With the Indian cricket team playing a large number of One Day Internationals in preparation for the 2019 Cricket World Cup, The Field will take a look at a significant talking point about how the squad is shaping up after specific milestones. In the second part of the series, the focus is on Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav and Axar Patel, the new spin kids on the block who have replaced Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja and are here to stay.
Some time during the second day’s play of the third Test between India and Sri Lanka in Pallekele, the BCCI announced the ODI and T20I squad for the second leg of that tour. Two names – Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja – were conspicuously absent from that 15-member squad.
Suddenly, Hardik Pandya’s swashbuckling maiden Test hundred that day became secondary news. Instead, India’s recent spin statistics were more relevant. Sample this. In the Champions Trophy England (in June), Ashwin took 1-167 in 29 overs across three matches. Ravindra Jadeja took 4-249 in 42 overs across five matches.
In nine ODIs in 2017, Ashwin returned only eight wickets at average 53.75 against England at home, West Indies away, plus Champions Trophy. His ODI career average is 32.91. Alternately, in 10 ODIs in 2017, in all of those same series, Jadeja took eight wickets at average 60.12, again higher than his ODI career average of 35.87.
Clearly, something was amiss but the squad announcement in Sri Lanka was not even the first pointer. That had come across a couple months earlier, post the loss to Pakistan in the Champions Trophy final. During the ODI series in West Indies, Virat Kohli made a strategic shift – left-arm leg spinner Kuldeep Yadav played all five matches with Ashwin and Jadeja playing three and two respectively. Not many realised at that time, but it was the first marker for India’s current tilt towards wrist-spin in limited-overs’ cricket.
Sitting in a dimly lit media-briefing room in Pallekele, chief selector MSK Prasad gave a clear outline to this plan going ahead. “We have identified a set of players who will be considered for the next four-years months and arrive at a picture that these are the players who will go on to play in the 2019 World Cup. For this process, we will be resting some of our main players and see how the youngsters do,” he had said.
And so, Ashwin and Jadeja were consigned to rest from international cricket. It opened up an opportunity for the former to go and play County cricket. The latter waited for the domestic season to come around, whilst playing intermittently in local tournaments. Sure, it doesn’t necessarily fit into the definition of ‘rest’ when the concerned cricketers are still playing actively.
However, that is not the underlying point, but this is. In the last four months that Ashwin and Jadeja were away from the Men in Blue, a distinctive strike-force has emerged in the guise of Yuzvendra Chahal (21 wickets in 14 matches at avg. 28.57), Kuldeep Yadav (22 wickets in 14 matches at average. 24.77) and Axar Patel (10 wickets in 8 matches at average. 35.20). They are the new spin kids on the block, and are here to stay.
For the trio, this journey to international cricket has a common denominator – the Indian Premier League, albeit they took different paths to this similar destination.
For Yadav, it was about sitting on the talent-rich Kolkata Knight Riders’ bench. He made more of a mark in the 2016 Duleep Trophy, and got a ticket to the Test squad against Australia.
Word is, he almost made his Test debut on the flat-track at Ranchi but had to wait further until Dharamala. There he bamboozled Australia, and the rest is history. For someone who had to be patient for opportunities for so long, Yadav then debuted across all formats for India within four months. Clearly, ‘chinaman’ is the future.
“I think there are a lot more chinaman bowlers nowadays. When I started out, there were hardly any around. Now you go to any cricket academy and you will easily see 8-10 left arm leg spinners in the nets. It is a happy feeling that people have recognised this skill,” Yadav said, with spunk that is ordinarily missing in seasoned international cricketers.
For Chahal, it was a bit more straightforward. In the IPL, he played with Virat Kohli and this relationship has been symbiotic from the very beginning. It didn’t come as a surprise to Chahal, by his own admission, when picked ahead of Amit Mishra on T20I debut in Kanpur (February 2017). Within a week, he was bamboozling England on familiar turf in Bengaluru and wrote his name into the record books with a six-wicket haul.
For Patel, the IPL launching pad finds resonance as well, although there is dissimilarity in measure of time. He made a mark for Kings XI Punjab back in the 2014 season (16 wickets at economy 6.22), which propelled him into international contention when Jadeja was out injured for the duration of the Australian tour. It is not to say that he didn’t back it up in domestic cricket – in the 2013-14 season, he scored 369 runs and took 29 wickets for Gujarat, justifying his national call-up.
Even with the IPL though, the trio has been on a similar tangent in terms of waiting for chances. Ashwin and Jadeja are near unshakeable in the Test arena. And it was only in the last year or so that India needed to look elsewhere in limited-overs’ cricket – both a resting measure during the hectic 2016-17 home season and alternative options now as we head into 2018.
“We have been playing together for quite a while now,” said Chahal. “I think it has easily been five-seven years. So you can say we have a lot of experience of playing together as well as playing against one another. It may not necessarily be international experience, but we have played a lot of domestic cricket away from the spotlight. Also, the IPL is as intense as international cricket. Playing with high profile international stars has allowed us to gain confidence, and the three of us share this common trait.”
Perhaps it is also the root of some camaraderie among the trio, and beyond. There is a youngsters’ group in this Indian limited-overs’ squad – them three, Jasprit Bumrah, Hardik Pandya and Manish Pandey. They gel well, go out as a group, eat and while away free time together, even go out shopping together at times. There is certain ease of nature among them, and on foreign tours, this relationship can be crucial.
Even more important is how this translates onto the field. Statistics form a crucial pointer herein for this spin troika. Given Pandya’s fifth bowler role and Kedar Jadhav filling up overs, the three have never featured in the same playing XI together. Yet, the different permutations in pairings provide an interesting picture from India’s last 16 ODIs against Sri Lanka (twice at home and away), Australia and New Zealand.
Chahal and Patel have featured together in six of those matches. Chahal and Yadav have paired together in seven games. Yadav and Patel have only played together in two matches. There are two important takeaways from this. One, leg spin is currently a keen feature of India’s limited-overs’ plans, with Chahal the lead spinner. (Washington Sundar partnered with Chahal at Mohali.)
It was in Sri Lanka, for the first ODI in Dambulla, that the trio came together. The team composition ahead of that game was easy to read. Kohli wouldn’t want two left-arm spinners in the same eleven, so Chahal and Patel played. Of course there have been different combinations in vogue. This is where the second pointer comes in. The team management – read Kohli – is not averse to playing Chahal and Yadav together. In fact, Colombo (on September 3, 2017) was the first instance in ODI history wherein the Indian team fielded two leg spinners in the same eleven.
“A leg spinner is all about using wrists. A ball that comes over the wrist is always difficult to read. Yet not every leg spinner can trouble batsmen. You need to have that class and both Chahal as well as Yadav used their wrists very well,” said former Indian spinner Maninder Singh, after the Chahal-Yadav pairing spun India to its sixth consecutive bilateral ODI series win in Visakhapatnam this past Sunday.
“My job is to take wickets. If I try to restrict the batsmen, I will go for runs instead. I look to take wickets at all times so that my team benefits from it. If you are not taking wickets, then you are an ordinary bowler and the team has no use for you,” said Yadav.
“I don’t mind giving 10-15 extra runs. As long as batsmen are attacking me, I know there is a chance for me to get them out. If you don’t take wickets in ODIs, you cannot win,” said Chahal.
The resonance in their thoughts is unmistakable. It forges the basic principle of India’s move to ‘rest’ and then continuously ignore both Ashwin and Jadeja since the turn of August. It is also highlighted in the way Jadeja was called up as last-minute replacement for Patel for the first three ODIs against Australia. And yet, he didn’t play a single game, with Kohli preferring Chahal-Yadav instead as India shot to a 3-0 lead.
Again, this move is rooted in the Champions Trophy loss. In England, Ashwin-Jadeja had a combined economy of 5.85. For two spinners who look to control the stem of runs in batting-friendly conditions, this just doesn’t cut it. It shifts added onus on the Jasprit Bumrah-Bhuvneshwar Kumar pairing to provide early breakthroughs every single time. If they don’t, and the spinners cannot get wickets in the middle overs, then the pacers are pressed into service again, much before the death overs. It is what happened against Pakistan in the final, as they racked up 338/4.
Unlike Ashwin-Jadeja who bowl with clutch-control in ODIs, the Indian team management has sought to unleash the two leg spinners. Ask Yadav, and he will tell you how Kohli gives field settings he asked for. He will also tell you how Ravi Shastri tells different bowling plans as per situation and conditions. Finally, he will make you count the number of wickets in his kitty thus far.
Chahal meanwhile is only too happy to explain the calming influence of MS Dhoni from behind the stumps.
“In the first ODI at Chennai (against Australia), Maxwell was attacking me because I was bowling at his stumps. My length was a bit fuller and he hit me straight over midwicket for six across the line. Then, Mahi bhai told me that I should not bowl at his stumps. Instead, he told me to bowl outside line of off-stump so that Maxwell needed to make an effort to swing at the ball and not across the line. Soon afterwards, I got him out in the same manner, as he hit a full delivery outside off to long on,” recounted Chahal.
The third element of this troika, alternately, is used more as a holding bowler. The ODI series against New Zealand is a case in point. On batsmen friendly pitches, Kohli used Patel to exert more control over proceedings, particularly against Tom Latham who had swept Indian spinners away in the first ODI at Mumbai.
Patel still remains in the horses-for-courses mould. On the one hand, he was back in the squad for the last two matches against Australia as soon as he was fit (at Jadeja’s expense). On the other, he didn’t play a single ODI against Sri Lanka, with Sundar handed his debut. There is consensus, as such, over Patel’s role being that of a continued understudy to Jadeja.
“Both of them are limited spinners. But the key difference is that Jadeja knows his strengths and weaknesses, while Patel appears confused at times. So on good pitches, Jadeja bowls within his limitations. For example, he will never flight the ball and allow batsmen to hit him. Patel hasn’t shown similar cleverness in his bowling,” opined Maninder Singh, himself a left-arm spinner back in the day.
Clearly, Patel will be encouraged with more chances in limited-overs’ arena whilst Jadeja plays Test cricket, both overseas in the next year. It holds true for Chahal and Yadav too, as well as Ashwin and Sundar albeit in different moulds. The year 2018, thus, will be the year of assimilating vital experience for some, and reintegration for others.
At this juncture then, a few obvious questions springs to mind. When is Jadeja returning to the ODI fold? When is Ashwin, if at all? And, what is India’s ideal spin combination for the 2019 World Cup?
Remember, for the Champions Trophy, the selectors had opted for only two spinners in the 15-man squad. It could be the same for that all-important tournament and at last count, they now have six names to choose from, a problem of plenty permutations. Yes, the experimentation phase has gone well.
You can read the first part on Hardik Pandya here