The old adage that ‘cricket is a batsman’s game’ seems apt for the modern era. With field restrictions galore and talented batsmen hitting scoops, sweeps and slogs to craft countless boundaries, bowlers are often little more than ‘whipping boys’ in ODIs.
In sync with this spirit, Rohit Sharma bagged the Man of the Match for his unbeaten century against South Africa in India’s World Cup opener. But most experts recognise that it’s India’s penetrative bowling that paved the way for a smooth win.
While Jasprit Bumrah’s initial spell rocked the Proteas, it was Yuzvendra Chahal who picked up most wickets, had a dream World Cup debut and now has the entire cricket world discussing how deeply wrist spin might impact World Cup 2019.
Chahal’s Crucial Spell
Chahal’s crucial spell – which saw him scalp four wickets – kept stifling the Proteas just when they were rebuilding after Bumrah’s early shocks. From his very first over, Chahal began asking tough questions – for which the South Africans had few answers.
Faf du Plessis and Rassie van der Dussen seemed clueless while attempting to read Chahal. One may argue that his first scalp, Dussen, was an error of judgement in shot-making from the batsman himself. But it was Chahal’s drift that started from outside the off stump, landed on the leg and turned to hit the middle stump that out-foxed Dussen. This was soon followed by the prized scalp of captain du Plessis who failed to spot Chahal’s straighter one. From the other end, his partner in crime, Kuldeep Yadav soon snared JP Duminy with a quicker one.
Just as another partnership threatened to take South Africa to safety, Chahal returned to get rid of Miller and Phehlukwayo. The duo had tried to rebuild with a 46-run stand for the sixth wicket when Chahal once again gave India a double breakthrough. While Chris Morris took the score to some respectability , the back of South African batting was effectively broken by ‘Kul-Cha’, as the Kuldeep-Chahal duo is popularly known.
Chahal’s Dream Debut Triggers a Big Question – Will Wrist Spin Dominate World Cup?
As his drift and dip scalped four Proteas batsmen, Chahal became the first Indian spinner since Kumble in 2003 World Cup to take 4 wickets in an innings in a World Cup encounter and his 4-51 spell is the second best bowling debut by any Indian in the World Cup. His masterly and miserly spell has made everyone sit up and take notice. Until now most were arguing that pace bowling would have an upper hand in England but many now realise the crucial role that wrist spinners could play in this World Cup.
Wrist Spinners – Crucial Weapons for All World Cup Teams
Almost all teams have a wrist spinner in their ranks and fittingly, the first wicket in World Cup 2019 was scalped by Imran Tahir, the South African leg-spinner. In fact, the number of leggies in 2019 is far greater than just the two in World Cup 2015 – Imran Tahir and Yasir Shah from Pakistan. If the Proteas have veteran Tahir, the Aussies have the young Adam Zampa.
England, of course, are playing Adil Rashid in every match in recent years. Ever since he was recalled after being ignored for the 2015 World Cup, Rashid has been one of the highest wicket-takers for England in ODIs. If Adil’s resurrection is a remarkable story, Rashid Khan’s exploits for Afghanistan and in the IPL are the stuff of folklore. Similarly, 20-year-old Shadab Khan is a vital member of the Pakistan attack whose bundle of tricks have scalped 47 wickets in 34 games at just a bit over 29.
And for India, Chahal and Kuldeep have been crucial cogs in the team’s dominance in ODIs in the last two years. Given their joint success, the wrist-spinning duo bagged the highest number of wickets in India’s demolition of South Africa in South Africa last year; the spin twins were also critical to the victories in Australia and New Zealand.
Resurgence of Leggies in ODIs
The current proliferation of leggies is in marked contrast to their scarcity just a decade back. After T20 cricket began, many were worried that wrist spinners may soon have no role left, especially since Kumble and Warne were then just finishing their legendary careers. But leggies have re-asserted themselves in recent years. Ironically, the advent of the shortest format also brought in a reincarnation of wrist spinners.
As techniques for batsmen began to falter in an attempt to muscle the ball away, coaches began realising the benefits of having wrist spinners in their squad. Besides being an attacking option, they also help to restrict the run rate in the crucial middle overs of the game. Spinners today may not be turning the ball like their predecessors but they are certainly accurate with their line and length and as crafty as the best in the past!
Reasons for Success of Wrist Spin in ODIs
Several key reasons could make wrist spinners the stand out performers in this World Cup. While everyone is excited about the initial bounce and seam that English pitches are offering, they will become drier as the tournament progresses, bringing spinners more into the equation.
Also, irrespective of whether pitches are flat or assisting seam movement, wrist spinners , as the name suggests , use their wrists to impart revolutions on the ball which is far more than a finger spinner can offer. Thus, even on a flat deck it is more difficult to play, for instance, a Chahal than a Jadeja.
Moreover, batsman around the world have found it hard to read spin from the hands and it is extremely tricky to tackle it off the pitch. For non-subcontinental batsmen, the situation is more precarious as they employ their favourite shot, the sweep against spinners. But with wrist spin, there is more turn and bounce which can induce false shots and top edges that culminate in wickets.
‘Kul-Cha’ May Tilt the World Cup India’s Way?
In sum, Chahal’s very, very special spell has caught the attention of Cricket cognoscenti and made wrist spin the most talked about issue in the cricketing fraternity. Although big bats and big scores often dominate ODIs, experts believe that teams with better bowlers will eventually excel at the World Cup. Given the current lack of pace and swing in dry English conditions, chances of wrist spinners doing well seem pretty bright. In Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, India have two wrist spinners of high quality who form a potent partnership. If wrist spin proves to be a major, possibly decisive facet, the spin-twins may well be the X-factor that tilts the World Cup towards India!
(The author is a veteran journalist, and expert on Rajasthan politics, who served as a Resident Editor at NDTV. He is currently a professor of journalism at the University of Rajasthan, and head of department of mass communication. He tweets at @rajanmahan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)