Virat Kohli’s aggressive mindset is key to India’s wrist-spin success in ODIs

Two years ago, India lost in the final of the 2017 Champions Trophy to Pakistan. Seen in singularity as a loss, especially to arch rivals, it ought to have been hurtful. As a dress rehearsal for this 2019 ODI World Cup though, that defeat – and that tournament as a whole – did its job well enough.

India conceded in excess of 300 in only two of five games in that short tourney – they lost both of them. First against Sri Lanka in the group stage, and then Pakistan in the final, the Indian bowling suffered when the pacers were unable to take early wickets. Later, in the middle overs, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja only managed a containing job. Their combined figures of five wickets in as many matches at an average of … just didn’t cut it.

That final can be considered an epochal moment, thus. Since then, India have played 55 ODIs including the six-wicket win over South Africa in Southampton. In all these matches, spanning just short of 24 months, they have never taken the field without a wrist spinner in their playing eleven. So much so, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav have featured in 29 of these 55 matches together.

All-round India brush aside South Africa to start World Cup campaign with a win

They have 39 matches with at least one wrist spinner in the side, and 20 of those have come with both Chahal-Yadav playing. It is a potent partnership – wrist spinners but different bowlers to each other. One orthodox, the other unorthodox; one right-arm, exerting more control with his variations, the other left-arm ‘chinaman’ (for the lack of a better term), having the tendency to go for runs at times.

Both have a common denominator though – neither Chahal, nor Yadav minds getting hit as long as they are free to search for wickets at all times.

“Since the Champions Trophy, we have plugged a few areas that we needed to. We have brought in wrist-spinners to take wickets in the middle overs and that has been a reason for a lot of our success in the last couple of years,” said skipper Virat Kohli, ahead of the South Africa game, explaining just why India have been a better ODI side in the recent past.

Rohit Sharma, India’s man for all seasons, delivers again

In this mentioned interim, Chahal and Yadav have found success at home, in Sri Lanka, West Indies, South Africa, England, Australia and New Zealand. In the midst of this experimentation process, India failed to win only two ODI series. As early as South Africa, wherein India won the series 5-1, Chahal and Yadav were locked in for the World Cup. Ashwin was out; Jadeja only made a comeback because the team management decided to balance the lack of a fourth full-time pacer with two additional all-rounders (Jadeja and Vijay Shankar).

Virat Kohli applauds game-changer Yuzvendra Chahal and disciplined Jasprit Bumrah

It was in Sri Lanka, back in 2017, when this experimentation had first begun. It couldn’t have been easy leaving out Ashwin and Jadeja at the same time, but a new direction was needed. It is why, despite their success across conditions and against varied opposition, a lot of credit goes to the team management, and therein to captain Kohli.

True, MS Dhoni guides them from behind the stumps and Chahal-Yadav would probably have been lost without him, at least in their initial forays. Dhoni’s presence was the calming influence when things got heated; his ideas always presented a new direction. Even when Yadav was hit against by Faf du Plessis and Rassie ven der Dussen, MS Dhoni went ahead and put an arm around his shoulder.

Kohli has done that role with Chahal, but in the IPL. Playing together at Royal Challengers Bangalore, the relationship grew on automatic mode. The leggie is one of the few bright lights from Bangalore’s lacklustre IPL history and he has grabbed the limelight in whatever role Kohli has given him in T20 cricket. Superimpose that on the international scale, and to the ODI arena, Chahal brings certain versatility to the side even his natural leg-break avatar.

He has performed a variety of roles, whether with the new ball, in overs 10-20, or coming on later in the innings as the fifth bowler. It allows Yadav to get on with his job too, and the duo feed off each other. Call it young camaraderie, or professional growth – after all, they are in the same trade, exhibiting the same skill set. It is a unique symbiotic relationship, and no other team in this World Cup can boast of it.

Even so, it takes a finely skilled workman to make full use of his tools. Kohli’s captaincy has often been criticised – at times for lack of silverware in the IPL, at times for too much chopping and changing in Test cricket, and at times for letting the game drift in the one-day arena. If there is one thing he cannot be faulted for, however, it is how he has deployed the two wrist spinners.

Take the South Africa game, for example again. Reduced to 89-5, Kohli thought best to delay bringing on Kedar Jadhav to finish up the fifth bowler’s quota. He was more concerned with hurting the Proteas’ batting even more, and David Miller-Andile Phehlukwayo had to contend with Chahal-Yadav bowling in tandem for a spell.

Wrist spin is more aggressive art than off spin precisely because the search for wickets is never ending. In their variations, wrist spinners have more in their arsenal to attack the batsmen with. But it takes an aggressive captain for wrist spinners to fully come into their own – allowing them space to be creative and experimental, and setting fields so that they can take big hits on the chin.

Kohli not only helped bring Chahal-Yadav to the fore when the Indian team needed new ideas, but along with Dhoni, he has helped nurture them as a wicket-taking threat. Their progress over the last two years is the single-biggest credit to his captaincy thus far.