“What the wrist?”
They are probably whispering these words in hushed, shocked, thunder-struck tones in the South African dressing-room.
Three matches into a One-Day International series that has brought the top two sides in the world face to face, there is clear daylight between the protagonists. India have played like a champion outfit, full of purpose and courage. Inspired by a captain who is batting as if from a different planet and powered by a pair of wrist-spinners that have wreaked well-documented havoc, they have jumped all over South Africa, meek and timid, hesitant and indecisive. South Africa is the home side, but India haven’t so much bearded the lion in its own den as systematically dismantled it, using non-violent subtlety of the highest quality as their weapon of choice.
Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav have been exhilarating to watch. Take the cricket ball out of their hands, and these two could so easily be mistaken for unremarkable young men. Chahal, thin and bespectacled, looks every inch the chess player he used to be, if you like stereotyping. Kuldeep could be the impish boy next door, naughtiness oozing out of every pore.
It is, however, the cricket ball that has shaped the destinies of this odd couple, the Gen Next of spin bowling in a country acclaimed for having produced several of the greatest spinners of all time.
There is a mystique associated with being wristique that not much else can parallel in cricket. The big fast bowlers can evoke dread; they will threaten body and limb and wicket, they can terrorise with the ferocity with which they hurl the little gob of leather. They will glare and snarl and spew expletives in the knowledge that if something comes back their way, they can always reply in kind with the next mean, well-directed bouncer. But the tiny spinners? So what if they have the heart of a paceman? They can’t rely on speed, so guile it is that is their inseparable companion.
And it is this guile, this craft and cunning, this ability to embarrass rather than intimidate, that adds to the aura. To watch batsmen hopping around on a quick, bouncy track against express fast bowling appeals to our basal instincts. But when top willow-wielders are reduced to blubbering, clueless entities by wrists of wonder, it triggers waves of awe and feel-good, of admiration and envy. There is, after all, something to say for killing ‘em softly.
When you talk cricket and wrists in the same breath, you instantly are transported to the world of Gundappa Viswanath. Of Mohammad Azharuddin. Of Zaheer Abbas. Of VVS Laxman. Men who didn’t dismiss the ball from their presence as apologetically caress it into gaps, cajoling rather than commanding it to keep its tryst with the boundary boards. Men who made it impossible for captains to set fields. Men who could hit two successive deliveries pitching on the same spot and doing the same thing to two diametrically opposite sides of the park. Men that even the bowlers didn’t terribly mind being scored of, you suspect.
All these gentlemen played their early cricket on matting tracks with a strong emphasis on back foot play. As the ball got bigger, they had to bring their wrists into play to keep it down. It wasn’t the only way to negotiate the climbing delivery, but it was the way that worked best for these maestros. Viswanath benefitted from Tiger Pataudi’s wisdom as he went about strengthening his wrists – lifting a bucketful of water in each hand 20 times in one go, three or four times a day. Laxman went from classically orthodox to stunningly wristy through a combination of a growth spurt and the Azhar influence during his formative cricketing years in Hyderabad. Where others bludgeoned the ball, these wizards twirled them to the fence. How many of us haven’t wanted to bat like them, sure in the knowledge that beyond in our dreams, that was impossible to the power of impossible?
And what about the sheikhs of tweak? Of the Shane Warnes and the Muttiah Muralitharans – an offspinner who used his wrist, so completely in keeping with the unique Murali persona – and the Abdul Qadirs and the Mushtaq Ahmeds? And our very own L Sivaramakrishnan and Anil Kumble?
LS was the one that opened my eyes to the wondrous world of legspin – purely from a viewing rather than a practicing perspective. I first saw him ‘live’ at Chepauk in early 1985, against David Gower’s Englishmen. He had begun the Test series in a blaze of glory – six wickets in each of the first three innings – but England had found ways to counter him subsequently. In his backyard at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, the wisp of a lad sent down 44 overs for just the scalp of Tim Robinson, though with a little more support from behind the stumps, he could easily have finished with better returns than 1 for 135.
Watching him at the ground didn’t offer the complete viewing experience that one is exposed to today. There were no giant screens that beamed replays, and from 100 yards away and seated square to the strip, it was impossible to see what he was trying to do. Two months later, television images from Australia seared the LS intrigue into the heart. Saucer-eyed and so reedy that you feared a gust of wind would blow him away into the distant horizon, he bamboozled the batsmen with his repertoire. Seasoned voices like Richie Benaud – still typically restrained – and Bill Lawry, rambunctious as always, took a shine to the teenager from Chennai.
One particular delivery to Rod McCurdy is indelibly etched in memory. McCurdy was a fast-medium bowler with modest batting skills, agreed, but still… As the ball looped out of Siva’s right hand, McCurdy plonked his right foot outside off, the bat moving in that direction. Once it started to drift in towards him, the foot was hastily withdrawn, the bat magnetically following suit. When the ball broke away on pitching. McCurdy was facing the bowler chest-on, his bat scurrying this way and that and missing the leg-break by a mile. The look on his face was pure genius – panic, embarrassment, admiration, envy, relief, self-deprecation. The earth could have opened up and swallowed him whole, and he would have gone happily, with a smile.
Warne, of course, was the consummate showman, equal parts bluster and bravado, equal parts mystery and magic. ‘Hollywood’ had a sense of occasion, a propensity for drama, a penchant for limelight, a skill bestowed only on the blessed. There was never a dull moment when he was at the bowling crease – the measured walk, the short acceleration, the ball fizzing off his stubby fingers and turning like the devil had made it its home. Every delivery was an event, even an innocuous full-toss that batsmen feared could explode mid-air. In such knots had he tied up Darryl Cullinan, the South African batsman, that when Chris Harris was bowling at him in New Zealand, Adam Parore screamed from behind the stumps, “Well bowled Shane!”
Chahal and Kuldeep have a long way to go before they graduate from breathtaking performers to effortless showmen. They may never graduate to that category, but so what? So long as the charm is intact, the mystery unsolved.
What the wrist, right?