A couple of years ago, Yuzvendra Chahal found the world at his feet, until it was taken away – unceremoniously and harshly – in a split second. The Indian squad was announced for the 2021 T20 World Cup, and after having been among the first names on the team sheet for the last five years, Chahal was dropped.
That, the two spinners who were picked instead could not pick a solitary wicket, or the selectors’ seemingly unjustified justification of going for ‘spinners who bowl quick’, has been documented extensively.
What perhaps has not been, is how Chahal, sticking to the age-old adage of ‘control the controllables’, did not let an unforeseen setback affect his performance. He made a stellar comeback, one that saw him picking up 27 wickets in the next Indian Premier League (IPL) season, and subsequently, the purple cap for the first time in his career.
Another exclusion of the leg-spinner from a T20 World Cup squad would have been a mistake the Indian camp could ill afford to commit, but strangely enough, Chahal did not get a single game in the 2022 edition. Speaking exclusively to The Quint at the sidelines of the Red Bull Campus Cricket final, though, he claims to be the perfect team player – never thinking about individual goals, but relishing in the team’s success.
He also spoke about the upcoming busy schedule for the Indian cricket team, alongside his plans. Here are excerpts from the interview:
Yuzi, firstly, tell us about what you make of your performance in IPL 2023.
If you ask about my personal performance, I am very excited as I became the highest wicket-taker in IPL. It is obviously a great achievement for me, and I really enjoyed my performance this season.
You’re now the most successful bowler in a competition that is very harsh on the bowlers. Describe the feeling.
IPL is definitely the biggest tournament in the world. So, when you are in the number 1 spot, it is always a big achievement. I always love personal milestones, so this makes me happy, and makes me laugh. I really enjoy playing in the IPL. Especially, ever since I came to Rajasthan Royals, the last two years have been very good for me. I am enjoying bowling in the death overs, and it is helping me improve my bowling.
Tell us about how Sanju Samson is, as a captain.
I really enjoy playing under Sanju, he is a very calm captain. During IPL, I also said that Sanju has similarities to Mahi bhai (MS Dhoni). He is very cool on the field, he won’t shout at you even if you go for runs. No matter what, Sanju always backs his bowlers.
There have been a plethora of young Indian batters on display, two of them being from your team – Yashasvi Jaiswal and Dhruv Jurel. But if you are to pick a young Indian spinner who impressed you the most in IPL 2023, who would that be?
I was really impressed by Suyash Sharma (of Kolkata Knight Riders). If he works hard, I think he can be a big thing for Indian cricket. He has got a great googly, so when I met him, I told him to work on leg-spin more, because googlies come naturally to him. I like the way Suyash bowls.
For the Indian cricket team, the next few months will be crucial, with a couple of important tournaments – Asia Cup and World Cup – lined up. Have you set any personal targets for yourself?
It is not about setting personal targets. Before the World Cup, we will have a series against West Indies, and then the Asia Cup. If I perform well, I know I will get automatically get a chance to play in the World Cup. So, right now, my main focus is on the West Indies series.
How confident are you, currently, about getting selected for the World Cup squad?
I don’t think about selection that much. My job is to keep performing and doing well – selection is not in my hand. I just keep motivating myself, keep telling me ‘You did well, you are in great rhythm.’ I enjoy every moment of life, that’s it.
This edition of the World Cup will be played in India this time. The last time it was staged here, the men in blue became world champions. Do you think home advantage could be a big factor this time around as well?
Definitely. When you are playing in your home country, you know about the conditions, you have played so many matches in all of the different stadiums across the country. We know how the wickets will play here, so surely, it is a plus point for the hosts.
So, will it be justified to term India as the outright favourites for the title?
Surely. As I said, playing on home soil is a big plus point, because we know the conditions much better as compared to the other teams. Also, we have a really good team, and whenever we play a series at home, we dominate the opposition.
What do you reckon is India’s X-factor, which can set them apart from other title contenders like England and Australia?
I think our attitude is our X-factor. How the youngsters are coming and showing their talent, that could be a big factor for us.
Tell us about your experience with India’s new leadership group, headed by Rahul Dravid and Rohit Sharma.
I played under Rahul sir before he became the head coach of the national team, as when I was playing for India A, he was the coach. About Rohit bhaiya, I know him for a long time and we share a brotherhood relationship. He always gives you liberty about where to ball, and it is not just about cricket, as I can also discuss my personal life with him. He is like a big brother.
After not being selected for the 2021 T20 World Cup, you were not given a single opportunity in the last edition. Was that a difficult phase to deal with?
It was not like that, really. Cricket is not an individual game, it is a team sport. I had to understand which combinations worked best for the team. I was just happy to be a part of the T20 World Cup squad, it doesn’t matter whether I play or not because I only wanted the team to win. Even though I did not play, I got to share the dressing room with legends, and be in the nets with them.
Unfortunately, we lost in the semi-final, but it’s fine, losing is a part of the game. But not playing does not affect me, as I know my job is to perform whenever required, and I always think about what I can do for my team.
Tell us about the famous ‘KulCha’ partnership you share with Kuldeep Yadav.
Kuldeep was injured for a while, but since he came back, he has been bowling so well. Whenever I have played with Kuldeep, I have really enjoyed myself. We both have the same mindset – that is – to take wickets in the middle overs. We used to bowl ten overs in tandem during the middle phase, so even if we went for runs, our main target was to pick up wickets. So, both of our mindsets are always positive.
Talking about your bowling plans, we have seen plenty of spinners opt for the defensive route against the big hitters. They take their length back, and bowl more don’t-hit-me deliveries than hit-me-if-you-can deliveries. You belong to the exception assemblage, who still believes in offering the batters flight and luring them into going for the big hits. How you do garner the courage for that?
I always back my strength. My biggest strengths are varying my pace, varying my line and length, and I try to back it up. Of course, in some matches, I will go for runs, but my motive is always to take wickets. I know that if I get a batter out, the next batter will inevitably play a few dot balls.
I know that in white-ball cricket, you are bound to go for runs. But say, even if I concede 60-70 runs in an ODI game but pick up 3-4 wickets, it will be a great help for the team. So, my target is to pick wickets every time I bowl.
Your on-field persona is that of a happy-go-lucky, ever-smiling team player. Tell us about the behind-the-screens Yuzi.
When I am on the field, I am a different guy, but beyond cricket, you have another life. So off-the-field, I totally enjoy my personal life. I am the sort of person who doesn’t think about the future and loves to be in present, so whenever I am sitting with someone, say with family, I enjoy every moment of it.
Having been a victim of bullying in your early years in cricket, how are you making the dressing room a safe place for the youngsters, now that you are a senior player?
I talk to youngsters about their personal life, about how they started playing cricket. I try to gel with them – sit with them for dinners, and not talk too much about cricket but about the life beyond it. I ask them what they want to do, their future plans, and their family. This is just to make them relaxed, get them to open up.
What is your opinion about the Red Bull Campus Cricket tournament?
It has been a good journey for them, they started in 2010 and now it has been thirteen years. The likes of Dhruv Jurel, Ruturaj Gaikwad and KL Rahul. Red Bull and Rajasthan Royals are giving the youngsters a platform, they are coming here and enjoying every bit of this, so it is a good thing.