When Yuzvendra Chahal came face-to-face against England’s star trio of Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root and Ben Stokes at Lord’s, there was an air of anticipation. The trio was expected to take the aggressive route, albeit with different methods, against the spinner, with Chahal depending on his bowling smarts to counter the challenge.
The Bairstow-Chahal matchup is made more intriguing by the fact that the duo seems to be fundamentally different in how they approach the game – the bullfighter versus the chess master. That matchup has some recurring moves, with the England opener eventually turning to his favourite weapon against spin – the slog-sweep or the hoick across the line. Meanwhile, the leg-spinner tries to employ the slider and his stock ball, alongside varying his pace and shifting his lines. At Lord’s, too, there was a trademark stamp in relation to the pattern of their duel.
Chahal began his spell by concentrating on more of an off-stump line and the length a little short. Occasionally, he also employed the slider. Chahal then flighted the fifth ball off the 13th over, possibly to test Bairstow’s ability to crack shots through the longer side of the boundary on the off-side. Bairstow was equal to the task as he lofted the spinner over the cover fielder. The mini-battle resumed in Chahal’s very next over. But there was a shift in the leg-spinner’s plan as the line changed from off to more around the middle and leg-stump. The strategy was a risky one as the sweep shot is right up Bairstow’s alley and the leg-side boundary (for a right-hander) was on the shorter side. But Chahal appeared to be prepared to go for runs in order to buy a few wickets.
The first of Chahal’s deliveries in that over was pitched on off-stump and the next was fuller in length and on a middle-stump line. On somewhat expected lines, Chahal tossed the next ball up on a leg-stump line and imparted drift, and Bairstow’s natural reaction was to bend his knee down to crack the sweep. Unfortunately for Bairstow, he missed it completely and was clean bowled.
Bairstow’s teammate, Root, would have watched the duel between the pair at the other end with interest. So what would be Root’s strategy against Chahal? Would he also line up the shorter side of the boundary on the on-side? The answer turned out to be a resounding yes. Root uses the crease in order to deftly manoeuvre the spinners into gaps. There is also a school of thought that when Root defends a delivery around the off-stump line, he tends to bring out the sweep the very next ball. In the 18th over, Root defended one towards midwicket. Chahal perhaps could sense the sweep was around the corner. He subsequently gave the ball some air and pitched it around middle and leg-stump, Root attempted the sweep, missed and was trapped in front.
India still needed to prise out the dangerous Ben Stokes. On a slightly two-paced deck, the onus was again on Chahal. Just like Bairstow and Root, Stokes was intent on eyeing up the shorter square boundary. Being a left-hander, his method was based on reverse-sweeping Chahal. Stokes succeeded once and then twice with his plan of action. On both occasions, Chahal had bowled it a tad too full. In Chahal’s next over, Stokes’ go-to shot was the switch-hit. However, by then, Chahal had rectified his length by pitching it a little shorter and also got one to drift to beat Stokes and win an LBW appeal.
When Chahal has a ball in his hand, he isn’t expected to bowl a huge leg-break that whirs past the bemused batter to knock over the off-stump. He doesn’t have a quick-arm action and different variations of the googly. His tools are more subtle in nature. A few of his deliveries could be quicker through the air, and some slower. Some would turn more, a few would turn less and he mixes it up with sliders that don’t turn. He could also be shifting his line and using the googly while bowling to the left-hander.
On a bright and sunny day at Lord’s, even as India went on to lose the match, Chahal’s class and exhibition of his subtle experiments to chip away at the cream of England’s batting order was unmissable.
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