IPL 2023: How cheeky Chahal has found his rhythm again to become a potent force

With 48 wickets (and counting) in the last two editions of the IPL, Chahal has found a second wind.

Yuzvendra Chahal, highest wicket-taker in IPL history
Chahal has an excellent googly but uses it only sparingly

One of the great shocks ahead of the auctions for IPL 2022 was Royal Challengers Bangalore’s (RCB) decision to let their leg-spinning match-winner Yuzvendra Chahal go into the auction pool. Even though they had the option of retaining four players from the existing squad, the RCB think-tank, in its collective wisdom, chose to keep faith in Virat Kohli, Glenn Maxwell and Mohammed Siraj, jettisoning their all-time leading wicket-taker.

Wasting no time, Rajasthan Royals (RR) snapped up the slightly built Chahal for Rs 6.5 crore, completing a spin coup as he linked up with R Ashwin, the off-spinner, to form the most potent spin combine in the tournament. The move has paid rich dividends; last season, Rajasthan finished runners-up to Gujarat Titans (GT) and this year, with fewer than 10 days to go for the completion of the league phase, they occupy the third spot in the table and are well-positioned to make it to the playoffs.

A return to Rajasthan was the completion of a full IPL circle for Chahal, who was signed up by the champions of the inaugural edition in 2010 but didn’t get into the playing XI. Until IPL 2022, Chahal had played all but one of his 114 matches for the Bangalore franchise, picking up a massive 139 wickets at an economy of 7.58. Bangalore have a history of excising impact performers, which perhaps explains why they have yet to win a title, and Chahal is the latest to show up their folly, enjoying two wonderful seasons with his old new franchise.

Most prolific bowler in IPL

On Thursday night at the Eden Gardens, bursting at the seams with more than 65,000 partisan fans rooting for Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), the legend of Chahal was magnified as he rewrote the history books by becoming the most prolific bowler in IPL history. When he had KKR skipper Nitish Rana caught on the leg-side boundary, Chahal had picked up wicket No. 184, surging past Dwayne Bravo’s long-standing mark of 183. By the end of the night, with his second consecutive four-wicket haul that took his tally to 187, the little magician had put daylight between him and current bowlers, of whom fellow-leggie Piyush Chawla is closest with 174 wickets.

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Bravo apart, the others in the top-five all-time list of IPL wicket-takers are spinners; all are still active and have played significantly more games than Chahal, who has the best strike-rate among the top five and whose economy in that elite group is second only to Ashwin. For a leg-spinner to stack up such exceptional numbers, and that too in a format that was originally thought of as sounding the death knell of spin, is a remarkable accomplishment that the 32-year-old should be justifiably proud of.

Of particular significance is Chahal’s record for RCB, whose home ground carries the notoriety of being the bowlers’ graveyard. The flat tracks at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium ally with the small boundaries and a quick outfield to make it a batting paradise; Chahal, as conventional as they come, made light of these challenges and remains the only bowler to date with more than 50 IPL wickets at the venue, a tribute to his versatility and a big heart that is a must when the ball soars deep into the stands even off mishits.

Rashid Khan headlines the current trend of quickish leg-spinners with a decidedly obvious slant towards the googly, in a bid to bring the ball into the right-hander and therefore cramp him for room. The Afghan has spawned several followers – Rahul Chahar, Ravi Bishnoi, Suyash Sharma among them – who are quick through the air, attack the stumps and rely more on the googly than the conventional leg-break to do the damage.

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In that regard, Chahal is an anachronism, not unlike Amit Mishra, another leggie who is the fourth-highest IPL wicket-taker. Not only does he bowl a different line, he also reposes great faith in his stock delivery and is a lot slower through the air than his contemporaries. All this stems from exceptional control and the belief that his basics are strong enough for him not to feel the desperate need to beef up his repertoire. In a nutshell, he is the bowling equivalent of a batsman with enough confidence in his orthodox skillsets not to be sucked into the world of switch-hits and reverse-sweeps and scoops over the wicketkeeper’s head.

Googly his potent weapon

Chahal has an excellent googly but uses it only sparingly, relying instead on the ball that leaves the right-hander. While his lines are tighter in the middle overs when he bowls around or just outside the off-stump, they become wider the deeper in the innings he is summoned into operation. By bowling slower through the air, getting it above the batsman’s eye line and delivering it wider from where it breaks further, he forces batsmen to lose shape, power and balance as he they reach out to create their own pace, reiterating that it’s not just brawn that can carry the day in 20-over cricket.

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A year-and-a-half back, Chahal’s career was at the crossroads after being dumped from the Indian team for the T20 World Cup in the UAE in 2021, when he lost out to Chahar and Varun Chakravarthy; then came the RCB hammer blow. A lesser competitor might have moped and cursed his luck and lapsed into self-pity; Chahal chose to take the opposite route, winning his place back in the Indian team with 27 wickets for Rajasthan last year but forced to hug the bench for the duration of the T20 World Cup in Australia last October-November.

With 48 wickets (and counting) in the last two editions of the IPL, Chahal has found a second wind. Clearly, he is enjoying the attention and the limelight in a Rajasthan attack where, apart from Ashwin, there is competition from Australian leg-spinner Adam Zampa, himself no mean white-ball performer. By holding his own in that set-up and now surging to the top of the Purple Cap standings with 21 scalps from 12 games, Chahal has fired a massive shot for convention and orthodoxy in a format that is said to reward the unusual. In the process, he has also perhaps left the RCB think-tank mightily red-faced.