Kuldeep Yadav-Yuzvendra Chahal repaying India's leap of faith
13 wickets in two matches so far, the leggies have posed questions which cannot be fathomed by the hosts.
Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.
Back in June 2017, India were annihilated in the Champions Trophy final by a resurgent Pakistan. There was a sense of disbelief, there was a sense of scepticism, there were plenty of questions thrown towards the team. Careers hinged on mere faith, there was no belief, it was hollow faith!
Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, two blokes who meandered through their ODI careers, two blokes who were match-winners in Tests, were just not finding enough to repay the faith imposed on them!
416 runs conceded, five wickets taken, 83.2 overs bowled. They were lost, Indian selectors had enough, they were now shunted aside and finally, India recognized the importance of wicket-taking abilities. They drafted in leg spinners, a rare commodity yes, but then India were looking elsewhere all this while. Not anymore said the selectors!
In walked Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal and probably defined how failures can actually be a success if someone is willing to derive lessons from it.
And this has sparked a renaissance in India’s limited-overs fortunes. Bereft of any mystery, Ashwin and Jadeja were reduced to cannon fodder in coloured clothing, more so when the pitches were flat and devoid of any assistance.
This is perhaps where leg spin leapt into prominence, it is mysterious, it is beautiful, it demands attention, and amidst all the façade it also wins you matches!
When cricket is often compared with life, people giggle because they are not sure what it actually means!
And then when we sit back and ponder, we realise that perhaps the oldest and most pertinent emotion which has always crippled mankind is fear, the fear of the unknown.
Perhaps this is why leg-spin is rare; it is beautiful, it is unknown, it is what batsmen quietly fear.
India had two of them in their arsenal. They decided to give them a go, not in isolation, but together, and such is cricket (read life) that this unknown fear resulted in rewards for Virat Kohli’s new brand.
For all the appreciation MS Dhoni has so richly deserved, he was a very rigid captain, stoic in his approach, never tinkering with his combination, instead willing to bide his time and hope for results.
Not Kohli. The brash man is the tinker man in cricket. He is restless in many ways and keeps fiddling with his team. Out went Ashwin, and Jadeja, in came Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal. Dhoni would have waited for a longer time. Kohli considered this wait as time wasted.
Six months at home, when his team was bulldozing opponents for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, his leg-spinning combination combined to weave a web around opponents.
The middle phase in ODI cricket might appear to be mundane from the outside, but this is the phase when the outcome of matches are moulded.
And this is where Ashwin and Jadeja were not helping; they bowled flat to contain the run scoring, and in the process, forgot about taking wickets.
Result: runs were never plugged and wickets were like petty drops on parched terrain!
This was not acceptable to Kohli, and when he unleashed Chahal and Kuldeep he wanted to win this middle phase, he wanted to boss this period and win matches here.
The young men responded beautifully over the last six months – they have scalped 51 wickets in 20 ODIs so far. It is hence not surprising that when wickets kept tumbling they also managed to curb the runs; it is also not surprising that Kohli has controlled the matches and has gone on to win a major chunk of them.
But such performances came at home, and although the pitches were placid surfaces, the stigma which refuses to leave India’s corner sprung up again – how would they perform when they travelled overseas?
When the diminutive Chahal was introduced in Durban, South Africa were fairly comfortable at 49 for one. The leggie settled into his groove and when Kuldeep joined him from the other end, the plot soured for the hosts.
They combined to pick five wickets, gave away runs at a frugal economy rate of 3.95 and allowed Kohli to control the middle overs again!
"I think they stunned South Africa a bit. A few of these batsmen might have played them in the IPL, but not all of them. Regular wickets didn't help, especially when they got the two lefthanders,” Neil McKenzie, former player and batting coach of South Africa assessed.
The caravan rolled on to SuperSport Park in Centurion, but the template remained the same; such was the muddle in the mind of the hosts that in the pursuit of trying to dominate their Achilles heel, they forgot how to survive!
Quinton de Kock pulled one long hop to deep mid-wicket, Aiden Markram replicated the same stroke to a similar ball from Kuldeep Yadav.
David Miller prodded forward and looked to do something very basic, but the ball turned a smidgen, kissed the edge and was snapped up by Ajinkya Rahane at first slip.
Faith was imposed on the batting, but belief eluded them.
Chahal was bouncing in from the other end chucking in leg-spin, top-spinners, googlies and the slider. He was now showing off, the plethora of tricks made for great television while South African batting’s befuddlement made for an abject dressing room. The shock in the crowd made for another vindication of this reawakening ushered in by India, albeit quite late!
The right-arm leggie picked up his maiden five-wicket haul, the left-arm leggie got his quota of three wickets, South Africa got bundled out for 118.
"Great feeling. My first five-for in ODIs. And obviously, when you perform well for your country, it's a good feeling. The wicket, when I bowled my first ball, there was grip on the wicket. So the idea was to vary pace, bowl faster, and other times bowl fuller and make him come forward. This was a really good wicket [for me[. The captain always backs me up, even Mahi bhai. I've played some matches as well, I'm confident," Chahal exuded after his efforts.
Even the words uttered have been eerily similar from both the bowlers!
"To be fair, Indian wickets are more batsman-friendly. Here, I found the pitch was taking some turn, and there was wind as well which helped me in drifting the ball. Scoring runs was not easy," Kuldeep assessed after the first match.
The chemistry they enjoy on the field is palpable; always in each other’s ears, speaking about their craft, honing their skills and enjoying each other’s success.
There is chutzpah in their spunkiness, there is an inherent sense of freedom, but then there is also the skill and mastery over the trade.
They differ in the way they approach their respective bowling. Chahal, a product of the T20 breed, bullish in his thinking, not worried about getting hit, focuses on outwitting his adversaries.
Kuldeep is a throwback to the good old days of leg-spinners, when craft was all about giving revs to the ball, flighting it above the eye line of the batsmen, getting it to dip and then making it break away after pitching. He is all about flair; the art of spin bowling!
They are different, and yet when they combine they complete the jigsaw puzzle, the very puzzle which remained a mystery when India were blanked in South Africa in 2013.
Back then, Dhoni’s trusted aides, R Ashwin and R Jadeja, claimed two wickets in three matches at an appalling average of 180.5.
Two matches into the series this time around and India are bossing it, leading 2-0. Chahal-Kuldeep, the trump cards, having picked up 13 wickets, is already a marked improvement.
And, hey, they are doing it in South Africa, if this is a solace!