In three One-Day Internationals so far in the series, South Africa have lost 28 wickets. One of those was to a run-out. Of the 27 wickets that have fallen to bowlers, Yuzvendra Chahal has taken 11 wickets while Kuldeep Yadav has 10. And often, it has seemed like they could take that many in each of their spells.
Virat Kohli has been sublime with the bat, being dismissed only once while racking up 318 runs already, but Kohli being far better than the rest in one-day cricket is still a sight that cricket is accustomed to. Two wrist-spinners working in tandem to wreak the home team – and not just any home team but South Africa in South Africa – is an unheard of, unseen event. Un-imagined possibly – except by Kohli and the Indian team management, who have given their strike weapons the license to be just that.
In the first ODI in Durban, they took five wickets between them. In the second in Centurion, Chahal took a maiden fifer while Kuldeep had three. On Wednesday (February 7) in Cape Town, both took four wickets each. Collectively, their figures across the three games read 52.2-2-190-21, an average of 9.05 and an economy rate of 3.63.
What was novelty after the first game and excitement after the second, is slowly ceding way to becoming expectation of a bunch of wickets, such has been the two tweakers’ hold over the South Africans.
“We knew they will pick up wickets. These guys have bowled in flatter batting tracks at home,” said Kohli after India’s 124-run win in the third ODI put them 3-0 up in the series. “They have bowled in T20 cricket, when the conditions are very, very difficult, and picked up wickets on a regular basis you know. Here they felt even better because they were getting bounce on some pitches. Like today, it got really slow at the end so they were getting turn as well. They feel at the top of their game when they have the pitches supporting them even a little bit. But they are very brave and even on flatter pitches, wrist-spinners will come into play and they have made that difference in the game. They might go for six runs an over, but we know that they will pick up three-four wickets between them. They have done outstandingly well in the last two games picking up a majority of the wickets in both games and being the difference between both sides.”
Both Kuldeep and Chahal have spoken separately of the encouragement from ‘Virat bhaiya’, gushing about the captain giving them the confidence to be attacking, reassuring them that it didn’t matter to him if they went for runs, and they could continue to look for wickets. That has translated into both bowlers consistently bowling attacking lines, tossing the ball up regularly, and not looking to squirrel away quiet ‘economy’ overs. Because of their skill and accuracy, the South African batsmen have been unable to score runs off them anyway, while getting out in droves.
“The thing is very simple. They are told to go for wickets at all times,” said Kohli when told about how the duo had given him credit for giving them confidence. “When you are going for wickets you are bowling in areas that are uncomfortable for the batsmen and more often than not, they end up defending. When you bowl wide and try to save runs then you give an opportunity to take singles also. So I think all the credit has to go to them because they’ve executed those lines and lengths perfectly. They’ve always, every over, they’ve asked two-three questions of the batsmen. That is something outstanding. I haven’t seen that before.
“You feel they might pick up two wickets every over. They have belief in their abilities and the team has belief in them, the team is backing them. They might get hit for 70-odd in the next game. But there is no problem in that because you know that if they bowl attacking lines then they will end up picking wickets every game. I think going ahead, in these conditions now and we are going to play the World Cup away from home, that I think is going to be a massive factor for us.”
JP Duminy, who top-scored for South Africa with 51 in the third ODI but has fallen to one of the two wrist-spinners in every game, credited both for sussing conditions a lot better than the home team had.
“What they’ve done really well is assess the conditions in terms of what they need to do. They’ve assessed the conditions better than us from a bowling perspective. What sort of speed and length they need to bowl. They haven’t made it easy for us to get ones,” explained Duminy. “Unfortunately, a lot of us have not picked their googlies. That’s what it has come down to – we’ve not been good enough. We have game-plans and they’ve bowled well enough not to give us balls to play in our game-plan. We’ve got to come up with different ways of countering how good they’ve been. They’ve outplayed us in all departments.
“They’ve bowled a touch slower than our spinners, and I think that’s where they have been effective,” he elaborated, echoing what Dale Benkenstein, the South Africa batting coach, had said after the second ODI. “They haven’t bowled the ball full enough for us to get to the ball, to hit the ball straight down the ground. That’s where we have been successful in South African conditions, being able to hit the ball straight down the ground, and they haven’t allowed us to do that. We need to make sure we have different strategies to that. Find a way to not only score boundaries but find singles square of the wicket, I think that’s going to have to be our plan going forward.”
Whatever the South Africans have tried so far hasn’t worked though, including being aggressive against the spinners. As Duminy pointed out, the basic problem has been the batsmen haven’t been able to pick which way the ball is turning – not to speak of being done in by the dip both spinners get.
“We’ve got plans of how to counter their spin, but unfortunately the execution hasn’t been good enough,” acknowledged Duminy. “The key is definitely to try and be positive, but unfortunately on a few occasions we haven’t picked the wrong ‘uns and when you are not picking their wrong un’s, you are not necessarily comfortable at the crease so you are always going to be a bit tentative. Once you become comfortable with picking their deliveries, that’s when you can play with confidence and ease and freedom. We need to find a way to get that right.”
While the South Africans still seem far from finding a solution to Kuldeep and Chahal, the manner of their success has even raised questions on whether they might be ready for Test cricket. Both have looked for wickets and got them by beating batsmen in the air and with guile, rather than by strangling them and using the limit on the number of overs to create scoreboard pressure and draw rash shots.
Kohli preferred to keep the question of Test selection for the future, but agreed that both his star bowlers had certainly pushed their case forward.
“Those are things that are quite a bit away from now,” he said. “Look, they are obviously making a very strong case for themselves, bowling in these conditions and making breakthroughs like we haven’t seen before. It’s outstanding to see two guys just totally spinning a web around the opposition. There doesn’t seem to be a way out at all. It’s unbelievable. I don’t have words to explain this. Credit to them. Both have been working hard on their game. Both are very brave in terms of how they bowl and the kind of fields they want as well. They are very brave tossing the ball and asking the batsman to come out and play a risky shot. Hats off to them, but the other debate is a bit away from now. You never know what happens in the future but I am really happy at the moment.”
The sight of two wrist-spinners working in tandem in any format is one that makes most people happy in any case. Except if you are a South African batsman of course.