England vs India: Sweep a dangerous choice against Yuzvendra Chahal

Yuzvendra Chahal loves batsmen sweeping and reverse-sweeping him. In a video on last year, he explained: “It’s a challenge I really enjoy. Batsmen sweeping and reverse-sweeping to throw me off my lengths and I look to dismiss them when playing these same shots.” As if it’s a puzzle, a problem he has to solve. “You can’t run away from being reverse-swept, you can’t stop batsmen from doing it, the next best thing is to find a way to get them out,” he had said.

A lot of batsmen have resorted to the sweep variants to nullify Chahal’s loop-and-dip deception with varying levels of success. A lot of modern-day batsmen try these anyway so much so that the reverse-sweep is not a trick shot any more. Moreover, there is an assumption that he is sweepable — he’s not too brisk, loopy and his leg-breaks don’t break away massively. To solidify the theory, sweep-happy batsmen like Jos Buttler and Glenn Maxwell have, to a large extent, managed to rein in Chahal’s deceit. Buttler had, during England’s tour to India, admitted that his team’s chief ploy was to reverse-sweep him out of the attack.

And Chahal, aware of what awaits him, is often well prepared. When he simulates game situations at the nets, the first thing he asks teammates around him is whether his lengths can be swept or reverse-swept. “Whenever I bowl in the nets, I tell the batters that this is my field or that I am bowling in the Powerplay or something and I regularly ask them whether it’s easy to sweep or reverse-sweep this length, which helps me a lot,” he had said at the start of the England tour.

So he was ready when England came out sweeping, reverse-sweeping and slog-sweeping. All four of his wickets at Lord’s — another justification of his prowess abroad — were bargained in the process of batsmen sweeping (Joe Root) or reverse-sweeping (Ben Stokes) or slog-sweeping (Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali) him. When a batsman perishes attempting any of these strokes, he alone is often considered guilty, as if every unsuccessful sweep is an act of self-destruction. Bowlers seldom get appreciated for the subtle changes they had imparted. Like when Chahal undid Root, a refined exponent of the sweep, and whose bulk of runs in the subcontinent are accumulated with it.

Chahal first wove the charm offensive. His first ball to Root was full outside off-stump; the second short of length on leg-stump; the third was the teaser, the full ball on middle stump. To the fourth, Root was on his haunches after judging the middle-stump line and fuller length. The ball indeed was full, but an inch fuller and a yard slower than he had anticipated. The master sweeper missed the shot entirely and was adjudged lbw. Worse, he burned a review, assuming that the ball could miss leg-stump, when it was nudging towards the middle stump. This ball had gone with the angle, off a scrambled seam release, and hardly turned. Chahal giggled, as if he had seen this dismissal much before it actually happened.

Plotting his next move

At the other end, Stokes was not to be discouraged from reverse-sweeping. Rather, he seemed even more convinced. He unpacked a brace of them in the next over, the second more of a paddle reverse-sweep. But Chahal was far from dismayed. He might have been in the middle of intense planning, like in the middle-game in chess, a game he quit before cricketing ambitions took over. There are often two options there — to defend or attack, to be reactive or proactive. Chahal chose to attack. But the kill was not instant by white-ball tempo. The next three balls were full outside off-stump, an invitation to sweep. Stokes chose not to reverse- sweep. Perhaps, Chahal too knew he would not, as all those balls turned or slid away. The fourth ball was fast on the leg-stump, an on-the-feet adjustment he made after Stokes betrayed his intention to step out a trifle early.

The next one — the wrecker ball — was full and on Stokes’ off-stump, had he not decided to reverse-sweep, in which case it became his leg-stump. But the left-hander fatally did, the ball skidded and spun a fraction into his pads. The wicket had England reeling at 102 for 5 before Liam Livingstone, Moeen Ali and David Willey strung together a recovery act. Ali was the chief protagonist with a breezy 47. He would have inflicted more damage but for another piece of Chahal’s smarts.

He knew that Ali’s release shot against the leg-spinners is the slog-sweep. So he floated one tantalisingly into him, apparently a gift-wrapped tempter. But the ball was slower than usual and Ali could not generate the requisite power to clear the rope. For that spell alone, Chahal had switched ends too, so that he had a longer leg-side to defend. A similarly slow ball had accounted for Bairstow earlier in the innings. The opener had just begun to expand and propel England to a formidable score when Chahal flung a slow, full ball on leg-stump. Bairstow, who had lofted him sumptuously through covers a few balls ago, was baited into the slog-sweep. But the sudden drop deceived him and he too, like Root and Stokes, failed to make any connection with the ball. Thus, Chahal turns the perceived weapon of destruction against him as a weapon of his own.

Early in the game, he had sized up the pitch too. It was on the slower side and rather dry. So, he bowled slower than usual, in a bid to outdo the pitch with his own slowness, and thus making him incredibly difficult to hit over the rope.

It was thus a triumph of the biggest virtue that makes Chahal India’s first-choice spinner, both at home and overseas. There could be spinners with more mystery and tricks, more control and accuracy with a white ball, but few perhaps with the cricketing intelligence of Chahal.

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