With the T20 World Cup in the Middle East, where wickets were expected to be slow and dry, India shocked the roost with the selection of Rahul Chahar over Yuzvendra Chahal. Now it would have been a shock if Chahal had performed consistently for India over the past year but his fading form combined with Chahar’s consistent display tilted the selection in the latter’s favour.
If the second half of the 2021 Indian Premier League was never played, the doubt over Chahar’s selection would never have popped up. But as it did pop up, Indian skipper Virat Kohli reaffirmed that it was a tough call between Chahal and Chahar but the latter earned his selection via what he had to offer for the national team.
"We had a discussion over Yuzvendra Chahal and the selectors thought we need a bowler, who can bowl fast, and as we have recently seen Rahul Chahar bowling, the speed that he bowls with. The selectors thought that we need such a player, who can on those wickets, can hold and more speed, and so, there was a lot of discussion about Chahal, but we zeroed on Rahul Chahar," Chetan Sharma clarified in the press conference after the T20 World Cup squad selection.
Over the last three years, Chahal’s return in the shortest format has been underwhelming, with just 19 wickets in 22 appearances. His average in those three years: 39.25, 45.28 and 34.50. On the other hand, Chahar averaged 23.33 and picked up six wickets in just five appearances.
To go with his performance in the Indian jersey, the Rajasthan leg-spinner also lit up the first half of the IPL with 11 wickets, most wickets by a spinner in the Indian leg of the competition. A continued stretch of purple patch alongside his ability to beat the batters with his pace, even on the flattest of surfaces, made everything favourable for the 22-year-old.
And when everything around the selection had cooled down, IPL 2021’s second half arrived, the talks once again were heated, with some even suggesting that India could make a last-minute change to include Chahal in the setup. But as it turned out, Chahar tipped over Chahal and played just one game in the entirety of the T20 World Cup.
In the only game that he played, the Rajasthan leg-spinner conceded 30 runs, tip-toeing on his form earlier in the two warm-up games, where he picked up just two wickets, for 60 runs. In the game against Namibia, the leg-spinner was also heavily criticised on air, for being too funky with his bowling while missing the basics.
On the back of that performance, the leg-spinner was not just in the scheme of things and subsequently was also dropped for the home series against New Zealand.
What does Chahal’s return mean?
The 31-year-old’s return doesn’t just spell doom for Chahar but also for Varun Chakravarthy, who finds himself away from the squad, after just two full tours with the national team. While it might not be as straightforward as Chahar, who has now been demoted to the India ‘A’ side, for the series against South Africa.
“I was not dropped in four years and then I got dropped for such a marquee event. I felt really bad. I was down for two-three days. But then I knew the second leg of the IPL was still around the corner. I went back to my coaches and spoke to them a lot,” Chahal told the Times of India.
For Rohit Sharma, the return of Chahal would be a positive sign, with the Indian spinners, Chakravarthy and Chahar struggling massively in the T20 World Cup, with no wickets in the competition. But with the Haryana leg-spinner, the tale is a different one, with the RCB ace spinner picking up his best tally of wickets in this IPL in the Middle East leg.
While the Mumbai Indians leggie picked up just the two wickets in the second half of the competition, Chahal’s tally of 14 wickets was unparalleled. Even Kolkata Knight Riders’ Sunil Narine ended up with just 13 wickets in the Middle East. However, with the 31-year-old, it isn’t just about the wickets, his performance in the second half was mesmerizing.
In a perfect concoction of line and deception, the leg-spinner went through batter’s defences, catching a few right in front while the others failed to read the trajectory. His average in the Middle East was 13.1, conceding just 6.1 runs an over after he was axed from the Indian squad for the T20 World Cup.
The other question
The other question that surrounds the Haryana leg-spinner’s selection is how India are going to shape itself in the upcoming tournament. With Hardik Pandya being replaced by Venkatesh Iyer, and with Axar Patel mostly in line to replace Ravindra Jadeja, do India go with the three-spin option?
And in that case, is Ravichandran Ashwin earmarked to get an extended run in the setup, with six wickets in the tournament? With Washington Sundar still not yet deemed fit, it solves only one part of the confusion for India but if the Tamil Nadu all-rounder returns, it forces a bigger question for India: who is their first-choice spinners? One thing, however, can be cleared in this series and that is the future of Chahal, it solely depends on how he performs, starting with this series.
This series provides the perfect opportunity for India to test themselves with the conditions that would be in front of them in 2021 - Australia. In any which way, India would have to figure out a plan right upfront and have an extended go with the same team, which makes it easier for the selection when the time comes for the 2022 edition of the global tournament.