It was round about this time last year, in England, that the seeds of a sweeping revolution in Indian cricket were being sowed. We could have been talking Anil Kumble and the events leading in to his resignation as the Indian head coach, but we aren’t. Instead, we are talking the craft that Kumble practiced, the difficult art of wrist-spin that has become Virat Kohli’s most fashionable, potent and trusted ally.
R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja were manfully shouldering the burden of spin bowling in limited-overs internationals, sometimes going for runs, sometimes picking up wickets, sometimes going for runs and picking up wickets. As the boundary ropes were brought in, the bats became meatier, batsmen more gung-ho and powerful and fearless, as the sky became the limit almost literally, the finger boys started to feel the sting not just of rasping strokes and rampant willows but also of immense scrutiny and changing strategies.
It wasn’t that Ashwin and Jadeja were in a minority, or that they weren’t good enough to hold their own even amid the carnage. It wasn’t also that they were summarily jettisoned after one poor game – the Champions Trophy final against Pakistan – like many might assume. The new management combine of Kohli and Ravi Shastri chose to explore other options, and especially with Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav providing those readymade options, they were able to implement their plan with immediacy.
The thinking was that the wrist-spinners provided greater wicket-taking value, at least on paper, compared to finger spinners that might need assistance off pitches, and that might struggle to check the flow on flat tracks that have clearly become the norm in white-ball cricket. That line of thought has been vindicated by the successes of Chahal and Kuldeep. Ashwin and Jadeja, we were told, would be back sooner rather than later when they were left out of the One-Day and Twenty20 International squads in Sri Lanka last August-September. Eleven months on, they continue to be on the outer; the T20I against West Indies in Kingston on July 9, 2017 remains their last international white-ball appearance.
To say that Chahal and Kuldeep have grabbed their opportunities will be an understatement. Since his debut on that same tour of the Caribbean in June 2017, Kuldeep’s left-arm wrist-spin has fetched 39 wickets in 20 ODIs, which is largely responsible for an exceptional economy rate of 4.80. Chahal’s legspin, first unleashed on an unsuspecting Zimbabwe two years back, has yielded 43 wickets in 23 ODIs, his economy an even more impressive 4.76. Neither has a shabby T20I record either – 16 wickets from nine matches, economy 7.36 for Kuldeep, 38 from 22, economy 8.00 for Chahal. If wickets were what the team management wanted, and so what if a few more runs were leaked, then the wrist-spin duo has more than met the expectations. Without leaking those few more runs, it must be stressed.
Chahal and Kuldeep’s biggest challenge to date will come over the next month, when they run into a rampaging England side in three T20Is, to be followed by as many ODIs. England of the last three years as a white-ball force are unrecognisable from the plodding, conservative, fear-fielded, data-driven outfit of yore that was none the better for the surfeit of domestic limited-overs competitions. Since their first-round elimination from the 2015 World Cup, they have become the most dominant ODI force, replacing their orthodoxy of the past with an utter disregard for caution that might seem a surefire recipe for disaster, but that has thrown up the kind of performances Eoin Morgan might only have envisaged in his dreams when he took charge three years back.
England have 29 scores in excess of 300 in 69 matches since their disastrous Antipodean outing in the last World Cup. Among them are the current world-record 481 for 6 against Australia earlier this month, as well as the pre-existing 444 for 3 against Pakistan two years back, both in Nottingham. They have stitched together a batting line-up of such unalloyed ferocity and such envious depth that 500 seems an inevitability, just a matter of time. Their 5-0 annihilation of Australia last week was the ultimate masterclass in attacking cricket as they played like the No. 1 side that they are, with confidence and conviction, daring and determination, with enterprise and energy. It wasn’t as if they didn’t have the personnel to pick earlier, but strait-jacketed in their thinking and approach, they ignored the free spirit that is a must for success in the shorter formats. Under Morgan, and with wholesome encouragement from Trevor Bayliss, they have blossomed into an awe-inspiring bunch of carnage and mayhem, a group that wins several matches even before taking the field.
And yet, while the formidable England batting looms as the most intimidating test thus far for Chahal and Kuldeep, India’s two magicians are also two huge obstacles for the home side. It’s fair to say that England 2.0 have yet to encounter the sustained interrogation that they are certain to be subjected to by the wispy leggie and the effervescent Chinaman bowler over the next four weeks. Neither Chahal nor Kuldeep has played an ODI against England – leave alone in England – but on the first night of February 2017, Chahal provided a glimpse of what will be on offer when he ran rings around England’s best on a batting-friendly Chinnaswamy strip in returning 6 for 25 in a T20I. That England batting included Jason Roy, Joe Root, Morgan, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali. Even if memories are short in this age of so much cricket, international and club and franchise, data analysts aren’t going to let either the victor or the vanquished forget about that night in a hurry.
The next 50-over World Cup is a good 11 months away but it isn’t just the preparations that are underway. Favourite-installing has taken root too, with England and India currently on top of most pundits’ list. So much can happen between now and the end of May 2019 when the showpiece event kicks off, but if all things are equal, then it will be difficult to uninstall the two-time champions and the side looking for their first major 50-over silverware from their exalted status.
Against that backdrop, the dress rehearsal has more than just fine-tuning value. England’s best against Kuldeep and Chahal. India’s wicket-takers against Hales and Roy, Buttler and Bairstow. These aren’t mere hyped-up battles launched by excited, excitable publicists. The immediate outcome will matter, of course, but it’s the far-reaching ramifications that will be the cynosure.