and he has more wickets than all of them.
Of all spinners who have taken 100 or more wickets in the IPL, Chahal has the best strike rate: 16.9. That's a wicket every 2.5 overs, roughly. For comparison, Chahal's Royals team-mate Ashwin takes a wicket every 24.2 balls in the IPL, or less than one per four-over allotment.
Ashwin, of course, has an economy rate of 7.00 against Chahal's 7.65. Is it more important to take wickets or keep the runs down? It's a hard debate to resolve, but in the records of Royals' spin non-twins are the outcomes of two contrasting approaches to T20 bowling.
Ashwin is the arch-pragmatist. He has the most lethal offbreak in world cricket, but he will go entire T20 games without bowling a single one to a right-hand batter, preferring instead to deliver a mix of carrom balls and reverse carrom balls - all bowled into the pitch - just short of a good length, and concede a steady drip of singles to deep fielders. He uses more variations than most spinners, but he's not a mystery spinner: he's perfectly okay with the batter picking him out of his hand as long as he bowls a length and line that's hard to hit to the boundary.
Chahal is entirely different. He relies much less on variations than most legspinners, and uses the wrong'un sparingly - almost reluctantly - but he is more prepared than most to bowl attacking lengths and dare batters to go after him. This isn't because he is some sort of romantic at heart, but because he thinks it's the most effective use of his skillset. He is, in his own way, as pragmatic a bowler as Ashwin.
Most big-name legspinners in T20s bowl at a high pace, often in the mid-to-high 90s (kph), attack the stumps relentlessly, and bowl the wrong'un frequently. They bowl into the pitch and try to hit a length that's too short for the sweep or lofted drive, and too full to pull.
Rashid Khan is the prime example. Chahal would probably bowl like Rashid if he could - who wouldn't? - but there's a reason why so few bowlers can match what Rashid does. He imparts more revolutions than most wristspinners while bowling quicker than most of them, disguises his variations better than anyone else, and does all this while only rarely losing his length. It isn't just hard to pick him from his hand; he also delivers the ball with vicious overspin, so there's also dip and awkward bounce to contend with.
Chahal can give his legbreak a rip too, but he usually needs to bowl slower to do so. This can put a ceiling on a spinner's effectiveness in red-ball cricket, where you need to beat batters who aren't necessarily looking to attack you - Chahal's 87 first-class wickets have come at an average of 35.25 - but if you're smart, you can weaponise a lack of pace in white-ball cricket.
Chahal does this brilliantly, because his lack of pace isn't chronic but strategic. He varies his pace far more than the typical T20 spinner, operating across a wide spectrum from the mid-70s to the low 90s, and if the quicker ones don't turn as much, it's no disadvantage because he can use them to cramp batters for room.
On top of this, he is an expert at using line as a defensive weapon. He takes a lot of wickets with slow, wide legbreaks - we will explore this in greater detail - but a less spoken-about skill is his use of quick, wide legbreaks that almost force batters into slapping singles to the off-side sweeper. He will often deliver this ball from close to the stumps, angling it away from the right-hander even before it has turned away from them, making it virtually impossible to hit into the leg side.
Couple this with the fact that he seldom bowls the wrong'un, and it's no surprise that Chahal concedes a smaller percentage of leg-side runs to right-hand batters than almost any other legspinner in the IPL. This ability to cut off one side of the field makes him a terrific bowler to have when one square boundary is significantly longer than the other. It's one of the tools, perhaps, that allowed Chahal to hold his own against the flat tracks and postage-stamp outfield of the Chinnaswamy Stadium in all his seasons with Royal Challengers Bangalore.
But while Chahal has the defensive skills to survive in the IPL, wickets are his USP, and he gets them because he goes after them. He is more willing to explore fuller lengths than most spinners, and while his lack of height gives him a bit of leeway - he gets less bounce than most spinners, and the ball often hits the bat below the sweet spot when batters try to hit him over the top, thus increasing the chance of mis-hits - it's still a risk. Only Chawla (192) has been hit for more sixes than Chahal's 189 in the IPL.
But with that risk there's also the potential for reward; ample potential in Chahal's case because he's so good at varying his pace.
Go back to Sunday's game, and watch how he gets Heinrich Klaasen out. He has dismissed so many batters over so many years in pretty much the same way: a slow legbreak dangled wide of off stump - this ball turns enough to go past the wide guideline if Klaasen were to leave it alone - miscued to a fielder on the straight boundary.
Klaasen had square-cut the previous ball for four, and the wicket ball is a similar one in terms of line and length - check the Hawk-Eye graphic on the official IPL website, and see for yourself. Why, then, does Klaasen not go back and cut this one too? Well, because the ball Klaasen cut clocked 82.4kph, and the ball he unsuccessfully tries to launch over long-off is significantly slower at 75.4kph.
Batters are hard-wired into thinking front foot, thinking down the ground, when the ball is dangled above their eyeline. Chahal is adept at subverting this muscle memory. This ball lands well short of where Klaasen expects it to, and turns sharply, leaving him reaching away from his body and wrenched completely out of shape.
Batters have seen Chahal do this countless times, and they probably warn themselves not to fall for it, but they continue to stumble into the trap. And you can't really blame them. If you see a ball that looks hittable in a T20 game, you're probably not going to back down. And if you're chasing a big target like Sunrisers were in Jaipur, it's not in your interests to back down.
Chahal's bowling is built for these situations. It's fairly common knowledge that he has bowled more balls (120) and taken more wickets (13) in the death overs - 17th to 20th - than any other spinner in the 2022 and 2023 IPL seasons, but you need to break it down a little more to really get at what Chahal is best at.
If you're defending a big total, and the chasing team has reached that point where they have, say, four overs remaining and 45 to get, Chahal is the bowler to bring on. When you have no choice but to go for big shots, Chahal is the kind of bowler who will give you little pace to work with, and land the ball just out of your reach when you thought all along that it was right in your arc.
It's why he goes on wicket-taking sprees so often. The game-changing four-wicket over against Kolkata Knight Riders last season is the obvious example, but it wasn't a one-off. Chahal has taken two or more wickets in an over an incredible seven times across IPL 2022 and 2023. The bowler who has come closest is his old wristspin buddy Kuldeep Yadav, who has done it six times - they are not entirely similar bowlers, but they share a number of attributes, chiefly a willingness to bait batters with their pace variations.
Not too long ago, that style of wristspin seemed to be fading out of fashion. Chahal endured a difficult first half of IPL 2021 - he took four wickets in seven games at an average of 47.50 in the India leg of the tournament - and found himself out of India's T20 World Cup squad, with Varun Chakravarthy and Rahul Chahar - both quick, stump-to-stump - leapfrogging him in the selection queue.
But the setback only made Chahal stronger. Since the start of the UAE leg of the 2021 season, he has taken more wickets than anyone else in the IPL (58), and at a better average (17.94) than any of the other 16 bowlers with at least 30 wickets.
He has added new layers to his craft in that time, but at his core, he is the same bowler he has always been. At some point soon - quite likely Thursday night against Knight Riders - he will go past Bravo and become the IPL's leading wicket-taker, and remind everyone all over again that his style of wristspin is alive and well.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo