Ben Jones analyses India’s spin twins.
Wrist-spinners are en vogue. Everybody knows it. Any team who’s anyone is sporting one, the distractingly aggressive accessory to every ODI side on the block. They add flair, danger, a touch of unpredictability to a format which, whilst superb, can drift into the formulaic if left without intervention.
India don’t wear one. They wear two – and damn, it looks good.
Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav both play for India, both in the same XI, both in the same attack. They’re both wrist-spinners, one left-handed -and one right-handed, turning the ball opposite ways yet offering the same cocktail of potential runs and potential wickets, the same aggressive option. They are the aces up both sleeves.
It’s not hyperbole to talk in these terms, as much as the thrill of watching them does invite it, because these two take wickets like almost nobody else. The only spinner (min 100 overs) to have a better strike rate than Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal is Rashid Khan, who whilst an undoubtedly elite bowler, has benefited in a statistical sense from playing associate nations in that time. Both Kuldeep and Chahal have an economy of less than a-run-a-ball in that time, incision and control in a single stroke.
Essentially, these two form the most potent ODI spin partnership in the world. They are brutally effective in the middle overs, taking wickets at an average of just 25.49, spinning webs across the second Powerplay, snaring victims with ease. When the ball softens, the threaten intensifies; these are two young men utterly suited to the particular challenge of ODI bowling in 2019.
They have slightly different methods, as you’d hope. It makes them a more compelling pair. Kuldeep turns the ball slightly less than Chahal, not a lot less, but less.
Kuldeep compensates for the lessened raw threat by increasing his variation, bowling a googly every four deliveries. As a left-arm wrist-spinner, he already benefits from being an unknown entity, but he multiplies the confusion in the batsman’s mind by cycling through his various deliveries. A pattern is never established. Kuldeep’s main threat is his range.
Chahal is more of a traditional legspinner. He challenges the outside edge of the right-hander with significant spin, the threat magnified by the amount of drift he puts on the ball. Chahal’s deliveries move 1.6° laterally through the air, 25% more than Kuldeep. He’s a flight and guile, do ’em in the air then off the pitch sort of bowler.
It’s not only the mechanics that differ, but also the strategies. Chahal targets the stumps more than Kuldeep; his more dependable line and length allows him to go at the stumps more, bringing LBW and bowled more into play. Kuleep is wilder, looser, a little more unpredictable and a little less reliable.
That’s not a criticism of Kuldeep, of course. His slightly less regimented feel is not a downside. Like the other great under-appreciated attacking bowler of the last few years, Mitchell Starc, Kuldeep is far too often seen as a burden as a result of his flaws, rather than an asset as a result of his strengths. In the last ten years, only Starc has a better Expected Strike Rate than Kuldeep, a measure built on historical ball-tracking data which assess the chances that any given delivery will take a wicket. Kuldeep’s deliveries are almost comically attacking, and no other spinner in the world can claim to be more so. He is phenomenal.
The Indian selectors, and Virat Kohli, deserve a bit of credit for the way these two young men have flourished. They haven’t been treated like mavericks who can float in and out of the side when spark is required; they are fundamental cogs in the machinery of this team. No bowler has played more often for India since the Champions Trophy Final than Kuldeep Yadav, who has played 46 matches. No other frontline spinner in the world has played as often. Kohli’s India have, in this aspect of the game at least, embraced risk.
Yet despite all this, they might not both play tomorrow. India might look at the way Pakistan dealt with the short ball in Nottingham a few matches ago, and bombard them with pace. Shami could come into the side, most likely for Kuldeep given his slightly poorer form. But that would be a mistake.
It doesn’t really matter what the match is, really. Kuldeep and Chahal are the best spin pairing in the world, and not playing them as an appeasement to match-ups is a misunderstanding of how that strategy works. You tweak your secondary players, adapting to the strengths of the opposition’s best players. Kuldeep and Chahal are not secondary; they’re crucial. The fear of them in the middle takes wickets for Bumrah at the top and bottom of the innings. And yet, there’s a better reason for picking them.
India’s dominance, both on and off the field, makes them unlikeable. It’s a tough truth, but it’s one that is also true of England, and to a lesser extent Australia. Kohli’s brilliance is alluring, but in a terrifying sort of way. Bumrah is a freak, a genius, but for great swathes of the innings he’s not bowling. Within that context, it’s important to throw a bone to the general cricketing public, sell them an entertainer to get them through the door. Kuldeep and Chahal are the heart of this side, the beat that keeps on ticking from either end, but they are also the hook that pulls the neutral in. You can’t watch these two young men – neither of whom look like what you imagine an elite athlete to look like – bowling their incessantly aggressive lines and lengths, and not feel warmly towards them. They’re the obviously likeable core to this India side. Tomorrow, a billion people will be watching this match. More than half will be cheering on Kuldeep and Chahal – and not only those in Indian colours.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.