Spinners the Bone of Contention as India Gear for T20 World Cup
Spare for Jadeja who is assured of a slot, the composition of India’s spin pantheon remains a work in progress.
Shikhar Dhawan’s rejuvenated avatar and the sonic boom of Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan has put the brakes on India’s batting merry-go-round in the T20 format, but the same can hardly be said about the spin department, which effectively remains the only cause of concern with the T20 World Cup approaching near. The tour of Sri Lanka, where India will be sending a second-string squad as the big guns are away on England duty, is a litmus test for the bunch of spinners auditioning for the marquee event.
Ravindra Jadeja is clearly the odd one out of India’s current crop of spinners. Although his recent bowling form has not been at its parsimonious best, the multi-faceted lynchpin glides into the playing eleven on the virtue of being an X-factor player. However, the fact that just a singular box has been ticked so far and the rest of the slots are still up for grabs makes for a worrying line in the captain and coach’s forehead.
The good ol’ days when Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal took the field as India’s spin titans seem like an eternity ago. Since 2020, they have leaked more than nine runs per over in the slam-bang version of the game. Washington Sundar and Krunal Pandya have blown a bit too hot and cold for India’s liking, with spells of steady, sustained competence punctuated by a horror outing where they find themselves at the mercy of the pinch-hitting behemoths.
Fresh off IPL glory, a couple of newbies have thrown their hats into the ring as well. Varun Chakravarthy and Rahul Tewatia flouted fitness parameters and hence, await their maiden caps and with it a chance to prove their mettle. The fact that the duo couldn’t leap over the athletic hurdles has left the door ajar for a wild-card entry of a certain Ravichandran Ashwin, who reckons he has a ‘realistic’ shot at the T20 World Cup. To add to the environs of healthy competition, Rahul Chahar is hot on the heels of Chahal, with the senior counterpart woefully losing the plot of late.
As India aim to fit the jigsaw pieces in the island, The Quint inspects with a magnifying lens the track record of each and every candidate in the reckoning for a berth on the T20 World Cup roster.
Chahal’s career graph can be split into two halves, the former plush with revs, rip and reward while the latter painting a sorry picture of fruitless drudgery and skyscraping economies, with the onset of 2019 being the tipping point.
Having erected his empire on the pillars of flight and deception, Chahal prized out 44 T20I wickets in the time frame between his debut in 2016 to 2019, the third-most during the period, in 27 innings at 18.88 and economy rate of 7.82. He often waged a lone war for Royal Challengers Bangalore, arresting 47 wickets in 40 innings at 23.3 and an economy rate of 7.69. The carrot was dangled mischievously as Chahal looped it up, inviting batsmen to take the aerial route only to witness them falling for the bait.
However, Chahal's efficacy went on a downward spiral from 2019 onwards. To put things into perspective, he managed a mere 18 T20I wickets in the last 21 innings at 41.7 and a baffling economy of 9.15. His wicket tally was confined to four wickets in seven games for RCB at 47.5 and an economy rate of 8.26.
It isn’t rocket science to fathom the crux behind Chahal’s plummeting returns as he has drifted away from his modus operandi of giving the ball plenty of air and is bowling at a much flatter trajectory instead. Let alone serving its purpose of run curtailment, the newfangled method has all but rendered Chahal ineffective as batsmen lick their lips at the sight of zipping pace and negligible turn, easy fodder to rotate strike and milk boundaries at will.
Parking the rough patch aside for a moment, what works immensely in Chahal’s favour is his wealth of experience. World Cups are serious business and India would think twice before throwing a young Turk into the deep end. The T20 extravaganza is a red-hot pressure cooker that spares none, and you need an ice-cool head on your shoulders to come through in the clutch. Having featured in 102 white-ball internationals and been a vital cog of India’s attack in the 2019 World Cup, Chahal holds the wood over any of the rookies in the pecking order.
Kuldeep has been sailing in the same boat as of Chahal. His guile reaped a huge harvest of 45 wickets from 2018 in 19 ODI games till the 2019 World Cup - the second-highest by any bowler. He also had two hat-tricks to his credit and held the record of being the fastest Indian to the 100-wicket milestone. Kuldeep’s economy rate of a nudge above 6 in the interim is a bright testimonial of how batsmen grappled to read his variations as he eked out 23 wickets in 19 matches at a strike rate of 10. Though, akin to the nosedive of partner-in-crime Chahal, the chinaman has since then seen his fortunes decay down the rabbit hole of despair.
Post the cricketing carnival in England, Kuldeep has made it to the team sheet in an exigent three T20Is whilst splurging runs at 10.37 an over. He has meandered to the wayside in the one-dayers as well, having played 12 games in the last two years with a bowling average of 58.41. The flames were fanned with Kuldeep enduring a lukewarm season for Kolkata Knight Riders in IPL 2020. His figures read a solitary wicket in five games, an average of 92 and an economy rate of 7.66. He spent the 2021 edition carrying refreshments, warming the bench even on rank turners like Chepauk. The prevailing notion was that Kuldeep’s chicanery had been found out in the wake of video footage and he was no longer the wristy wizard he used to be.
Kuldeep’s abrupt snub from the scene is a gentle reminder of the holy gospel of sport, either perform or perish. It would be misplaced optimism to say that he can crack it in the T20 team but then, cricket has never failed to spring a surprise. Who knows, a feast on the dustbowls of Sri Lanka and Kuldeep could bounce back into the thick of things.
Off-spinners are often dismissed as sitting ducks in T20 cricket but Washington Sundar has proved an emphatic aberration to that school of thought. He is not only a tidy customer in the PowerPlays but a fine momentum-arrester in the middle overs, bowling in nifty channels with frequent alterations of pace to keep a tight lid on the scoreboard.
Sundar’s economy of 7.24 in 31 T20Is and 6.93 in 42 IPL jousts is what helps the tweaker rise above the rest. Dot balls are a big no-no and as the pressure mounts manifold, Sundar is gifted wickets on a platter. He has strangled many a swashbuckler to clinch 27 wickets in IPL history and 25 in the international T20 arena. Both while donning the national blues and the golden-reds of Royal Challengers Bangalore, Sundar has irrevocably been the man for the job.
Sundar is far from a mug with the bat and his all-around utility is the reason behind him being a frontrunner in the race for spinner selections for the T20 World Cup. Opportunities to show his willow’s sparkle have been as scarce as a hen’s teeth when turning up for India, although Sundar couldn’t channelize his left-handed flair when promoted to the top-order by the RCB think-tank in the now-suspended IPL 2021. He would be rueing the missed avenues to stake a strong claim for the forthcoming World Cup, given India’s affinity for batting depth. Albeit, such is Sundar’s grasp over the off-spinning trade that he could well be slotted into the squad as a specialist itself.
Krunal Pandya is the definition of a new-age cricketer. A whole-hearted contributor who adds value to the team on all three fronts. He isn’t averse to experimentation, always exploring the tricks up his sleeve to get an edge over the opposition, so much so that he hasn’t shied from giving the bouncer a go. He cops failure on the chin and works assiduously hard to improve and reinvent his skill every day. There are little to no nerves about his presence on the park, evident from the blistering fifty he smoked against England in what was a dream ODI debut.
It would be foolhardy to swipe Krunal’s mildly irritating economy of 8.11 under the carpet but the elder Pandya brother has had a knack of providing breakthroughs with regular uniformity. For instance, the four-wicket haul with which he spurred a mini-collapse versus Australia, his victims comprising dangermen Aaron Finch and Glenn Maxwell. His skiddy, stump-to-stump operation puts biffers in a spot of bother as cross-batted agricultural lofts are taken out of the equation. Krunal has also mastered the art of delivering inch-perfect tramline yorkers, that are worth their weight in gold towards the fag end of the innings when the bat swing naturally targets the mid-wicket fence.
Pandya’s multi-dimensional prowess lends him the upper hand over lesser-abled batsmen of the ilk of Kuldeep and Chahal. The southpaw is more than capable of filing the lower-order flourishes in the esteemed company of Jadeja and Hardik Pandya. The dovetailing of smart services from the bat and ball in Sri Lanka will set the stamp of approval on Krunal’s candidacy in India’s T20 World Cup contingent.
The meteoric rise of Tamil Nadu’s Varun Chakravarthy can be attributed to his roots to a rare breed of bowling resources, namely mystery spinners. The Punjab Kings’ scouts had an eye on him as he went about bamboozling batsmen for fun in the local T20 leagues, and became an overnight sensation when he was netted by the franchise for an earth-shattering INR 8.4 crore at the auctions prior to IPL 2019. However, it was his switch to Kolkata Knight Riders in the next season that shot him to fame as he trapped 17 wickets at an average of 20.94, with a 5-wicket haul against Delhi Capitals earmarking his arrival.
Varun’s surge into the limelight had its share of downsides. His body was barely accustomed to the rigours of top-flight cricket and snapped at the most crucial juncture of his career. Thrifty performances in IPL 2020 and the domestic grind won him a maiden India call-up for the tour of Australia but a shoulder injury dashed his ambitions of representing the country.
Life threw a second wind at Varun as he was picked for the home T20Is against England but he flunked the mandatory Yo-Yo test and was resigned to a similar fate. The board places emphasis on supreme physical fitness levels and the jury is out on whether Varun will be considered any further for selection after coming a cropper on several occasions. If the answer is yes, in the best-case scenario, his medley of variations can give the rivals a run for their money.
Rahul Chahar is the latest kid on the block as India dig deep into their spin-bowling reserves to settle the pack. Having plied his craft against batting beasts such as Rohit Sharma, Kieron Pollard, Quinton de Kock and Hardik in the Mumbai Indians’ nets, Chahar has conquered the fear of being clobbered. The wiry leggie sticks to his guns even when pitted against a man of brute force trying to take him to the cleaners.
He tosses the ball up with a heart of steel, enticing the batsmen into miscued hoicks at their own peril. It is on the foundation of this courageous attitude that Chahar has pocketed 41 wickets in 38 IPL games at an economy of 7.41.
Chahar would look forward to picking the brains of the seasoned stalwart Chahal, whose spot he is gunning for in the first place. The junior contender brings the exuberance of youth while Chahal can boast of sharper game awareness, having been there and done that for an extended period of time. Who between the two tweakers will make the cut for the T20 World Cup? The Sri Lanka tour should be able to shed light on that dilemma.
Ravi Ashwin has made his aspirations crystal clear about playing the T20 World Cup, but the more pertinent question is are the takers ready to budge. Skipper Virat Kohli blew a gasket when quizzed in a press conference if Ashwin could be in line for a return to coloured clothing. He responded, a tad agitatedly, that there isn't any room for the offie in the team, as Sundar, a bowler of the same prototype, is sufficing the need and unless he endures a drastic dip in form in the near future, Ashwin will stay surplus to requirements.
However, just in case India shed their conservatism and look at Ashwin as a left-field option, his inclusion has its own slew of pros. For starters, in a positive frame of mind after the series victories over Australia and England, navigating from the purest format to the capsule-sized cauldron will not be a hassle for the off-spinning giant. That he wrapped off IPL 2019 with 13 wickets in 15 matches is proof enough that the fire is burning in his belly.
Ashwin fit the bill in India’s T20 template before the fabled Kul-Cha union transpired and eventually drew curtains on his white-ball journey. Five years ago, in the quarter-final of the T20 World Cup against Bangladesh, which India won by a run, the veteran chalked up 2/20 at an economy of 5 when most of his colleagues, except Jadeja, went above 7.
Equally important were his exploits in the rain-truncated final of the 2013 Champions Trophy, wherein India came up roses in the reduced 20-over match. Ashwin tied one end with 2/15 in his four overs, slipping through a maiden while having Jonathan Trott stumped and Joe Root chopping onto his sticks. His phenomenal evolution over the years has earned him repute as the shrewdest cricketing brain going around on the globe. Ashwin's acumen and tactical nous would do India’s spin arsenal a world of good heading into the high-stakes affair.
Rahul Tewatia kicked up a storm with his blinder of a cameo that powered Rajasthan Royals home from an improbable plateau. He belted Sheldon Cottrell for five sixes in an over to pull off a mesmerizing miracle. It was his secondary suit that catapulted him to prominence, but Tewatia had also quietly captured 10 wickets at economy of just over 7 during the Dubai stint of the cash-rich league. His dual-natured pyrotechnics were too tempting to resist for the selection panel and the all-rounder was awarded his maiden ODI call-up for the England T20Is.
Alas, the fitness trial proved a major stumbling block for Tewatia and he couldn’t realize his vision despite coming within touching distance of an India debut. Clouds of uncertainty loom large over his availability and the ball is in the management’s court to take the final call. If, and that’s a big if, Tewatia manages to breach the benchmark and is allowed to participate, his talent could broaden India’s horizons and optimize the squad balance a great deal.
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