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DID INDIA ERR BY DROPPING YUZVENDRA CHAHAL?

While the spinner who replaced him in India’s World Cup squad, Rahul Chahar, has been benched, Chahal is the IPL’s leading slow bowler.

Yuzvendra Chahal World Cup
Yuzvendra Chahal has been instrumental in RCB's progress to the IPL playoffs. (Credit: BCCI/IPL)

Last month, When India’s selectors announced the squad for the 2021 ICC T20 World Cup, to be held in the UAE from October 23, one missing name, more than any other, elicited widespread surprise. It was that of wristspinner Yuzvendra Chahal, for several years the go-to spinner for India and Royal Challengers Bangalore captain Virat Kohli.

With Chahal and fellow wrist-spinner axed from India’s T20I squad for the World Cup, the selection committee and think-tank opted for leggie Rahul Chahar and all-sorts spinner Varun Chakvavarthy.

Ostensibly, the selectors debated over Chahal and Chahar. And where the senior spinner lost out, prima facie, are his stats playing for India from the start of 2020 until the time the squad was named on September 8. In 2020, playing T20Is for India, Chahal took seven wickets in nine matches while striking every 30 balls and conceding 9.05 run an over. This year, he has managed four wickets at 34.50 apiece from four T20Is, while conceding runs at 8.62 per over. These are his stats in T20Is, the yardstick by which a bowler of his pedigree is rightfully judged.

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However, during the 2020 IPL held in the UAE, Chahal took 21 wickets from 15 games with an economy of 7.08 and strike-rate of 16.3. And now, he’s having a grand time in the UAE again for RCB. Which makes his axing from the T20 World Cup, to be played in these same conditions, somewhat puzzling, even accounting for a lean first half of IPL 2021 in India.

When naming India’s T20 World Cup squad, chief selector Chetan Sharma cited the need for speed. That is, a legspinner who bowls quicker, such as Chahar, who has enjoyed success for Mumbai Indians over the past few IPL editions. The logic did not exactly settle well with cricket pundits and fans, and talk, naturally, centred around how Chahal would respond once the IPL resumed in the UAE. Since then, he has been outstanding, taking the most wickets by a spinner in this leg of the tournament: 12 at 14 runs apiece, economy 6.46, strike-rate 13.

And, of course, the chorus for India to add Chahal into their T20 World Cup squad has loudened.

Yuzvendra Chahal IPL 2021
Chahal’s spell of 2/18 helped bowl RCB to victory over Rajasthan Royals. (Credit: BCCI/IPL)

Key to note here is how big a role Chahal had in RCB’s run of three successive wins to clinch passage to the IPL playoffs. In each match, his introduction turned matters RCB’s way. Against Mumbai Indians, the defending champions were 56 for no loss at the end of the Powerplay block when Kohli brought on Chahal. His 3/11 from four overs proved massive in RCB’s win.

Against Rajasthan Royals, Chahal was delayed until the 11th over at which stage the score was 91/1 and his 2/18 again slowed down the opponents. And then versus Punjab Kings, who were 49 for no loss, Chahal turned the innings from the seventh over with three wickets.

What is this turnaround in performances attributed to?

For starters, Chahal has been landing the ball in all the right areas, a facet which had gone missing during the first half of IPL 2021 in India. Time off from the game has allowed him opportunities to work on his bowling, and being dropped from India’s T20 World Cup squad has served, no doubt, as added fuel for Chahal to prove a point to the selectors. His assessment of opposition batsmen’s strengths and weaknesses has been clinical in the second leg of the IPL, which has resulted in wickets whenever RCB have needed them.

Virat Kohli Yuzvendra Chahal RCB
Virat Kohli and Chahal celebrate a wicket during the UAE leg of IPL 2021. (Credit: BCCI/IPL)

Chahal’s accuracy, too, has reaped Chahal the rewards in the UAE. The hit-me balls and half-trackers have almost disappeared, and batsmen have had to take more chances against Chahal.

Then, crucially, there is the general slowness of the UAE pitches. Where it was widely predicted that quicker and skiddier legspinners such as Chahar and Rashid Khan would succeed, Chahal has underlined the value of slower, loopier deliveries. And this is largely because of how tacky the surfaces have been, in particular the rather poor Sharjah surface of late. That extra moment which Chahal’s deliveries often hang in the air have proved lethal as well, as Quinton de Kock, Ishan Kishan and Kieron Pollard found out in a crushing 54-run loss.

With wickets has come confidence and Chahal has, simply, gone back to being Kohli’s go-to man for wickets alongside the Purple Cap holder, Harshal Patel.

Rahul Chahar IPL 2021
Rahul Chahar took 11 wickets for Mumbai Indians during the first half of IPL 2021. (Credit: BCCI/IPL)

In contrast, Chahar has been a disappointment for defending champions Mumbai in the UAE leg of IPL 2021. After four matches from which he managed two wickets, Chahar was dropped from Mumbai’s 11 and has not played since September 28. He will head into the T20 World Cup low on confidence, one suspects, but certainty low on match practice.

The BCCI selectors have until October 10 to finalise India’s squad, and despite his resurgence in the UAE it is unlikely that Chahal will be swapped with Chahar, who ticked every box needed for selection. Chahar is a young, energetic and smart legspinner with years ahead of him, so it would be grossly unfair to drop him from the squad. In Chahal and Chakravarthy, plus the in-form Axar Patel (nine wickets in the UAE leg of IPL 2021, economy 6.04, strike-rate 15.3), R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, India will go into the World Cup with five very good spinners. There is no debating that.

But given Chahal’s current form and success in the UAE, something says that India may have missed a trick.

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