Since India turned to wristspinners in the white-ball formats in the second half of 2017, Yuzvendra Chahal had been a regular fixture in the playing XIs, in both ODIs and T20Is. However, after the 2019 World Cup, both Chahal and fellow wristspinner Kuldeep Yadav were no longer able to command a spot in the first XI. The Covid-19 pandemic meant India's squads were split, with Chahal being a more reliable inclusion in the limited-overs side playing in Sri Lanka. It was in Sri Lanka that Chahal established himself as a regular in the playing XI, and returning there has also seen the form of old return.
Chahal was full of fizz in the first two ODIs, rested in the third since India had sealed the series, and went up a notch in the opening T20I on Sunday. In the ODIs, he had been thrown the ball after good starts by Sri Lanka, and invariably offered India greater control. He did the same thing in the first T20I, only better. Brought on immediately after the powerplay with Sri Lanka 46 for 1, Chahal bamboozled Dhananjaya de Silva with a delivery of a legspinner's dreams. A loopy delivery that was so perfect it could have represented an equation, teasing drift, hitting the perfect length on leg, and then ripping across the batter to knock out off stump.
That would be Chahal's only wicket in the game, but his figures read 4-0-19-1. The bare numbers are impressive enough, but in terms of Smart Economy - which is arrived at after taking into account the stage of the match a bowler has bowled in and the batters bowled to - Chahal's was an astounding 2.69, easily the best in the game for any bowler that delivered more than one over.
Chahal could tie Sri Lanka down not just by skill, but by smarts too. He was bowling with a shorter leg-side boundary to the right-hand batters, and therefore didn't bowl a single googly to them. Not just that, he maintained control of his line immaculately too. According to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, of the 13 balls Chahal bowled to right-hand batters, three were on the stumps and 10 were outside off stump. Not a single ball down leg. Of the 11 balls bowled to left-hand batters, seven were on the stumps, not giving them room to target the off side, which was the shorter boundary.
"The end I was bowling from, the leg side boundary was shorter and they were looking to hit that side," Chahal said after the match. "That's why I didn't bowl googlies to the right-handers. I didn't want to give them confidence, I thought that if I can bowl a lot of dot balls, pressure will build. So even if I don't get a wicket, my partner from the other end can bowl more freely. If I had tried to go for wickets, or tried something extra, and they had hit a six or four, the pressure would have automatically come on us, because the total wasn't so big. So I bowled more googlies to the left-handers. I kept mixing it up."
Chahal gave up seven runs in his first two overs, and an asking rate that was 7.66 before he came on, had ballooned to 10.00, with Sri Lanka having also lost two wickets inside three overs. Just before his final over, Charith Asalanka had taken debutant Varun Chakravarthy for 14 runs, giving Sri Lanka a set-up for a final-overs charge. On came Chahal for the 15th over. He conceded just three runs, varying pace, adjusting length if the batter moved and keeping the ball out of their hitting reach. ESPNcricinfo's Smart Stats had Sri Lanka's win probability at 40.47% before Chahal's last over. After he bowled, it had dropped to 22.92. He said his job was "to control the middle overs", which is exactly what he provided to India.
Getting the fizz back in his bowling was the result of spending time during the pandemic-enforced lockdown with coaches, and with Haryana team-mate Jayant Yadav, whom Chahal bounced ideas off.
"When I was not playing, I was working with my bowling coach, about where I should bowl, why I was not able to perform in a couple of matches. During the lockdown, I did single-wicket bowling, practiced with my friends," Chahal said.
"I didn't want to make too many changes. I thought about which lines I should focus on, whether to go wider or go stump to stump. I sat with (Bharat) Arun sir, there is Paras (Mhambrey) sir here and Rahul (Dravid) sir, so I sat with them, saw videos to see what am I missing? I have been doing well, but it was not happening in a couple of matches. During the lockdown, before this tour, I couldn't really go much to cricket grounds due to Covid-19 restrictions. But the three-four sessions I got in my hometown, I went and practiced. Jayant Yadav was there, I've been playing with him since childhood, so we practiced together. I spoke to him also, and things started from there. The main thing was that the more confident I can be while bowling, the better I will be able to bowl."
For Chahal, it was important to do well in this series, given the depth of options India have to choose from. In this squad alone, among pure spinners, Rahul Chahar is on the sidelines as another promising legspinner, while Kuldeep and Chakravarthy are around too.
"Definitely when your bench strength is so good that you have a pool of 30 players overall, it is a boost, and you get quality there," Chahal said. "All spinners are doing well. You know that for your spot, there are already two people ready, who have already performed in the IPL, here. My focus when I play is that I should perform whenever I play. If you perform (well), then you get to play. You can stay in the team only with performance. When I bowl, I keep my mind clear, I don't think of 'this guy has done this, that guy has done that'. My mind is on the fact that I have the ball, and what I need to do now."
Chahal is likely to face sterner challenges after the current T20I series, with the twin behemoths of IPL and the T20 World Cup later this year. If he can continue to employ the skill and nous he has regained in Sri Lanka, there will be more happy days ahead for him and his team.