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ICC World Cup 2019: Yuzvendra Chahal - Thinks like a chess player, spins it like a wizard

On the day of India’s opening game of the World Cup, Chahal’s brain coached Chahal’s wrist to bend, fold, flip and turn the ball in mesmeric ways.

cricket Updated: Jun 07, 2019 16:02 IST
Aditya Iyer (Chief Cricket Writer)
Aditya Iyer (Chief Cricket Writer)
Hindustan Times, Southampton
ICC World Cup 2019,Yuzvendra Chahal,India vs Australia World Cup 2019
India's Yuzvendra Chahal (R) celebrates with teammates after dismissing South Africa's Rassie van der Dussen for 22 during the 2019 Cricket World Cup group stage match between South Africa and India at the Rose Bowl in Southampton, southern England, on June 5, 2019. (AFP)

Around his bony arms, Yuzvendra Chahal wears those elbow-skins that only men with terrific triceps do. It looks odd, for Chahal does not have protruding muscles. But he does have a wonderful wrist that deserves to be protected in cotton wool, or whatever material elbow-skins are made of. He also has a bowling brain that thinks in chess terms.

On the day of India’s opening game of the World Cup, Chahal’s brain coached Chahal’s wrist to bend, fold, flip and turn the ball in mesmeric ways. The South Africans didn’t stand a chance. Chahal dismissed Rassie van der Dussen, Faf du Plessis, David Miller and Andile Phehlukwayo, in that order. Apart from Phehlukwayo, who was beaten by the turn and stumped by MS Dhoni, everyone else was dismissed by Chahal without any help from his friends. Van der Dussen and du Plessis were bowled at either end of his second over and Miller was caught and bowled. This Chahal achieved by targeting plenty of balls at the stumps. While the van der Dussen dismissal looked spectacular (a reverse sweep gone wrong, bowled around his legs), it was the du Plessis dismissal that gave Chahal most joy.

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“I loved the manner in which I dismissed Faf,” Chahal said at the mixed zone after the match. “Since I was getting my deliveries to drift, I planned bowling a slider on off-stump and he didn’t read it.”

Chahal said that the du Plessis wicket wasn’t just a set-up from a few balls earlier, but was in planning days in advance.

“When you play chess, you normally plan 15 to 16 moves in advance. Ditto when you bowl to a player like Faf, you need to plan whether to bowl a googly or a flipper, which are the deliveries they are picking and the ones they can’t pick. Chess has taught me patience and planning.”

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Spin bowlers are often compared to chess players, but with Chahal this connection is real. Growing up, he used his now million-dollar right wrist to move plastic bishops and knights on chess boards. A junior all-India chess champ, Chahal was one sponsorship deal away from making the board game his life (he is still listed on World Chess Federation’s rankings page, currently the 1733rd best player in India). He found no investors, so Chahal resigned his pencil-thin physique to bowling leg spin. But in the state of Haryana, this decision turned out to be yet another dead end.

Playing their Ranji Trophy home games on the green top of Lahli, Haryana often had space only for one spinner in the team. And that spinner was Amit Mishra, captain of Haryana and the Indian team’s go-to leg spinner since Anil Kumble’s retirement.

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With his first-class career going nowhere, Chahal shifted his focus to T20 cricket. The franchise that gave him his big break in the IPL happened to be Royal Challengers Bangalore, Virat Kohli’s team. And it was here where Kohli instilled in Chahal a sense of fearlessness. ‘Don’t worry if you get hit for boundaries in your quota of four overs’, Chahal was repeatedly told by his captain, ‘but never stop attacking for wickets’.

So, unlike other defence-minded T20 spinners who were trained to save runs with flat, rocketing deliveries, Chahal learned to float the ball up in high pressure situations. Sometimes he got hit. But always he picked wickets. And in just his sixth T20 for India, in February last year, Chahal had figures of 6/25—the best by any bowler except Sri Lanka’s Ajantha Mendis.

Then came the tour of South Africa last year, where he teamed up with Kuldeep Yadav for the first time for an entire ODI series. When the six matches concluded, Chahal and Kuldeep had taken 33 wickets between them; 16 for Chahal and 17 for India’s first chinaman bowler. Like most supercouples, they too gained a portmanteau: Kulcha.

In this age of big bats and small boundaries, and in a series in which Kohli alone made 558 runs (the most runs by an individual in a bilateral series) it made for incredible viewing. “Bowling in these conditions and making breakthroughs like we haven’t seen before, it’s outstanding to see two guys just totally spinning a web around the opposition. There doesn’t seem to be a way out at all. It’s unbelievable. Outstanding. I don’t have words to explain this,” Kohli had said then, before adding “Having seen them in these conditions now and the fact that we are going to play the World Cup away from home, I think [they] are going to be the massive X-factor for us.”

They were, with Kuldeep in a supporting role to Wednesday’s tiny action-hero.

First Published: Jun 07, 2019 15:10 IST