When Jason Roy was brilliantly caught by Ravindra Jadeja at long-on off Kuldeep Yadav’s bowling in the 2019 ODI World Cup game between India and England, there were synchronous sighs followed by applause around the ground from Indian fans. A 160-run opening stand that had plundered runs all around the ground had been broken, but more pertinently, one wing of the Kul-Cha had struck.
The wicket had come after the pair gave away 97 runs in 10 overs combined up until that moment in the game. Five fours and seven sixes had come off England openers’ bats against India’s spin twins and it didn’t stop with the Roy dismissal.
Jonny Bairstow continued the onslaught while Joe Root and Ben Stokes added to the woes. At the end of the innings, Chahal and Kuldeep had conceded 160 runs in 20 combined overs for a solitary wicket.
That game, a rare off day at the time for the formidable Kul-Cha was attributed to the small boundaries at Edgbaston, a lightning-quick outfield, and some extraordinarily aggressive England batting. But from thereon, it was downhill for the two spinners who had forged an attacking middle-overs partnership for India in limited-overs cricket.
Three years since, Chahal and Kuldeep are in the same Indian team together, but neither is assured of a place in the starting XI as the series against West Indies looms. India have Washington Sundar, Ravi Bishnoi (yet to make his debut), Axar Patel (only for T20Is) aside from Chahal and Kuldeep (just ODIs) in the spin department. Chahal was only recalled to the T20I squad for the last series against New Zealand after missing out on the T20 World Cup squad while Kuldeep might not even have been in the ODI squad had Ravichandran Ashwin and Jadeja been fit for this series.
Rolling back the clock, it was quite the journey for the spin twins who went from ruling limited-overs cricket to warming the bench inside three years. Between the end of the 2017 Champions Trophy and the 2019 ODI World Cup exit for India, no bowler took more wickets in the format than Kuldeep and Chahal. The pair took 93 and 78 wickets at averages of 23.96 and 27.39 respectively. Their economy rates stood at 4.95 and 5.18 — impressive numbers that allowed India to dominate ODI cricket in that period.
The only slight blip came in the ODI series in England in 2018 where England came from behind to win 2-1 with Joe Root slamming twin hundreds and milking the pair of spinners fairly comfortably. But again, that was a rare fluff amidst a sea of first-rate performances.
Since the end of the 2019 ODI World Cup, though, the numbers dropped significantly. Chahal’s 15 wickets came at an average of 36.4 and an economy rate of 5.74. Kuldeep’s was worse with 14 wickets at 57.42 and an economy rate of 6.18. Importantly, teams started taking them on and the pair had no answers. The other spinner in the ODI setup for most of this period, Ravindra Jadeja, also had dismal numbers with the ball – 12 wickets at an average of 58.75 and an economy rate of 5.5.
In this period, no spinner has conceded more sixes than Kuldeep Yadav – he gave away 29 sixes in the 14 matches he played. Jadeja and Chahal have conceded 20 and 17. All three are among the top 10 players to concede most sixes in this time frame in ODIs.
It wasn’t too different in T20Is either with Chahal and Kuldeep leaking runs at economy rates of 8.75 and 9.21 respectively. Kuldeep was no longer permanent in his IPL side, playing just five matches in the 2020 and 2021 editions combined.
Since the end of the 2019 ODI World Cup, India’s spinners have the worst bowling average (55.39) after Zimbabwe and the worst economy rate (5.81) among all ODI teams. In this same time frame in T20Is, India’s spinners have the third-worst economy rate (7.45) and third-worst average (28.90) among full member teams.
In the recent series against South Africa, where India lost the ODIs 0-3, the hosts’ spinners were significantly better than India’s. While South Africa’s spinners took nine wickets at an average of 36.3, India’s spinners took three wickets and averaged 114.3 while leaking runs at an economy rate of 5.5.
The bleak numbers have seen changes in the spin department in the limited-overs setup and the latest in the pecking order, ready to make his international debut, is Ravi Bishnoi, the under-19 star turned IPL rockstar whose impressive showing in the last two IPL editions have resulted in a quick call up to the national team.
Bishnoi’s strength is his effectiveness against both right and left-handers, making him a one-of-a-kind match-up bowler. In the IPL, Bishnoi has an economy rate under seven against both left and right-handers and boasts of a dot ball percentage above 40 against either kind of player. His googly, a variation he uses even more than his stock ball, has confounded the best batters in the league and makes him a genuine wicket-taking threat. A wicket-taking spinner is something India has sorely missed in limited-overs cricket in the last couple of years and Bishnoi is expected to fill that void.
Axar Patel has been impressive with added pace variations in T20s in the last couple of years while Washington Sundar as a holding bowler in the powerplay and middle overs also has its merits. Kuldeep’s return isn’t justified by his recent numbers or form. Chahal had an impressive IPL in 2021 where he showed eagerness to pull off more variations and relied more than usual on his googlies.
For both wrist spinners, though, this could be the final rope. Categorised among slow spinners, a fast-fading group in limited-overs cricket, Chahal and Kuldeep will need to show they have the smarts to vary their pace and force batters onto the back-foot to push their case in the limited-overs setup.
On the other side of things, Bishnoi, Axar, and Sundar could just be the spin trio India need for the next few years. Each of them adds different skill sets to the table and two of them can contribute with the bat too, making it a viable trio especially with a home ODI World Cup coming up. While Ravindra Jadeja’s batting numbers put him ahead of Axar and Sundar at the moment, his recent bowling form hasn’t quite fit into India’s plans. There’s an opportunity for the two all-rounders to push Jadeja for his spot.
Bishnoi, meanwhile, will be tussling with Kuldeep and Chahal for the other spinner’s spot although a Bishnoi-Kuldeep partnership could also potentially be fruitful if Kuldeep can find ways to regain his wicket-taking edge. The West Indies series will be a litmus test for India’s spinners who have been well below par in recent years in white-ball cricket. It could either end with a move away from the spinners of the past or forge new partnerships that could make India’s limited-overs bowling attack sharper.
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