At least one leg-spinner has featured in the 15 One Day Internationals (ODIs) that India have played since losing to Pakistan in the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy final.
From the tour of the West Indies, to Sri Lanka, and at home against Australia, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal have become India’s first-choice spin attack in limited-overs cricket.
In the Champions Trophy in June, R. Ashwin took only one wicket in 29 overs in three matches, while Ravindra Jadeja returned just four wickets in 42 overs in five matches. Flat tracks or small grounds or big bats, whichever way you look at it, this was an unimpressive showing for cricket’s foremost spin pairing.
Stung by that final loss, captain Virat Kohli made a quick change in the Caribbean. Yadav started in all five ODIs against the West Indies (eight wickets in five matches), while Ashwin and Jadeja alternated as support spinners.
Ashwin-Jadeja were “rested" in Sri Lanka in August-September, and haven’t returned to the team since. They have also been excluded from the Indian squad that will face New Zealand in a three-ODI series starting 22 October.
In their absence, meanwhile, Yadav (10 wickets in six matches) and Chahal (11 wickets in eight matches) have routed both Sri Lanka and Australia with their confounding, dissimilar leg-spin styles. Axar Patel (nine wickets in six matches) has quietly provided the third angle with his left-arm spin.
“Kuldeep and Yuzi Chahal, being wrist spinners, will always keep you in the game. It helps us get those crucial wickets in the middle overs, and at the same time helped us control the run-rate as well," said Kohli in a post-match conference, after the 5-0 victory in Sri Lanka.
Patel had twisted his ankle ahead of the first ODI against Australia in Chennai, and Jadeja was called in as replacement. He was in the squad for three ODIs thereafter, yet he didn’t get a chance as Kohli opted for the Yadav-Chahal pairing. As soon as Patel recovered, Jadeja was sent back.
Ashwin has played county cricket in the interim and is now playing for Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy. While he and Jadeja will never be completely out of the reckoning, there is, clearly, a change.
It began as a simple, early experiment on the road to the 2019 World Cup, as chief selector M.S.K. Prasad had put it in Sri Lanka post the ODI team selection on-tour there. Ten ODIs later, it has become a major shift in strategic thinking.
Indian coach Ravi Shastri, explaining this move, said in Sri Lanka: “We need wickets not just with the new ball, but we should also be able to take wickets in the middle overs and then at the death. For that to happen, we needed to relook at our combination of fast and spin bowlers over 50 overs."
Back in January, when Kohli assumed the limited-overs’ captaincy against England, this change first reflected in the Twenty20 Internationals (T20Is). For the first T20I in Kanpur, Amit Mishra and Chahal were picked as the primary spinners, while Ashwin-Jadeja were rested during a hectic 17-Test season. The surprising bit came when the more experienced Mishra was left out of the playing XI in favour of Chahal.
The Kohli-Chahal relationship has continued from their Indian Premier League (IPL) experiences for Royal Challengers Bangalore. Through that series, the confidence in this equation came through—Kohli didn’t baulk at handing Chahal the ball in tougher situations. At Bengaluru then, in the third T20 against England, the leggie put in a breakthrough performance, picking a record haul of six wickets for 25 runs.
“He is both a friend and guide to me. We have played together for so long that he understands what I want from him as a captain and I understand what he wants from me as a spinner," Chahal said of Kohli.
Kuldeep Yadav too shot to prominence when Kolkata Knight Riders paid $66,000 (around Rs43 lakh) for the 19-year-old “Chinaman" bowler in 2013. It wasn’t until March, though, that his career graph saw a meteoric upward turn.
Yadav was part of India’s team during the Australian Test series earlier this year. In different instances, from Pune to Ranchi, the youngster was spotted hard at work with then coach and former Indian leg-spinner Anil Kumble. Another highlight was an interaction—arranged by Kumble—in Pune with Shane Warne, who was on commentary duty.
The seminal moment in Yadav’s career came at Dharamsala, where he bamboozled Steve Smith’s side with four wickets for 68 runs in the first innings of his debut Test and helped India win the series.
“My bowling style isn’t about restricting runs. If I try to contain batsmen, I will end up going for runs. Spinners improve as they play more games," Yadav told reporters in Sri Lanka after the third ODI in August.
“The main difference is in understanding how cricket is played in different parts of the world," South African leg-spinner Imran Tahir, the top-ranked ODI bowler at present, said during the 2017 IPL season. “The basic remains the same: If you flight the ball in any format, the batsmen will not defend. Then, it is about varying your pace, and that is the key weapon for spinners in particular."
Adventurism in approach is the definition of a wrist-spinner, and the Yadav-Chahal pairing has introduced freshness to the Indian attack. The challenge will lie in assimilating experience as they face different opponents.