The absence of Yuzvendra Chahal from India’s T20 World Cup squad has quietly slipped under the radar. With everything but cricket hogging the limelight in Indian cricket over the last one week, Chahal and his exit from the T20I side at the heels of a marquee ICC event has stood largely forgotten.
In a sad indictment of our cricketing culture, Chahal’s ouster has not been given its due attention, with hardly anyone willing to even talk about his non-selection, forget dwelling it in the manner that the veteran legspinner and his career deserves.
It is bigger than it seems on the surface. India selected five spinners in their 15 for the T20 World Cup, indicating strongly how they believe the surfaces in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah will be by the end of October and the start of November after the worn-out brought about by the matches of the IPL 2021. And yet, none of them was Yuzvendra Chahal.
India felt confident bringing back Ravichandran Ashwin after a four-year exile, they trusted the mystery of Varun Chakravarthy to stay relevant, and even opted for a youngster in Rahul Chahar but never contemplated keeping Chahal’s place intact after Washington Sundar’s injury. As far as selections go, this was one of the bravest from India’s decision-makers in recent years.
Historically, India have wore a traditional outlook when it comes to selection for the major world events. The selectors here have inclined towards the process, backing the tried and tested to thrive under pressure and the magnitude of the occasion rather than making any last-minute surprises, taking risks with the talented but undercooked. It has paid dividends for India over the years.
And now, in a rare case, they have left out an India bowler of repute and calibre for another spinner of promise but lack of experience. Chahal has been one of India’s first-choice picks in the bowling attack since 2017. From not long before that, he has been entering every IPL as an integral member of the RCB attack. But here we are, he has lost out his place to Chahar, who is a crafty spinner with a big future ahead but one that has played only a handful of T20Is for India and is still finding his feet as a spinner in the MI jersey.
But look beyond the element of bravery involved, and this is also one of the shrewdest calls taken by the selectors. They’ve identified a chink in Chahal’s armoury and have backed their call with conviction. But before going there in detail, let’s focus on the rationale that the selection committee head Chetan Sharma offered for the spinner’s absence from the squad.
Dip in confidence, change in approach hurting Yuzvendra Chahal
When asked to shed light on Yuzvendra Chahal’s omission, the chief selector alluded to pace off the track on dry, spin-friendly surfaces in UAE as a major factor behind preferring Chahar over Chahal.
“Yuzvendra Chahal’s name was discussed. But we picked Rahul Chahar over Yuzi as we wanted someone who bowls fast and gets pace off the pitch,” Sharma said. “He (Chahar) also gets the ball to grip through the surface.”
In simple understanding, Sharma and rest of the selectors identify Chahar as a bowler more likely to exploit the surfaces in UAE than Chahal, who, they’ve said, floats the ball in the air more than getting the ball to bite off the track and skid it through with pace.
In T20s, where batsmen are waiting to pounce on any opportunity to get underneath the ball and loft it over the boundary ropes, it is only wise to look at spin options who can nail the hard lines, lengths at defensive trajectories, and keep the ball away from the arc.
But that is exactly the skill that Yuzvendra Chahal has built his career and reputation on. At his best, Chahal is a master of unconventional defensive bowling. Chahal flights the ball up from time to time but has been smart enough to land it away from the batsman’s radar, forcing them to miscue the attempted big shot and turning the outfielders, the boundary riders into catching men.
Till the end of IPL 2019, Chahal had taken 75 wickets between overs 7 to 16 in the league over seven seasons with a respectable economy rate of 7.55 for nearly 230 overs. Overall, by the end of 2019, Chahal had 100 IPL wickets to his name from 83 games but they didn’t come at a cost of more than 7.78 runs per over. Chahal played 40 of these 83 games at the death-bed of spin bowling – the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore – but gave away only 7.74 runs per over, taking 51 wickets.
For India as well, till the end of 2018, Chahal maintained an acceptable economic rate of 7.81 for a legspinner while also carrying on his wicket-taking ways: 44 wickets from 27 T20I games at an average of 18.75 and strike-rate of 14.3.
While Chahal had his fair share of expensive spells and boundaries, he ultimately managed to keep his economy rate below 8 runs per over. But then, something about him changed. From the start of 2019, not only has Chahal conceded more runs per over but there has also been an alarming dip in his average and strike-rate.
In this period, he has taken only 19 wickets from 22 innings (less than a wicket per game, unlike the initial phase of his career) while averaging 40.47 and carrying an economy rate of 8.94. His strike-rate of 27.1 since 2019 is almost twice as high as it was before 2019.
A year-wise spirit of Chahal’s career from ESPNcricinfo’s ‘statsguru’ offers a glimpse of a drastic change in his numbers and also reflects a shift in approach. In none of the three years before 2019 did Chahal take fewer wickets, averaged more, with a higher economy rate and strike-rate as he has since then.
This decline in numbers points to a change in mindset. This period has coincided with Chahal slipping below the pecking order for India after the 2019 World Cup and not finding a regular place in the ODI side anymore, with one of him and Kuldeep Yadav playing in the wristspin category and Ravindra Jadeja filling the other spin slot in the bowling attack.
In T20Is as well, where we have witnessed the rise of Sundar, Chakravarthy in this period, Chahal has played only 18 of India’s 30 T20Is post the 2019 World Cup in the UK. Unsure of his footing in the Indian set-up, even the cleverly pragmatic Chahal has presumably approached games a touch too anxious to make a statement and has started searching for wickets instead of looking to stick to his guns.
This is, again, not a matter of opinion but a reasonably valid assessment backed up by stats. Chahal has conceded 36 sixes 22 innings in T20Is since the start of 2019, a period where only two other spinners have been taken for more.
Yuzvendra Chahal after he was left out of India’s T20 World Cup squad.
Since the start of 2019, Chahal has conceded 36 sixes 22 innings in T20Is. Only two other spinners have concedes more sixes in this time frame.
— CricXtasy (@CricXtasy) September 12, 2021
In a more concentrated effort to chip away at the wickets column rather than trying to keep the batsman quiet in his own way, Chahal has started bowling near the batsman’s arc and that has led to his downfall.
Interestingly, last year, Chahal had arguably his best season in IPL cricket, going for only 7.08 runs per over while taking 21 wickets from his 15 innings with an average of 19.28 and strike-rate of 16.33. That was Chahal at his best. Relishing more assurity of his place in the side with RCB, Chahal maintained his wicket-taking ways without compromising on the economy.
But then that tendency to search for wickets extended over to his journey with RCB as well. In the first half of IPL 2021 – despite playing multiple games on a ground like Chepauk – Chahal gave away 8.26 runs per over. He took only 4 wickets from his seven innings and had an average of 47.50, a strike-rate of 34.50.
Just prior to that, Chahal went for 9.92 runs per over in his three innings versus England on Indian pitches in Ahmedabad and took just three wickets at 39.67 runs per piece. But performance in the Indian leg of IPL would’ve dropped the penny for Sharma and co, who stood vindicated in their belief that Chahal is indeed failing to maximise the surfaces on offer and looking to give the ball too much air at slow speeds near the batter’s arc.
There is an argument to be made here that the security that he enjoys within the RCB, the one that reflected even in this phase of his career during IPL 2020, could’ve been given to Chahal by the Indian selectors as well through a vote of confidence for the T20 World Cup. But then as performances only months later against England and in first half of IPL 2021 showed, it would’ve been a huge risk taken in favour a bowler feeling uncertain, enduring an evident dip in his confidence and consequently seeing an alteration in his psyche and approach at the bowling mark.